I'm confused, does the FR replace the old Leon flagship, the Cupra?
Nope, that's still to come. The FR fills the gap between the standard, 147bhp Leon and the 237bhp Cupra due here early next year. So the FR is a direct rival for the forthcoming Honda Civic Type-R and Volkswagen's Golf GTI, from which it steals its engine and running gear incidentally.
Oh, a badge-engineered Golf GTI. I'm off
Hang on a minute. The FR gives you all the thrills of a Golf GTI, but with a massive saving. While the five-door Golf costs £20,860, the Leon (also with five-doors) comes in at £16,995. That includes 17-inch wheels, climate control, traction control and thumping CD stereo system. The FR also gets a bodykit that adds real sex appeal, compared with the normal Leon. From the front, it's pure hot hatch, with deep air dams framing that sharp nose. The rear is just as effective with a large black strip intersected by gaping chrome tailpipes. Subtle it ain't.
Okay, so it's the oily bits from the Golf GTI wearing a bright jumper?
Not exactly. It might borrow the same, 200bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged engine, platform and meaty six-speed manual gearbox but Seat has tweaked the suspension, damping and chassis to distance it from the GTI. As a result it's slightly more compliant than the VW and has different steering responses.
What's it like to drive?
Pretty damn good. The engine's very responsive, especially in the mid-range, and lends the FR punchy acceleration that's perfect for attacking B-roads. The gearbox is precise with a short throw and light feel but is let down by a gearknob that's awkward and uncomfortable to hold. Spend a little more and get the optional 18-inch wheels and the ride actually improves. The standard 17-inch wheels (fitted with Bridgestones) make the ride a little unsettled as they pick out even minor imperfections in the road. With the 18s fitted the ride becomes less sensitive and therefore smoother. From 0-62mph it's slightly slower than the Golf (6.9secs versus 7.3secs) but that on paper gap feels barely noticeable from behind the wheel.
Does it feel as sporty inside?
You bet. Sports seats clamp you in place ahead of a fantastic looking steering wheel that's silky to the touch. The deep dials look special, too. The materials feel slightly inferior to a VW's but not to the tune of £4000. In the back there's plenty of room for two adults and that large rump means the boot's massive.
Well, there is the small matter of the Cupra (pictured), which could well and truly rain on the FR's parade. Set to land in the UK in early 2007 for a likely £19-20k, the Cupra gets a 237bhp version of the 2.0 turbo engine. Its 6.4sec 0-62mph time and 153mph top speed eclipse the FR's, even if its looks don't. Unique features are that oval exhaust, slightly wider spaced spokes within those 18-inch alloys and black door mirror housings. Up front the two Leons are nigh on identical. You may get more performance for your extra few grand, but Seat has missed a trick by not making the two cars look more different.
The FR has transformed the Leon into a dynamic hot hatch - no mean feat. It looks and feels special, and makes the Golf GTI look poor value for money. This Leon is a well-executed and rewarding driver's car. Roll on the enticing, 237bhp Cupra version.