SEAT Leon Cupra R vs. Honda Civic Type R

You'll have read a lot about Cupra recently. SEAT's just-launched sub brand is the culmination of a journey it commenced years ago; one probably dreamt up in Lower Saxony, where the marketing concept of 'Latin flair' is almost as convenient as 'English pomp' or 'Germanic superiority'. Under the new plan, all the latent sportiness that Martorell failed to introduce into the Alhambra or the Toledo or the Exeo or the Altea will now be injected into a new badge; one that still flummoxes Google image search, let alone the man on the street.

Of course, that's by-the-by, because (for now) the Leon Cupra - despite being the model most associated with the name - has, for reasons best known to SEAT, nothing to do with brand Cupra. Probably that's a good thing: the long-running hot hatch already possesses heritage and credibility, and doesn't need a superfluous layer of identity plastered on top. So while the deliberately expensive R version serves as a bellwetherfor what's coming round the corner, it isn't necessarily beholden to it (no matter what subliminal messages are being imparted by its copper colour scheme).

Its maker would probably prefer its sold-out headliner to be regarded simply as a Leon, in the hope that it enjoys the generosity of spirit that greeted the Golf GTI Clubsport S, a limited-edition run-out model with the same enhanced output and the same single axle to drive it through. Needless to say the five-door R has not had its rear seats deleted nor its weight reduced - but it does get the same modified camber angles at the front, bigger brakes, revamped steering and a retuned exhaust system, as well as a smattering of carbon fibre on a very mildly augmented Cupra body kit.

Given that the 24 cars coming to the UK are already sold, it's hardly worth passing comment on the desirability of the styling revisions. If there were a 25th customer in two minds about the car, we might point out that the copper highlights are likely to be divisive - then again, we've brought along a Honda Civic Type R to test it against, which is rather like bringing a Jackson Pollock canvas to a gun fight. The GT version starts at £32,995 (£2k cheaper than the Cupra R) and it delivers 10hp more from its 2.0-litre VTEC Turbo unit. It also looks like it looks, which you're either going to put up with or internally veto with a shudder.

Climb inside though, and the objective distance between the pair narrows significantly. Not so very long ago, anything heralding from the VW Group could expect to romp away from a Honda on the pleasantness and usability alone, but the FK8 generation of Civic is a different kettle of fish. Where the car was once overly keen to be appear nonconformist, the latest dashboard is as buttoned-down as a Marks and Spencer shirt collar - and while that means you're unlikely to spend long marvelling at it, it does rather beat Martorell at its own game by being neat and tidy and very well made.

The clincher though is the fact that in the Type R, you sit what feels like about a foot lower on far superior (and characteristically red) sport seats. As nice as the Cupra's Alcantara steering wheel is - and no matter how preferable it's infotainment system might be - they're no match for the allure of decent driving position. It's also worth mentioning that the Civic feels about a foot wider (it's actually about 60mm broader than the Leon) which, proportionally speaking, is to the car's advantage. Drive them back to back, and the Leon seems like an overgrown supermini compared to its lower, larger rival.

There's no question the Type R makes a dynamic virtue of its greater size, either. The car's footprint - and the corresponding sense of stability - seems oversized for a hatchback. It's sublimely well marshalled, too. Even in Comfort mode the Civic is unapologetically firm at low speeds, yet the stiffness is that lovely sort which seems to live mostly in the structure, freeing up the adaptive dampers to get on with the business of endlessly kneading the 20-inch wheels into the road surface. The resulting suppleness is too shallow to be called infallible in the UK, but for as long as it works, it makes the car's tacked-down poise seem wonderfully free-flowing.

And the Leon? Well, it does nothing quite so well. It is a measure of the Type R's quality that the Cupra's own Comfort setting - typically thought a decent compromise in the standard model - feels almost blancmange-like compared to the super-stern Honda. Of course you might be willing to sacrifice some vertical stiffness if there was a pay off in ride quality, but the SEAT never quite manages to convince you that its lubberly softness is actually delivering a greater level of bump absorption. For the most part, its own adaptive damping just feels a notch less sophisticated.

The performance though, well lives up to the Cupra R billing. Despite being the best part of 100kg heavier than the Clubsport S, the end result is much the same: with minimal fuss or squirm in the steering wheel, the all-singing iteration of the endlessly re-used EA888 motor has the Leon charging likeably from the blocks. SEAT claims 5.8 seconds to 62mph - easily believable, and an exact match for the Type R's time - nevertheless, it is the in-gear acceleration which really shows off the unit's flexibility. Low crank speeds hold no fear for the Cupra driver no matter which drive mode you're in; its 280lb ft of peak torque is produced virtually without lag and seems endlessly accessible, and - in the dry at least, with judicious use - seldom threatens to overwhelm the standard-fit electronic locking diff either.

