Leon sales success leads to all-new Cupra line-up for Seat’s pinnacle brand
Admitting that he should avoid the ‘S’ word in conjunction with the Spanish firm’s upmarket, high-performance, niche aspirations, Iain Robertson is concerned that bolstering the new ‘C’ word, with new models, will only serve to confuse consumers.
When French carmaker Citroen decided to introduce a sometime model name (DS) as its ‘new’ upmarket gamechanger in 2015, having already honoured its ever so important Chinese market with the new nomenclature in 2012, it created something of an hiatus. You see, a Citroen badged DS model line-up had already been sold through its Citroen dealers since 2009. More than a decade later, DS, which has struggled for recognition, is now starting very sluggishly to build a profile. However, the cost of this transition has been astronomical. Let’s face it, next to a sex-change, when your uncle becomes your auntie, accepting the facts is no easier.
At least the change for Audi and its separation in retail terms from Volkswagen was made more understandable, due to a moderate back story. While Audi may be little more than VW in a posh frock, it carries off the transformation with a glorious history that, in reality, is little more than what BMW achieved for its Mini brand…albeit by basically ripping off a past that is not truly its own. Lexus succeeded with its separation from Toyota by ensuring that our market would never sell its Toyota-badged alternatives, of which there are plenty. The same applied to Nissan and its all-but-deceased Infiniti line-up (in the UK, at least).
Yet, I worry about Seat. Developed 70 years ago as a state-owned carmaker, its notional partnership with Fiat enabled it to bring Spanish-badged, ropey old Fiats to market right up to 1983, when a new deal was struck with VW Group. The first product was a shaky Fiat/Seat/VW ‘hybrid’; neither one thing, nor the other and certainly not hybrid by today’s electrified definition. After just 34 years of VW ownership, around 18 months ago, Seat introduced us to Cupra, as its new performance-focused brand…a sort of ballsier DS-Citroen gig…with the Cupra Ateca.
However, replacing chrome with copper highlights, a popular hairdresser’s trait, beefing up the suspenders, doubling the exhaust outlets with the assistance of Akropovic, re-stitching the upholstery and dangling fatter wheels and tyres beneath each lowered fender is an exercise confused by the previous generation Seat Leon in Cupra guise (are you getting this? Not a Cupra Leon but a Leon Cupra). Yet, having shuffled its cards, Seat has determined that with the recently regenerated Leon, which remains easily the best looking of the VW Golf-based models across the entire Group, the zestier versions will drop the Seat badge and inherit the Cupra one instead. I just have to remember which one is which!
Seat, sorry, Cupra is using the good-looking hatchback and better-looking estate car version of the Leon model for its new four-strong range. Two versions deliver 241bhp, while another kicks out a useful 296bhp (using either body shape), and only the estate is available with the ultimate 306bhp tuned power unit. However, the 241bhp models come in two markedly different forms: the first is VW’s ubiquitous 1.4-litre TSi unit, which works in conjunction with an 85kW electric motor and lithium-ion storage battery, thus providing a plug-in hybrid choice that promises a 37-miles EV range and less than 50g/km CO2 emissions. Well tried and tested, it is sure to be THE variant of choice, as long as potential buyers remember that Boris’s recent stated intention is to ban petrol hybrids from 2035 and not next year! The alternatives employ VW’s excellent 2.0TSi unit in the three power states, without the hybrid hardware but with a 4Drive (the fifth generation Haldex system) transmission on the punchiest estate version.
All four drive through fly-by-wire (no mechanical connection) DSG automated-manual gearboxes, with paddle-shift for a more focused driving experience. It is worth pointing out that, in its most potent form, the Cupra Leon Estate can despatch the 0-60mph blast in a cool 4.5s, while the front-wheel drive alternatives are around 5.0s, with top speeds restricted to 155mph. The 241bhp versions feature standard 18.0-inch diameter alloy wheels, with the 19.0-inch alternatives used on the more potent models available as options. Although a little fussy in their design, they are actually good-looking wheels, the copper highlights providing a subtle but gamey appearance. Naturally, Cupra uses all-LED lighting technology as a further distinguishing character for its four models, which includes the full-width rear light bar and Cupra projected images used as puddle illumination built into the doors.
There are plenty of ‘go-faster’ hints around the car, some of which are carried inside. The new digital and reconfigurable dashboard screens, one ahead of the driver, with the main 10.0-inch interface in the customary top-of-centre-stack, provide readily adjustable information. The Cupra Leon’s driving position is excellent, with generous rake, reach and height adjustment on the front seats and steering column, to suit almost any size and shape of occupants. Interestingly, the engine start/stop button is now placed on the steering wheel. The rear seat space is more compromised, due to the heft and padding of the sporty front seats. However, boot space is generous in either body, the estate benefitting from a longer body and 30-litres of additional load volume over the hatch.
Of course, with the wheels stretched out to accommodate wider tracks fore and aft, stability has been optimised and helped further by reducing the ride height by around 25mm. An electronic limited-slip differential aids traction without driver intervention but the grip levels are outstanding and, thanks to the hefty 370mm Brembo brakes, bringing a Cupra Leon to an eye-popping stop is a practical safety enhancement. The firm’s engineering team has gone the extra mile to make the Leon as dynamically sound as possible, linking several of the developments introduced on the firm’s new e-Racer to close-up the gap between consummate road-eater and track-burner.
Conclusion: Brand and model-naming issues notwithstanding, the new Cupra Leon is a very special line-up of models. Of course, hybrid and high-performance tech are going to lead to much heftier price tags, when the UK launch programme is announced following the Geneva Motor Show.