In the market for a VW Golf GTI or R? Kotto Williams thinks there is close relative that combines the best of both worlds for less money
Images by Kotto Williams
There comes a time in a man’s life when his penis stops working the way he intends it to. It no longer stands to attention in the morning, coitus requires three weeks’ notice to prepare and when you step away from a urinal, pull up your zip, it keeps on peeing. At this point in life, you probably need a sensible car, a big boot, five doors and comfortable suspension, an automatic gearbox so you only have two pedals to worry about. Things like the 0-60 sprint becomes 460l of boot space, torque vectoring becomes trailer tractoring, 6-speed H pattern gearbox becomes 8-way electric memory seats and the only handbrake you pull up is the foot-rest on your Lay-Z-Boy.
But you don’t really want this, you’re reading a magazine for car enthusiasts. So, is there a way to get a family car that flies under the radar of sensibility but allows you to indulge in high-speed frivolity? You obviously need a mk7.5 Golf GTI Performance Pack. Sure, a Focus ST may out-corner it or a Megane RS will put seconds on it on a track day but the fact is, the Golf can hold its own whilst being comfortable, well equipped, well built, fairly priced, retain its value and look good whilst doing it. It remains the default choice.
But should it? I present to you the rather large, and self-inflicted, thorn in the GTI’s side. The even stealthier - but potentially far more exciting - Seat Leon Cupra R 290. The Seat Leon Cupra Gen-3 5F model is the very last Cupra badged Seat, models going forward using the Cupra moniker alone. It’s an odd trend that seems to be increasing in middle-tier manufacturers, a lack of confidence in their brand. The new Fiat 500 in particular doesn’t have a Fiat badge on any surface. Anyway, I digress - what makes the Cupra special is what sits within its angular snout - the formidable 2.0 TSI EA888 turbocharged engine from the Golf R. However, the SEAT forgoes the R’s heavy Haldex four-wheel-drive, effectively creating a GTI-R. This means it's lighter on its feet - not to mention significantly lighter on the wallet, because the Spanish iteration listed for £5,000 less than the GTI.
What a Cupra isn’t light on is its tyres. Such power through the front wheels is more than contained by the excellent and essential differential, it's just that the Cupra is so bloody accelerative you can’t help but giddily turn them to smoke. As fitted with the DSG gearbox, the Cupra will dip below six seconds in a scrabble to sixty from rest, and once rolling it will pull away from even the R. It still has today’s GTI Clubsport covered, and that’s before we get into the favourite VAG club past time of tuning potential. Even standard, you have to get up very early to come across a hot hatch that’ll outrun it.
So it's got the exciting angle covered, yet at the same time, it looks completely anonymous. There is a reason so many Police forces are adding unmarked Cupra’s to their fleet. It’s certainly not a dour car, in fact, you’d almost call it handsome - but Joe Public wouldn’t be able to complete a round of spot the difference with a regular Tdi on smart alloys. A petrolhead would know though. I quite like this, it almost harks back to the discretion of early M cars - you might even call the Cupra 290 a Q car.
It’s time to cue some corners though. You’ll be grateful for the gigantic brakes as they wipe off the easily accumulated speed with the minimum of fuss. The retardation is strong enough to pressure massage your kidneys, and the pedal feedback is adeptly judged - there is no front-loaded bite, just sweet progression. Even when you trigger the ABS, the kickback is minimal. Before you know it, left foot braking becomes second nature.
The steering is of the Chernobyl variety...not great, not terrible. It’s well geared and weighted - and the nose responds to inputs with vigour - but the feedback is as evasive as a Boris Johnson office Christmas party. Because of this lack of dialogue, during acclimatisation, I kept having to make micro corrections to the steering angle. There’s zero feedback at your fingertips, the steering weight itself is perfectly good but until I got used to the car, I found myself making micro-corrections during corners before I could find the car’s limits at about 80% ability.
Perhaps that’s a compromise for sweeter everyday manners or a method of dulling the side effects of the remarkable differential. It doesn’t so much as tighten the line, it yanks the whole car towards the apex like a Darth Vader force choke. The application of such power without any tragic torque steer is nothing short of witchcraft. Progress is always fluent unless you purposely troll the chassis or it’s wet.
I must mention that differential again - in this car is something else, it locks right when you’d want it to, as soon as the steering under hard acceleration begins to wander the diff sets it straight again. I tried to provoke understeer and failed, and that’s largely because of the laser-guided diffs effect on steering – it feeds the power beautifully, never awakening the traction control or letting the wheels slip. Remember this is a car where the back axle is merely along for the ride, and the front tyres have to deploy nearly 300bhp and pathfind at the same time. This is one of those cars that can silence the anti-FWD crowd easily, RWD may be a purists powertrain but in the real world with real people, the Leon is just as fast as a comparable BMW and you won’t develop beads of sweat on your forehead from the effort.
The handling repertoire also seems to have no concept of body roll either. Turn-in, activate diff, summon turbocharger, and repeat. It takes everything in its stride and you’re back onto the straight stretch of road unsure of how you got there without a battle. The rate you fire down a road is deeply impressive, the road-holding operating at an almost unsettling level of equanimity, but where is the drama? I’m not feeling like I’m a part of the action as much as I’d like to be. I’m left a little cold.
Part of it is how easily the EA888 acquires speed - look down and you’re always travelling faster than you think - but the soundtrack doesn’t move you like the turbocharger does. It’s not a bad noise, and there’s sufficient volume (which may be augmented), however, it lacks fizz. It’s an engine you rev out for the buzz of the performance rather than the reward of how it's delivered.
