The current-generation SEAT Leon Cupra first launched in 2014 with a 261bhp 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo engine. At the time, it was one of the most powerful hot hatchbacks on sale – and incremental improvements along the way have since seen that climb to a heady 296bhp.
But cars like the latest Honda Civic Type R offer yet more punch per pound, while four-wheel-drive alternatives such as Ford’s excellent Focus RS turn the wick up even further – with supercar-rivalling pace and relentless all-weather grip.
To maintain interest before the Leon’s inevitable replacement arrives in 2019, SEAT has launched a range-topping Cupra R, packing a variety of performance-enhancing tweaks and extra kit.
An initial allocation of just 24 UK cars means you’ll be very lucky to get your hands one, however. Each one costs £34,995 and all Brit-bound Cupra R’s will come with five doors and a six-speed manual gearbox.
Visually, the R is marked out by its standard-fit 19-inch alloy wheels, striking copper accents and wider front and rear bumpers. The spoiler and diffuser are made from carbon fibre, while tinted rear windows and full-LED headlights complete the look. Unfortunately, the matt grey launch paint won’t be coming to the UK.
Inside, there’s more copper detailing on the steering wheel and dashboard, black Alcantara bucket seats and a numbered plaque. All cars get a 10-speaker Beats stereo, dual-zone climate control, keyless entry, all-round parking sensors and a reversing camera. SEAT’s Winter and Convenience Packs are both standard, too, adding heated seats, as well as automatic lights and wipers.
The Cupra R certainly looks the part, then – but it’s not just a cosmetic refresh. Under the skin, SEAT has tweaked the familiar 2.0-litre turbo to produce a Volkswagen Golf R-matching 306bhp. Torque is unchanged (380Nm), and the 5.8-second 0-62mph sprint is the same, too. However, the new wheels offer a slightly wider track, while a modified camber angle, Brembo brakes and an ‘enhanced’ Dynamic Chassis Control system should make it more fun to drive.
On the road, though, you’ll struggle to notice the extra power. The big slug of torque means you can drive almost anywhere in third gear, and it’s still incredibly urgent on full throttle. But you’d have to drive the Cupra R back-to-back against the standard car to feel any discernable difference in straight-line speed or in-gear grunt.
Yet throw the new car at a bend and it comes alive. That wider track gives the Cupra R a heightened sense of stability, while the front differential allows you to slingshot out of corners with seemingly unflappable grip. Our car’s optional Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres helped the car’s cause on our dry Spanish test route, but the Leon has never been short of grip – even on standard Continental rubber.
Switch everything to ‘Cupra’ mode and the car feels quite stiff, though; we preferred to use the SEAT’s Individual set-up to slacken the dampers without sacrificing engine response. It’s a great compromise, in fact, and even in its softer settings, the car’s tight body control results in very little roll through tight bends.
Run some heat through the sports exhaust and it’ll emit characterful pops and crackles on the overrun, too. It’s a shame you can’t completely shut it off, though, as the dull drone could prove irksome on longer motorway journeys.
Of course, being a five-door Leon, you get all the same practicality boons as the standard Cupra. That means an identical 380-litre boot and enough room in the rear for adults. The standard-fit front bucket seats are excellent, too, proving both comfortable and supportive, even after several hours at the wheel.
Running costs take a sizeable hit in the transformation from Cupra to Cupra R, however. Emissions jump from 158g/km to 170g/km, while average fuel economy drops from an (admittedly ambitious) 47.9mpg, to just 38.7mpg. Drive it hard and those numbers will plummet further.