No, you are not misreading the headline…Seat has extended its Cupra might to the final run of ‘normal’ Seats to carry the name, reports Iain Robertson, as he tests the hottest Seat yet produced, which costs a mere £500 more than the ‘base’ version.
If you care to check back into our archive of car tests, you will find separate references to both Leon ST (estate car) and Cupra. While Leon is the compact, Ford Focus-sized hatch, coupe and estate car line-up, Cupra has been traditionally, the sportier and more focused, SRi, vRS and GT-class of car. Until only recently, Cupra was treated in the same light as those other sportier variants; an addendum to a model name. However, Seat, which is the Spanish arm of the immense Volkswagen Group, has determined that a separation is the best means of broadening brand awareness.
Sadly, although I shall be delighted to be proven wrong, I fear that, like a similar exercise carried out by Citroen with its DS line, it might be a step too far and too soon for the Seat brand that is still shaking off the fetters of being ‘budget conscious’. In Citroen’s case, it is trying to herald a Gallic history that was epitomised by the magnificent DS (and ID) model range. However, it can only be termed an abysmal failure, with DS registrations barely scraping the bottom of a very deep barrel and hardly worrying the classic status of a seriously iconic motorcar.
Yet, when you consider that most of Seat’s current sales successes (and it is doing rather well at present) are due to its ‘Millennial’ customer base, which neither has the memory nor innate fascination to be concerned about much anything except ‘novelty’, there is always the distinct possibility that Seat has judged its move to perfection. Its ‘jagged’, mildly demonic and Kappa-lookalike, copper-highlighted logo might be different enough to turn their heads towards Cupra.
Certainly, they will have little choice in the not too distant future, as a run of new Cupra models joins the present sole entity, the Cupra Ateca, over the course of 2020-2022. As mentioned earlier, the car tested here is the last of the Seat models to use the Cupra denomination as an adjunct.
Only a few years ago, 100bhp/litre of an engine’s cubic capacity was considered to be very racy indeed. I can still recall the thrilling Honda CRX of 1990 vintage, which dealt a 160bhp blow from its normally aspirated but VTEC valve-controlled 1.6-litre engine (the car was also very light). For a 2.0-litre petrol engine to develop 200bhp was extraordinary, even the landmark Saab 99 Turbo only kicked out a maximum of 175bhp from its 2.0-litre turbo motor. Thanks to a close relationship with one of Europe’s longest established tuning firms, German-based ABT, a subtle rejigging of the Leon’s ECU (its electronic engine management system) results in a seriously rocking 173bhp/litre in a purposefully re-engineered family wagon.
While the ‘standard’ version of the car is far from sluggish, 346bhp equates to a 0-60mph time of just 4.3s, which is hot-Merc-quick and bordering on supercar mentality…all for a £500 premium on a 296bhp car listed at £37,975. It is a conspicuously good deal, although it is also limited to just 150 examples, which suggests that rocket-powered skates might be required to secure one.
Naturally, apart from its copper-stitched, black Alcantara sports seats, this Leon ST (estate) could be the same as any regular Seat Leon inside. It is neatly detailed and not only accommodating but notably comfortable for up to five occupants and their belongings. It drives around town sensibly, its 7-speed twin-clutch, automated gearbox snicking up and down the ratios imperceptibly and undemandingly. However, mash the accelerator pedal into the carpet and, following a typical turbo-petrol installation, momentary gulp of air (they used to call it turbo-lag), this Leon takes off like a scalded polecat.
Armed with 4WD (4Drive in Seat-speak), there is zero drama, zero waywardness and maximum traction. It simply delivers…in spades. In fact, it borders on boring, so efficient is the car’s uprated drivetrain. Yet, apart from a slightly greater whooshing from the four exhaust tailpipes, a glance sidewards will reveal the enhanced speed of the passing scenery, or rearwards, if you want to see diminishing traffic behind the car. Behave like a lunatic and you could lose your licence quicker than a bat of the eyelids. Drive sensibly and the Leon ST (by ABT) is a performance addict’s delight, with stopping and steering power to match.
Back in the Land of the Living, the tuned Leon is not bad on the fuel front, returning an official combined figure of 33.6mpg, while emitting a modest 164g/km CO2; not bad considering the performance potential and not especially greedy on the tax front either, which makes it an entirely liveable proposition…as long as you can also live with the £1,525 proximity to a £40k price tag, which is a brave pitch for Seat to make.
As an estate car, it works rather well, with a wide, low-lipped access to a cavernous carpeted deck. More importantly, to its strictly limited 150 customers naturally, is its chassis composure, which is 4-way adjustable, thanks to VW’s shared platform strategy. Running around Liverpool’s ‘being worked on’ streets, the ‘Cupra’ setting was perhaps a little too focused for my personal delights but the ‘Comfort’ setting is still more than firm enough, with a valuable hint of suppleness. It is worth re-highlighting that the car stops and steers engagingly and safely, with nary a soupcon of torque steer, nor even the dreaded bump steer, to rock the Leon Cupra offline.
As a company, Seat was living like a ‘poor relation’ within the greater VW Group. However, there exists a sense of greater purpose within the brand over the past couple of years that has been reinforced by a succession of record-beating sales targets, not just in the UK market. Cars like this Leon Cupra R ST are a prime example of a brand listening to its critics and its customers and, while Cupra is becoming a standalone brand (as Citroen still hopes with DS), we can expect even more in the not too distant future.
Piping hot wheels from Seat is a great reason for a limited few enthusiasts to take a longer look at the Spanish arm of VW, which Iain will continue imminently in literary terms.