Draw up a list of the top hot-hatches in the world. The SEAT Leon Cupra may not be on it – although it might be – but the Volkswagen GTI will most definitely. At least it should, because the GTI is a performance icon, forged over decades of performance tempered with versatility and accessibility. And the current-generation GTI certainly lives up to the legend, burning rubber with the best Germany has to offer. But if this article is about the SEAT Leon Cupra, then why are we talking about the Volkswagen GTI? What do they have in common? Well, almost everything. Almost.
Related GalleryFirst Drive: SEAT Leon Cupra
The SEAT Leon is one of a dozen vehicles produced by the Volkswagen Group on the PQ35 platform that also underpins the Golf/Rabbit, the staple hatchback on which the GTI is based. The Cupra nameplate is the Spanish subsidiary's equivalent to Volkswagen's GTI, applied to the Leon and to the top-of-the-line version of the smaller Ibiza. Like the GTI – but unlike the more powerful, all-wheel-drive R32 – the Leon Cupra drives through the front wheels with the help of a bank of electronic aids to keep the power in check. But whereas the GTI makes do with 227 hp, the 238-horse Cupra benefits from eleven extra Andalusian thoroughbreds bridled under the hood. A promising start, then, but the technical specs only tell you so much. If you imagine the Volkswagen GTI as a German wunderkind taught to waltz, picture the Cupra as its Spanish cousin that knows how to tango.
Autoblog recently had the opportunity to take the Cupra out for a spin. Our weekend drive began on busy city streets by the Mediterranean coast and took us into the sand-swept hills overlooking the sea. While stopped in traffic waiting for our chance to let the Cupra's turbocharged four gulp the salty air, a young boy passed by holding an ice-cream pop in one hand, which he nearly dropped after seeing our ride. Boyhood awe might very well be the ultimate test of a car's desirability, and it's clear that's just what SEAT was going for with the Leon. With styling penned by Walter de'Silva, the Italian designer who headed Alfa Romeo's Centro Stile before moving to SEAT, the Leon (especially in Cupra guise and this screaming shade of yellow) is a real show-stopper as far as five-door hatchbacks go.
It was no coincidence that the higher-ups at Volkswagen chose to poach Alfa's designer, attempting to position SEAT as the Spanish rival to the famed Italian automaker. The Leon is a good first step. Although it won't appeal to everyone, its sharp lines cut through the curves across its sheetmetal to create a striking impression of dynamic motion. While its Volkswagen counterpart goes for a cleaner, more simple design approach, the Leon strives for an arresting visual impact that is more likely to appeal to extroverts than the understated GTI – especially in Cupra trim, with its upgraded wheels and aero kit inspired by the Super 2000 racer that SEAT campaigns in the British and World Touring Car championships.
With the stage set, and eager to see if the Cupra's performance would cash the big check written by its styling, we dropped the clutch and off we went. The Cupra pulls down the road with an insistence vocalized by its turbo spooling up and down its boost range. Feather the throttle and the Cupra obliges, pinning driver and passenger into the substantially-bolstered buckets with authority. The racing seats are complimented by sporty touches all around the cabin. Although the Cupra is available with VW's smooth-shifting DSG twin-clutch transmission, our loaner was equipped with the company's ubiquitous six-speed manual, which, like the engine to which it's mated, was a familiar feel from driving my big brother's turbo Jetta back in the day. The chunky leather-wrapped steering wheel sits well in the hand with a set of white gauges peering in from behind the rim. The rubber inserts on the aluminum pedals grip your sole while heel-and-toeing it through the ratios and the red stitching does a nice job of sprucing up the cabin, but some of the fit-and-finish could benefit from higher-quality materials. Despite the Cupra's extra power over its Saxon stable-mate, SEAT charges a little less for the Leon than Volkswagen does for the GTI. It's an aggressive strategy befitting the car's aggressive attitude, but you can see where some of the corners were cut.
Clipping corners, however, is what the Cupra's made for, and the interior proves a suitable cockpit for coaxing out the best this swoopy Spaniard has to offer. We plotted a course for the most winding, curving roads in the area to do exactly that. On the open highway, we found it difficult to keep the speed down to reason. The ride is taught, but while the benefits are felt in the twisty bits, SEAT's approach to the classic compromise leaves the suspension translating the bumps and ruts in the tarmac through the seat of your pants.
Once negotiating the curves of our choice two-lane back-road, however, the Cupra's disposition started to shine through. The torquey engine hurdles you down the road with a gratifying urge and the suspension hunkers down to let the steering do its thing. And it does it well. Push it hard enough and you can even get the tail to kick out, which is a mean feat in what boils down to a front-drive family car. Exiting the corner, meanwhile, becomes a more challenging endeavor with the front wheels scurrying for traction as you put your foot down. The indicator lights for the traction control and stability management blink in a frantic effort to keep it all under control.
With all that power vying for priority against the inputs from the wheel, the Cupra torque steers like a bull being pulled by its snout-ring. After a few runs up and down our impromptu road course, the preferred method demanded by the Cupra's specific dynamics began to emerge: get through the corner and center the wheel before you pin the throttle. The Cupra will respond by powering you down the straight until you realize it has catapulted you into the next corner with alarming (and admittedly intoxicating) speed. Fortunately, the arresting brakes are there to save you from careening into the ravine. Then you shave off the speed, the outside front wheel loads up and the suspension gets ready to pounce again.
The ultimate measure, of course, is how it felt when it was time to leave. After a few short hours rendered even shorter by tossing the Cupra from corner to corner, we didn't want to let go. Measured against the GTI, the Leon's styling may be a matter of taste, engaging some while deterring others, but extra power for less cash is an enticing win-win formula that we wished more automakers would follow. After reluctantly handing back the keys to the Cupra, we asked ourselves to what degree we really wished it were made available for the American market. A certain expression about variety and spice comes to mind, but at the end of the day the Cupra's is a territory which its Teutonic cousin holds well.
Related GalleryFirst Drive: SEAT Leon Cupra
Photos courtesy of Uriel Cohen. All rights reserved.
Special thanks for road test logistical coordination to Yoav Kaveh