The Civic meanwhile has 295lb ft at its disposal and is virtually the same weight as the Leon, but despite having a turbocharger twinned with the VTEC system for a generation now, its own 2.0-litre engine is just not quite as prolific when asked to pull from so close to idle. The Cupra's comparative enthusiasm only serves to highlight the softness of its throttle response, and while it isn't hesitant in the old school Type R mould (there's certainly no 'wait, wait - go!' here), it just doesn't surge forward quite as nimbly as the SEAT, and nor does it attempt a variation on its rival's baritone warble, either.

What it does instead is go and sound exactly like you might expect a high-revving forced-induction Honda engine to; one that builds progressively from any initial delay to gallop through its mid range and end in a sprint somewhere near 7,000rpm. Credit where it's due, the EA888 is hardly any less compelling at between 5,800-6,500rpm - where the R's advantage over other Cupra-badged cars makes its presence felt - but thanks to a familiar weightlessness in the clutch and gear shift, it doesn't share the precision and tactility of Honda's six-speed manual transmission nor the gratifyingly mechanical sensation of interacting with it.

In this latter respect - specifically the business of nailing the physical connection between driver, car and road surface - there's clear daylight between the two. The Type R's predecessor, the FK2, was self-limited not by a lack of ability, but because it could be driven everywhere at Mach 2 without ruffling so much as an eyebrow. In its follow-up, almost to a fault, you now relish every second; not because you go noticeably quicker, but because Honda has successfully cleaved away at the feeling of detachment with meticulously honed controls and the exacting, talkative chassis to match.

To say the FK8 turns all-of-a-piece is something of an understatement; it slays corners with its flatness and tenacity and slippy-diff willingness to put its power down. The R+ mode is a little too hyperactive for most B-roads, but in Sport you get just the right simmering mix of tautness, compliance, steering response and back-axle mobility. The R is better in Sport, too (the Cupra setting being too brittle) and easily proficient enough to carry foolhardy amounts of speed through most bends. Its obvious strengths feel familiar and well chosen: directness and directional stability being at a premium, and present in sufficient quantities to make the car a generally satisfying foil for the biggest output it's ever been gifted.

But while the Leon is good enough to let you drive fast, the Type R makes you want to drive fast precisely because it is so good. SEAT hasn't zeroed-in its R model with nearly the same stringency. The Honda gets better across the board as you try harder; the Cupra gamely ups its roll resistance, but doesn't ultimately possess the rigorous steering feel needed to make the advantage meaningful nor the adjustability to make it thrilling. It tends to feel exactly as it is: the most powerful version of an upstanding, affable and unremarkable hot hatch. The Civic feels different. It could hardly be anymore rounded if it were a BB pellet. It feels like it's in the league above. Now if only it looked that way, too...


Engine: 1,996cc, turbocharged 4-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 320@6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 295@2,500-4,500rpm
0-62mph: 5.8sec
Top speed: 169mph
Weight: 1,451kg (with fluids and driver)
MPG: 36.7 (NEDC combined)
CO2: 176g/km
Price: £30,995 (£32,995 for GT version)


Engine: 1,984cc, 4-cylinder turbocharged
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 310@5,800-6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 280@1,800-5,700rpm
0-62mph: 5.8sec
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 1,453kg
MPG: 38.7 (NEDC combined)
CO2: 170g/km
Price: £34,995













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Comments (106) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Cupra Black 08 Apr 2018

    OK, I am biased because I have a Cupra but no matter how great the Civic is just look at it....not for me thanks

  • Kenny Powers 08 Apr 2018

    Those bronze coloured rims would look great on the Honda smile

  • MrBarry123 08 Apr 2018

    It really does seem like the current Type R is a cut above any of its competitors, dynamically at least.

    And having seen a couple now on the road, they don’t look awful. Admittedly, they’re not pretty things but they’re certainly purposeful.

  • E65Ross 08 Apr 2018

    I would prefer the Seat I think. I'm sure it's still a very, very good car and it doesn't look absolutely revolting which is a bonus.

  • Jonesy23 08 Apr 2018

    MrBarry123 said:
    It really does seem like the current Type R is a cut above any of its competitors, dynamically at least.
    But is it really, or is it just the usual journo groupthink and invention?

    Come back in 6 months and all you'll hear from the same crowd are how it's flawed and was never really that good.

    As for the looks - the Type R doesn't look better in real life, if anything it just looks worse and more plasticy. The styling really hurts it.

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