It says much about the rate of progress in fast cars that the segment created by the Audi RS2, appears in mortal danger. Less than 25 years after the small, super-quick wagon was created its existence has been jeopardised by the unstoppable rise of the compact SUV - a turn of events which seems to have barely heeded the comparative benefits of buying a rapid estate car or the strides made by the class since 1994.
Because really, nothing shows how spoilt we are in terms of democratised performance than the fact that SEAT has on sale a car with identical performance to the hallowed Audi, at vastly less money than it cost brand new. 300 or so horsepower, five or so seconds to 62mph and thirty or so thousand pounds is simply par for the course as far as the C-segment goes nowadays. Put in the context of the Porsche-fettled Audi 80, which was £46k in 1994, and it looks remarkable value.
Furthermore, this is perhaps as weak a package as the Mk3 Leon has yet represented in its four years as a Cupra, yet still it boasts a vast array of talents. The problems? The six-speed DSG feels a bit old now, lacking the crispness of the seven-speed offered in the Golf and the involvement of the manual found in the hatchbacks. The additional weight of the four-wheel drive system makes the acceleration feel less intense than the front-wheel drive cars, too. And without the VAQ technology on the front axle, that impression of tenacity found in the Cupra hatches - combined with a slightly wild edge - is notable by its absence here.
That said, the Leon ST Cupra is a thoroughly decent car. It delivers all the refinement, comfort and ease-of-use expected from a contemporary VW group product, while retaining just enough entertainment value to appeal to an enthusiast. The chassis' poise and agility is admirable which, allied to decent body control, gives the ST a nice sense of eagerness down a road. There's good throttle response; accurate, incisive steering; and an impressive braking performance, courtesy of the Brembo brakes first seen on the Performance Pack Leons.
Perhaps the biggest compliment that can be paid to the ST Cupra is that it retains the aura of a good hot hatch, its concessions to practicality costing little in terms of amusement. If you want maximum performance and practicality per pound with the minimum of fuss, drama and attention, the Leon is virtually unimpeachable.
However, not only are fuss, drama and attention apparently primary concerns for new cars buyers nowadays, they're also inescapable when within 100m of an Audi RS2. Because despite its humble origins, despite its advancing years and despite there now being a really rather modest SEAT that's every bit as quick, the RS2 mystique only grows stronger with each passing year. That's the reputation bestowed on the genuine gamechangers.
And yes, comparing an almost-skunkworks level, supercar-baiting project with a run-of-the-mill hatch flagship probably isn't conventionally fair - even with the age gap - but the similarities are too great to overlook. Of course it doesn't take long, either, to appreciate the lengths that were gone to for the Audi. In the SEAT, the latest 'Carbon Edition' upgrade sullies a handsome shape with gratuitous embellishment for the sake of 'super-charged styling', apparently. And if you think the colour looks plain, know that it's called 'Monsoon Grey' - it's also the only paint option available.
The RS2, on the other hand, in spite of a fairly meek stance and expansive glasshouse, couldn't nail the required aesthetic any better. There's enough to clock if you know what to look for - the 968 CS wheels, the 911 mirrors, the Porsche badges - but also a manifest sense of attitude for those less clued up to know that this isn't just some old Audi. It avoids the slight tackiness now found in some RS products without leaving any doubt as to its potential, which is immensely cool.
Like so many modern classics, however, that potential isn't immediately obvious on the road. Whereas cars like the Leon (and so many others) subscribe to the instant gratification school of 21st century fast cars, offering up instant torque, boundless performance and as much (or as little) noise as is asked for, the Audi requires a little more in the way of familiarisation. Of course by investing some time into learning how to get the best from the car, it forges a greater sense of connection, and then you have a more rewarding - if ultimately less objectively capable - driver's car. Sound familiar?
Everything in the Audi takes a little more thought and concentration, which is the very opposite of its adversary here - indeed the SEAT's problem can often be that you're travelling far faster than the car (and the way you're feeling) would suggest. It will certainly go extremely fast, the RS2 - perhaps even a tad quicker than the SEAT when they're both wound up - but it's going to take some effort. Honestly, below 3,500rpm it barely feels like a 1.2-litre, turbocharged car, let alone one with another thousand cubic centimetres of capacity, such is the lethargy. Up above that, though, and the rush is addictive, 315hp and 302lb ft feeling if anything a conservative measure given the way an RS2 just devours road and keeps coming back for more, gear after gear.
Lag of course presents its own challenges - and reward. The notchy (if actually quite satisfying) gearbox needs regular work to keep the five-cylinder out of its torpor, throttle applications (on a pleasingly hefty pedal) must be anticipated also and the faint Ur-Quattro murmur appreciated, because it's not a sound that's returning with the press of a button.
There's no doubt that the Leon is the more enjoyable car to tactlessly send up a road - its tighter control, greater reserves of grip and keener responses see to that. Yet the old RS2 is probably more entertaining than you might expect. One look at the under-bonnet shot and the engine's location will tell you a lot about the inherent balance, granted. But a certain sort of plush ride remains, along with pretty communicative steering by modern standards and the joy derived from a small, fast car that can be seen out of and placed confidently on a minor UK road. The latter point in particular seems rather lost on a lot of new vehicles.
Is the drive worthy of the prices currently being commanded by RS2s? No, in all honesty, the layout meaning things are ultimately a little blunt - though how many classics are now valued by significance rather than the experience? In the Audi's case the former point will only grow; as seemingly now every desirable automotive niche is filled (and many more we didn't want are, too), so the real icons will be ever more revered.
Fact is that not only is the Audi still quick in the context of new fast cars - it must have been truly ballistic in the mid-90s - but it still represents a desirable blend of attributes to this day as well. Indeed it's no surprise to find so many for sale on chunky mileages, because it's easy to imagine the RS2 simply fulfilling every single duty required of it, from family holdall to business express to A-road destroyer.
That the recipe for the fast Audi estate has changed relatively little since the RS2's introduction, and that the cars have remained steadfastly popular, shows just how right Ingolstadt got it first time around. Much like the E39 M5 and 306 GTI-6, it's easy to imagine just driving an RS2 day in and day out now; it'll always feel special, yet also eminently usable.
None of this is to deny the Leon considerable praise for offering so much of the same appeal in a warrantied, easier to access, nicer to drive modern family car. Mention should also go to the front-wheel drive, manual Leon Cupra ST as well - reduced traction may deny it some usability, but experience suggests that car is an even more exciting family rocketship. 200kg lighter than a Cupra Ateca, too...
Instead the fact that it so closely follows the template of the RS2 - small, turbocharged engine, punchy performance, good practicality and all-weather ability - and still delivers an immensely appealing package shows what a great idea it was, and still remains. Of course if your heart is set on a new SUV then we're not going to suggest an Audi estate from the 90s as an alternative, but don't forget the plain old hot wagon can still deliver. Let's hope there are a few more years of them left yet.
SPECIFICATION - SEAT LEON ST CUPRA CARBON EDITION
Engine: 1,984cc, 4-cyl turbocharged
Transmission: 6-speed DSG, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 300@5,500-6,400rpm
Torque (lb ft): 280@1,800-5,500rpm
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 1,545kg, 'in running condition with driver'
MPG: 39.2 (NEDC combined)
SPECIFICATION - AUDI RS2
Engine: 2,226cc, 5-cyl turbo
Transmission: 6-speed manual, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 315@6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 302@3,000rpm
0-60mph: 4.8 sec
Top speed: 163mph
MPG: c. 21mpg
Price new: £45,705 (1994)
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