Seat Leon Cupra 280 pitches against hottest hatches

With the launch of the Seat Leon SC Cupra 280, Seat has pitched itself right into the battle at the very top end of the hot hatchback market. The slightly less brawny 261 bhp version of the Leon SC Cupra continues, but this more powerful version enters the market in competition with cars like the Ford Focus ST, the Renault Megane RS 265 and the Volkswagen Golf R.

The Seat Leon SC Cupra 280 is the hottest Seat Leon ever sold on the UK market. With a 0-62 mph time of 5.8 seconds for the manual (5.7 seconds on the DSG gearbox version I tested), it is quicker off the mark than most of these competitors, with the exception of the Volkswagen Golf R.

Seat Leon SC Cupra 208

The key to this giant-killing performance is suggested by the suffix on the name. The power output of the Cupra 280 has been boosted by 15 bhp to a pretty mighty 276 bhp. This, therefore, is a serious performance hatchback.

My test car was the Leon SC Cupra 280, the SC (sports coupé?) denoting this is the three-door version. The Cupra 280 (but not the 265 bhp Cupra) is also available as a five-door. The three-door version is, to most eyes, the more stylish of the two, but bear in mind that the five-door does have a bit more passenger space as the wheelbase is 35mm longer.

Immediately you get moving you are aware of the amount of power under your right foot. On dry roads, the grip so good that, with a modicum of good sense, putting this amount of power through two wheels is not an issue. However, on the greasy wet roads that prevailed for the early part of my test, you do have to be a bit circumspect with the throttle to avoid the traction control light flashing as it fights to keep the beast under control.

Comparison with the Volkswagen Golf R is inevitable – especially since much of the basics like platform, engine and gearbox are so similar – so let’s get that out of the way immediately. The retail price of Seat Leon SC Cupra 280 DSG is £28,330. That undercuts the Volkswagen Golf R DSG by £2,400. But, for that extra money the Golf R gives you 24 bhp more and four-wheel-drive to transmit that power to the black stuff.

Seat Leon Cupra interior

Like the Golf R, the Cupra 280 is available either with a manual six-speed gearbox or the DSG fitted to my test car. This is an excellent £1,320 option as it gives you the option of driving in automatic mode around town, but you can either let the gearbox do a remarkably good job of choosing ratios, or use the steering wheel paddles.

It used to be a ‘given’ that automatics were slower, thirstier and more polluting than their manual counterparts. But new dual-clutch gearboxes, like the DSG, have turned that norm on its head. In the Seat Leon SC Cupra 280 the DSG gearbox knocks a tenth of a second off the 0-62 mph time of the manual car’s 5.8 seconds. It also improves the fuel consumption to a combined figure of 44.1 mpg.

Real enthusiasts, however, will probably still want to revel in choosing their own ratios.

As you might expect the Cupra 280 offers a choice of driving mode settings. The two of interest to performance enthusiasts are the ‘sport’ and the even more sporty ‘Cupra’ settings. These sharpen up various aspects of the car’s management systems to make it a notably tauter, more sporting drive.

There is also another driver aid that we hear a lot about in motorsport. The “launch control”. This system takes the engine revs up to about 3000 rpm before engaging the clutch when you lift the brake pedal. The problem is getting the traction to get off the line and inevitably you end up with wheelspin and a cloud of rather expensive rubber smoke.

Any owner with a bit of mechanical sympathy and a sensible approach to burning tyres (don’t) would probably use the launch control very sparingly, if ever. In truth a bit of skilful feathering of the throttle, to stop the wheelspin, would almost certainly produce a quicker getaway.

Sports enthusiasts will not tire of this car’s easy performance. Prod the throttle and the response from the turbocharged TSI engine is immediate. But, even in the ‘Cupra’ setting, the power delivery, while lightning quick, is also notably smooth. Turbochargers really have improved by leaps and bounds, since the days when they cut in quite brutally and gave you a kick in the back as they provided their extra oomph.

Like so many modern turbos, the Cupra 280 delivers its power in a wonderfully progressive manner, right through the gears. The throaty, rasping sound track, particularly in the ‘Cupra’ setting, simply adds to the enjoyment.

Suspension design is always a compromise. For the best sports handing you want a car with a taut suspension. But the resulting board-hard ride would endanger your fillings. So, in the interests of comfort engineers have to allow a good degree of compliance. Too much and your sports handling is ruined. Too little and your granny would never willingly get in the passenger seat.

The Seat Leon SC Cupra 280 is a reasonable compromise, albeit leaning to the sporting side. The test car was fitted with 19-inch wheels and low-profile tyres, so this inevitably, reduces the cosseting quality. But, it is still a remarkably comfortable ride on reasonable surfaces. It gets caught out occasionally by surface imperfections and can be a bit restless on poor surfaces.

The steering is good with its variable-ratio steering rack giving quicker reactions as you move away from the centre position. The result is a car that revels in a twisty road, changing direction with eager responses. A tenacious grip on dry tarmac and a good handling balance add to the enjoyment and sense of security.

It is at times like this that you appreciate the hugging sports seats (leather and heating is an option), that keep you from moving around as the G forces build up.

But, dry or wet surfaces, the Seat Leon SC Cupra 280 fulfils its promise. This is a hot hatch for those who like the thrill of getting the best out of a performance car.

Seat Leon Cupra

If all this gives the impression of some real souped-up hot hatch that might be a bit of a nightmare around town, nothing could be further from the truth. With its very usable performance and good torque, I found the Cupra 280 was happy to potter around at city traffic speeds. Leaving the DSG gearbox to worry about gears and clutch was an added bonus in stop-start traffic.

A few years ago the sort of performance that the Cupra 280 delivers could not come in tandem with reasonable fuel economy. But, I reckon an overall of over 30 mpg for a mixture of performance driving, city streets and dual carriageways is not at all bad.

As a result the Seat SC Cupra 280 DSG proved itself to be a performance car that is also practical as everyday transport.

Seat Leon SC Cupra 280 DSG
Carbon dioxide emissions: 149 g/km
Combined fuel economy 44.1 mpg
Top speed: 155 mph
0-62: 5.7 secs
Power 276 bhp
Engine size 1984cc petrol
Boot capacity 380 litres (back seats up)
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