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SEAT Leon Cupra R ST: Driven

Remember the fast, four-wheel drive Cupra that isn't an Ateca? It's better than ever...

By Matt Bird / Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Is the SEAT Leon Cupra on your radar? That's not meant disingenuously; since its launch five years ago, despite praise and despite the loyal following previous generations enjoyed, the Leon's reception seems to have been almost as low key as its styling. There just doesn't seem to be that many around, which is shame: the Leon Cupra is more interesting to drive than the equivalent Golf or Octavia, more grown up than a Civic Type R and more powerful than a 308 GTI. Add a Performance Pack - or, even better, the Nurburgring Ultimate Megamix Full Fat pack - and the Leon is a rapid, focussed, memorable performance car. And when did you last see one?

It even seems that SEAT has forgotten about it somewhat, given the attention lavished on its Cupra brand and the SUV launched off the back of it. Despite the promise of this Leon Cupra R ST featuring '100 per cent Cupra DNA', the tacking on of some copper accents looks a little half baked - officially the car is in transition, as this was originally a SEAT and the next fast Leon will be a Cupra. Fortunately, the ST is gifted such a handsome profile that the copper may actually work as a styling enhancement. The impression of slightly rushed job isn't helped, however, by the spec: to all intents and purposes this is a Cupra 300 4Drive, with the same power, seven-speed DSG gearbox and all-wheel drive system. It also means that the Cupra R hatch was front-wheel drive and manual only, while the Cupra R estate is all-wheel drive and auto-only - which doesn't exactly help with the mixed messages. It also makes it seem like something of a missed opportunity, given the Cupra R's exciting tweaks as a hatchback and the promising foundations in front-wheel drive format.

Still, this is the car we have, and let's not lose sight of the fact it's always been really rather good. Unoriginal observation though it remains, this car shares an awful lot - if not everything - with the VW Golf R Estate, a car that has received five-star reviews in some places and has been warmly received on PH as well. Don't forget, either, that while this ST is heavier than a front-wheel drive version, it's still the best part of 100kg less than a Cupra Ateca. Which is also pretty damn good.

So the initial exchanges with a Leon Cupra R ST are as unassuming, innocuous and fuss-free as you might expect: allowing for the odd hesitation the DSG gearbox is spot on, the engine's plentiful torque gives performance with little effort and the ride is more accommodating than the aesthetic might suggest. There's more space in here than an Ateca, the seating position better and the whole experience pleasant enough to be almost a non-event - the Leon just gets on with the job, not drawing or demanding attention. There's a lot to be said for that.

There are many more strings exist to the Leon's bow, too. Firstly, the Cupra R ST is a really, really quick car; even allowing for this powertrain configuration being far from new, and a sub-five-second dash to 62mph not raising eyebrows anymore, the Leon never feels anything less than properly potent. On a closed section of mountain road - because when you're SEAT in Barcelona, you close a road for a launch - the R pulls convincingly into fourth and fifth gear, piling on speed pretty emphatically. Despite never really feeling underpowered It's going to get quicker, too - but more on that later.

Moreover, the Leon remains a good thing to drive. Criticisms were made of this 4Drive at launch for feeling a bit inert after the slightly rabid front-wheel drive cars; now, however, with the Cup 2 tyre and some extra negative camber, this R ST feels a more incisive, direct and rewarding car to guide down a road, closed to the public or otherwise. There's a sense of connection through the Alcantara wheel that eludes the lesser Cupras, further bolstering the confidence that's resulted from a sharper turn in. The brakes, too, are improved, benefitting from the Brembo calipers and larger discs of the Performance Pack models - maybe still a bit snatchy, but boasting both extra progression and performance from standard. The suspension work is decent as well, albeit on smooth Spanish tarmac, the dampers' resolve less frequently tested than in the heavier, slightly more ponderous Ateca. It's very good in fact, in much the same way as a Golf would be, lacking the ultimate plushness and quality of something like a Civic Type R yet delivering the sort of impressive, unflustered body control we've come to expect from this MQB family of hot hatches. Bring elements of this quality all together and the result is a car that feels dynamic, accurate and satisfying, if not the absolute last word in fun and frolics.

However, that isn't quite the end of the story. When the Leon Cupra R ST goes on sale in April, the 150 UK buyers (remember the hatch was limited to 24) will be offered an ABT tuning pack. For £500, power will be bumped to 370hp, with the 0-62 sprint falling to 4.5 seconds as a result and the warranty kept intact. Adding power is probably the oldest trick in the book for courting customer affection, but that's because it works - and even without testing the upgrade, it's hard to imagine many customers passing it up.

What might be more a of stumbling block for those prospective Cupra R ST drivers is the entry price: £37,975 is nearly £4k more than the standard 4Drive ST was when it launched in 2017. SEAT may talk of the specialness and sophistication of the Cupra products, though this is hardly a transformative overhaul: the R ST is a brisk, talented, likeable and handsome estate car, in pretty much exactly the same way as the regular 300 always was. At nearer £40k than £35k, and with considerably less rarity appeal than the hatchback, the Cupra R ST is hard to make a compelling case for, even if for a variety of reasons - styling, practicality, dynamic acuity - it's a Cupra model preferable to the Ateca.

Here's an idea, then. The main advantage of the R is arguably the Cup 2 tyre that can be bought separately - so if a front-wheel drive, manual Cupra ST of any description can be tracked down (they're rare, but they do exist) then you'll have a car with the quality and ability of this one - traction notwithstanding - that weighs 100kg less. And we all know the benefits that that can bring. Given cars like that are around for less than £20k, that leaves a lot of money for modifications similar to this effort and would likely result in the properly engaging and ever so slightly naughty Leon which has not quite been delivered here. That doesn't mean that the R wagon isn't the most appealing fast estate for the money - it probably is - it just means that it isn't the most appealing Leon available full stop. And that's SEAT's fault. Let's hope Cupra does better when its turn finally comes.


Engine: 1,984cc, four-cyl turbo
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 300@5,500-6,400rpm
Torque (lb ft): 295@2,000-5,200rpm
0-62mph: 4.9 seconds
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
Weight: 1,545kg ('in running condition with driver')
MPG: 39.2
CO2: 164g/km
Price: £37,975

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