Poor old SEAT. Remember when it proudly claimed a Nurburgring front-wheel-drive record, the first to go under eight minutes, only for it to be scrutinised more rigorously than any previous attempt? The saga dragged on and on, various rumours about plastic windows, boosted engines and hooky tyres abounding until most credibility was lost. Then everyone else got in on the act, with Renault Sport, Honda and even VW - there went SEAT's role as the sporty one in the group - surpassing its Nordschleife achievements.
Which, really, was a bit of a shame for the Leon Cupra. Because it was a pretty decent machine as standard, doing what Cupras always have in offering a slightly lairier, yet still quite sensible, Golf GTI derivative. Given the Mk7 GTI was about as good as it's ever been, it made the cheaper, more powerful Leon a very alluring proposition indeed.
In an attempt to cash in on - or perhaps validate - the Leon's success, SEAT created a 'ring record Cupra. Trouble was, in another damaging move for its reputation, it wasn't the full Trophy-R style circuit warrior special; instead there were two option packs, the Sub8 Performance Pack and the Ultimate Sub8 Performance Pack. The latter ditched the stereo speakers and air-con, then added big brakes and Cup 2s, offering the closest set-up available to whichever one it was that went around the 'ring. It also cost an additional £4,210 over the standard car. We drove it back at the end of 2015, describing it as "fantastically thrilling", if not quite the match of the Civic and Megane. But that's an extremely high bar.
Sadly, this Spotted isn't quite that full-fat Sub8, instead being the regular upgrade that got you the bigger wheels to accommodate chunkier Brembo brakes, plus what looks like the optional bucket seats. Those brakes, don't forget, were denied to the Golf Clubsport S; from memory they're still a bit abrupt, but the performance is enormous. Get the Continentals off this car and something more focussed on and you'll be well on the way to a properly capable track hatch.
Because that's what everyone forgets about the Leon - it's a great hot hatch. Losing out to the Megane Trophy and Golf Clubsport S is about the best third place it's possible to get, this certainly a valid alternative to them both (as well as the Civic) with its pace, doggedly determined front end and lightweight agility. Of course it has flaws, but what car doesn't? Where Leons were once the darlings of the UK hot hatch scene, this latest one has floundered to some extent, when - especially with either of the 'ring packs - it really shouldn't have.
This one has the DSG gearbox, which won't be ideal to some, but it is a smart-looking three-door hot hatch - good luck finding one of those again soon. The mileage is about average, it's already got about £14k off the list price and those tyres are apparently new - selling those with the wheels could free up some money for a racier set...
So yeah, don't dismiss the Leon simply because you don't see many of them around. It's fast and fun - and easily made more so - as well rare and interesting, particularly with that whole Nurburgring palaver around it. Besides, from what Cupra is producing nowadays it looks like this batch of Leon 280s, 290s and 300s might be the last of their breed. A pretty good send off if that is the case, though surely somewhere in Martorell is a person who wants their 'ring record back? We're waiting with baited breath...
SPECIFICATION - SEAT LEON SC CUPRA 290
Engine: 1,984cc 4-cyl turbo
Transmission: 6-speed DSG, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 290@5,700rpm-6,200rpm
Torque (lb ft): 258@1,750-5,600rpm
MPG: 42.8 (NEDC combined)
First registered: 2016
Recorded mileage: 29,000
Price new: £31,440 (PH test car)