Objectively it's an engineering marvel, there’s barely a trace of turbo lag and the pull never relents. It’s also remarkably fuel-efficient and for a four-cylinder, it’s very smooth indeed. It just gets on with the job with no chinks in the armour. Want to warp from 60mph to 90 in seventh on the motorway? The mid-range has you covered. Want to explore the upper reaches of the redline? It’s game. But that very competence leaves you craving a more Latin soul and fire - it’s not hard to see why so many end up with an ABT or aftermarket tune.
Another factor is the DSG gearbox. It’s so slick and unflustered it’ll change up bang on the last rpm rather than headbang into the limiter, and the only way you’ll notice is the change in engine tone. You’ll forgo the paddles eventually because you can’t dial up some extra aggression (unlike in the GTI), and then when you get to town, you’ll forget you’re in Cupra mode and it’ll hold onto gears far too long making you look the complete tit. You can put it into manual mode with the paddles, which is fun but I quite enjoyed letting the car change the gears as the box is genuinely really good (out of Cupra mode) and I focused on seeing how fast I could get around a bend without becoming one with the Bristol Channel. The paddles are a very horrible scratchy plastic and just feel unpleasant to use - even those on a Toyota Yaris have better tactility. An alternative solution could be the shifter itself, you can use it like a sequential gearbox but it's back to front - push forward to change up, which completely goes against your instincts.
The driving modes didn’t really have an effect on suspension damping, in comfort mode at best the rebound rate of the shocks was reduced, softening the ‘bounce’ of speed bumps and the crenelations frequently found on British roads. The ride itself despite the huge 19” wheels is supple, it’s firm as expected but it doesn’t feel as jiggly as many other cars in non-hot spec such as the Audi A3 or Ford Focus ST-Line. The driving modes are pretty much unnecessary thanks to the individual mode - the only shortfall of that is you can get comfort suspension and full power out of the engine but you can’t alter the DSG’s change pattern, unlike the Golf. To be frank, the car’s so well engineered for fast road or cruising it doesn’t need modes. SEAT seems to have found the sweet spot of giving a firm chassis a fairly supple ride, which made for great fun around fast bends - and then a wonderfully comfortable wind-down drive, I’ve had more exciting naps.
The interior of the Lux version is fantastically judged. You sit in Alcantara and leather tombstone front seats, matching Alcantara and leather in the back, nicely trimmed door cards with just the right amount of ambient lighting. The door card’s strip of blue downlighting is a beautiful touch, a league ahead of a boring red strip-light like you get in the comparable Golf. The finish on visible surfaces is like you’d get in a BMW, no crap vinyl with hideous pretend stitching. Just good quality rubber, plastic and Alcantara. I was pleased to see that the rear seats have their own air-blowers in the central arm-rest too, having spent a summer being ferried around in friends’ cars, if it’s hot out you’d want an A/C feed in the back. Up front, the dual-zone climate control and heated seats as expected from a VAG car are excellent, though on this frozen winter day the inside fogged up constantly despite the blower being set to windscreen. The solution to this was to have the screen-clearing A/C mode on - which is wasteful and fairly loud - but a more suitable solution than holding my breath.
Getting your head around the infotainment is a struggle however, the main menu is a bit samey – it’s difficult to distinguish what you want at a glance but this is remedied by simply mating your iPhone to it and using Carplay where you can access Google Maps, Waze, Pokemon Go or Pornhub. The dial cluster is of course an LED screen, many different dial layouts available but I settled on the one that looks like it came out of a Lamborghini Huracan, with a big rev counter smack bang in the middle. The new haptic Golf proves the VW group has always been better at designing stylish infotainment over functional, and it's an issue that stretches back to the older Leon I’m sat in. There’s now a lot of wasted space on such a big, useful screen. The sat nav stayed put on the big dashboard screen but a directions list or a mini-map on the blank spaces on either side of the dial would’ve been a nice touch. I’m not sure if you can change it, I certainly couldn’t find out how. It’s good but I can’t help but feel that with such a badly designed LED cockpit, is there really any merit over analogue dials?
Despite the sensibilities, SEAT should always be the VAG group's more left-field, exciting entry to the stable. The majority of people will likely go for the civilised Leon or Golf because sometimes a Megan RS or Civic Type R is just a bit try-hard and uncool. Yet the Leon’s quiet, dignified performance approach is its ultimate undoing. It’s all a bit too German gene pool and capable. Its most exciting feature is a very satisfying ‘pop’ on upshift at pace which is a thousand times better than Volkswagen's tragic DSG ‘farts’. The Leon would absolutely be a worse car if it torque steered into a tree and leaned a bit more as it exited the road surface, but it would be more exciting wrestling it on the way to your demise. Shouldn’t a Cupra be a Spanish interpretation of an Abarth, or dare we say it - an Alfa Romeo Cloverleaf? I don’t wish to sound like I have a downer on the Cupra. It’s rapid, discreet, well built, stupendously capable and great value for money. It nails its brief as a family hauler and secret hellraiser. To the layperson a lot of the negatives I picked on won’t even appear on their radar, they’ll enjoy the crisp, anonymous styling and the mountain of power available to them.
However, it's a car you admire rather than crave. It doesn’t have those quirks that allow you to form a personal bond. Previous owners speak fondly of the Cupra, but I haven’t met one that regretted moving on or pines for another. And that’s what this magazine is about - cars you desire and ones that get the blood pumping to all the right places.