SEAT's fastest production car to date, the Leon Cupra 280, is something to be reckoned with. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
Looking for something fast, practical and which won't send you to the wall financially? The mighty SEAT Leon Cupra 280 could be the answer. It can get to 62mph in 5.8 seconds, return better than 44mpg, seat five and leave you change from £28,000. As a one car solution, this one's got legs. Teeth too.
For about as long as many of us care to remember, a SEAT Leon Cupra was a cheaper way to get into a Golf GTI. Okay, so you had to put up with an interior that was notably less attractive but in the way it drove it was pretty much identical. Same engine and running gear, same great way it went up the road - you just paid less. These days, the Leon has stepped out from the long shadow cast by the Golf GTI and has got a bit Rafa Nadal on us. All bulging biceps and attitude, the Leon Cupra 280 has us all in a bit of a spin. The previous Leon Cupra R was an absolute belter of a car and makes a great used buy. This latest generation Cupra knocks that model into the undergrowth. It's got a better chassis, an engine that's far more powerful and an interior that no longer feels so ruthlessly built down to a price. But it needs it for there are some fierce rivals clustered around the £30,000 price point. This is the Leon upping its game. You're going to like it.
The Leon Cupra has some formline. There's never been a duff one and this latest Cupra 280 gives SEAT's hatch real giantkilling ability. That 280PS power output will catapult it to 62mph in 5.8 seconds, or a tenth quicker if you choose the DSG twin-clutch gearbox. Top speed is limited to 155mph although it would be interesting to see how fast it would go before physics intervened. The 350 Nm maximum torque of both versions spreads from just 1,750 rpm all the way up to 5,300 rpm, guaranteeing impressive pulling power and overtaking flexibility. The chassis has more tricks up its sleeve than David Blaine and is some 55kg lighter than its predecessor. There's DCC dynamic chassis control, a front-axle differential lock and progressive steering all fitted as standard, as well as a Cupra-specific, high-performance brake system, recognisable by its red callipers. The ESC handling system has been developed specifically for the Cupra and can be deactivated in two stages - the first stage deactivates the traction control and puts the ESC into sport mode, permitting greater yaw angles. The second stage deactivates the ESC completely. The Cupra Drive Profile allows the driver to set the car into one of three modes, 'Comfort', 'Sport' and 'Cupra'. This raciest setting gives you a hair trigger throttle response and most aggressive DSG shifts, while the sound actuator turns the volume up to eleven. The DCC dynamic chassis control, progressive steering and the front-axle differential lock are also dialled to their most focused settings.
Design and Build
Any Leon that wears a Cupra badge has to dose up the attitude a degree, but the Cupra 280 looks really gym-toned. The front end features big air intakes and beady-eyed all-LED headlamps. There's a combined rear skirt and diffuser and twin oval tail pipes to ensure the powerful look continued by the rear skirt with its diffuser effect and two oval end pipes. The Cupra 280 is also gets unique 19-inch wheels with a titanium paint finish, plus the Aerodynamic Pack, which comprises a spoiler on the rear roof edge, Cupra lettering on the brake callipers and black exterior mirror housings. Inside, you get trim elements finished in a gloss black and a smart Cupra sports steering wheel, complete with shifting paddles for the optional DSG transmission. The sports seats, in dark grey Alcantara finished with white stitching, are another interior highlight. Black full-leather upholstery, likewise with white stitching, is also available. The pedals and entry sills are made from aluminium to add a bit of eye candy to a fundamentally low-key cabin. There's a 380-litre luggage bay and the quality feels up to the mark, with a dashboard that no longer looks so obviously built down to a price.
Market and Model
We're concentrating on the standard five-door Cupra 280, but should you wish to save around £300, you can also get the 280 in SC three-door body style. Prices for the SC start at around £27,000. If you can live without the '280'-specific bits and 15PS, you can trim another £1,300 off that asking price by going for the standard 265PS SC Cupra. You'll clearly need to make your own assessment of value here, but what we will say is that the nearer the £30,000 mark the Leon gets, the tougher its assignment gets in terms of available rivals. The 306PS BMW M135i and the 300PS all-wheel drive Audi S3 pose questions the Cupra 280 just can't evade. You won't want for standard equipment in the Cupra 280 though and that certainly needs to be factored into the equation if you're tempted to stretch the budget to the S3 or the M135i. In the UK, this car gets full-LED headlights, a DAB digital radio, the SEAT Media System Plus, aluminium front door sill trims with Cupra logos, rain-sensing wipers and automatic headlights. That's on top of 19-inch alloy wheels, gloss black mirror caps, black exterior mouldings and frames, a black rear roof spoiler, red brake callipers with Cupra logos and black interior trim inserts. Satellite navigation is also fitted as standard.
Cost of Ownership
Not too long ago, 280PS was the convergence point for some very serious performance cars. It marked the power limit of the Japanese 'gentleman's agreement' and cars like the Japanese domestic market Supra twin turbo, the Nissan Skyline GT-R and the Honda NSX all rolled out of the factories at this output. Roughly. Yet you had to put up with fuel economy in the very low twenties for that sort of power. These days, the Leon Cupra 280 manages an almost unbelievable 44.1mpg on the combined cycle, although this dips somewhat if you choose the DSG transmission to a still hardly catastrophic 42.2 mpg with DSG. Carbon dioxide emissions are also kept well in check. These models record figures of 149g/km and 155g/km respectively, which is a big improvement on the previous generation 265PS Leon Cupra R which emitted 190g/km. More power, economy and cleanliness; do we call that a win-win-win scenario? Otherwise, it's as you'd expect. The warranty is the usual Volkswagen Group three year or 60,000 mile affair, which is about the minimum manufacturers can get away with these days. Service intervals are every 20,000 miles. Do get an insurance quote before you commit to buy as premiums will vary widely.
SEAT has come good in recent years with the Leon, a car that many felt had peaked early in Cupra guise. The Cupra 280 is without doubt the fastest and most exciting Cupra to date and if you can negotiate a discount on the asking price, it could work out to be an amazing bargain. Even at the stated sticker price, it's good value, offering a balance between power and economy that most class competitors will find impossible to approach, let alone match. It's also very well equipped, with satellite navigation, 19-inch alloys, a smart media system and full-LED headlights, features which could easily tack on over £1,500 to the price of rival cars. It's properly fierce too, with the ability to demolish the sprint to 60mph in a hair over five seconds - and it doesn't let up thereafter. Yes, some may find the cabin sound actuator a bit artificial but like most things, you grow to get used to it. If you felt the Renaultsport Megane 265 has had it too easy for too long, here's something that will certainly give it some pause for thought.