With nearly 280bhp and a twin-clutch automatic gearbox, the new Seat Leon Cupra 280 DSG makes a strong case for itself standing next to the similarly priced but much less powerful Volkswagen Golf GTI.
However, more of a challenge is the perennial overlord of the mega-hatch fraternity: the rear-wheel-drive, six-cylinder, 315bhp BMW M135i. Could the front-drive Seat be the one to usurp the BMW?
What are they like to drive?
As you’d expect, the Seat feels ferociously fast. Give it everything, and the 2.0-litre turbocharged engine spins keenly through its rev range, with a noticeable but manageable surge in power as the turbo kicks in at around 1500rpm, flinging the car forward as if it’s attempting to chew through the asphalt.
However, manic as the Seat is, it’s obvious that the M135i is in another league. It will hit 60mph almost a second before the Leon and it feels faster whether in a straight drag race or just overtaking in the higher gears.
Even more relevant is the fact that the BMW has a smoother, more linear power delivery and a more responsive automatic gearbox. Put simply, it’s more brutal and much more fun when you want it to be, but more relaxing for normal, unhurried driving.
The Cupra’s six-speed ’box blurs gearshifts well enough when you’re just pootling about, but it doesn’t always react quickly enough when you reach for the paddles mounted behind the steering wheel. Kickdown is also quite sudden and unpredictable, sometimes arriving when you don’t want it.
The BMW’s eight-speed ’box, by contrast, behaves predictably in full automatic mode, but is also satisfyingly quick when you decide to take control and use the wheel-mounted paddles.
The Seat’s adaptive dampers, throttle response and steering weight all have various settings – the key ones being Comfort, Sport and Cupra. Even the electronically controlled limited-slip differential has standard or more aggressive settings. Regardless of which you choose, you can chuck the Leon into a corner and the body remains tightly in check, while the steering is quick, sharp and has a satisfying weightiness to it.
What lets the Cupra down is traction. Despite its standard limited-slip differential, it struggles to find grip exiting a corner, and will wash wide too easily, scrubbing its tyres frantically rather than sticking
to the line you’ve chosen – especially in slippery conditions. The car often feels like it’s fighting you rather than making your life easier.
The opposite is true of the BMW, which feels like a proper sports car – an M3 made more manageable rather than a 1 Series made more sporting. Yes, the steering can feel a little lifeless around the straight ahead, but it still communicates what’s happening between tyre and road when you need to know, allowing you to make the most of its poised, adjustable handling. It’s just as challenging and is certainly more precise than the Seat – and heaps more fun. Yet it’s still a more refined, comfortable everyday car.
The ride is supple and more comfortable in the BMW, at least with the £515 adaptive dampers fitted to our test car. The Seat always feels firm by comparison, and in Cupra mode it’s too brittle, allowing the car to become unsettled by the creases and undulations you experience all the time on British roads. Even in Comfort mode, the Seat has a habit of skipping sideways over mid-corner bumps. The Cupra also produces lots of boomy road noise at high speeds.
What are they like inside?
Oddly, the Cupra loses some of the contrasting trim that livens up the standard Leon’s interior, so it looks quite dark and drab inside. Even the dials are an understated grey. Still, at least the dashboard is unclutteredand simple to use, and there’s plenty of adjustment in the heavily bolstered sports seats.
It’s a solid-feeling, user-friendly cabin, but it’s not as high-end as the BMW’s. A blend of classy materials, well-damped switchgear and standard leather seats make the M135i feel a cut above. Our only complaints are that the rim of the steering wheel is too thick and the seats are too fiddly to adjust.
Two taller adults will find it fairly difficult to get into and out of the back of either of these cars; you’re much better off going for a five-door model if youplan to regularly carry more than two people.
The Seat has the better boot; it’s a little larger overall and has a broader opening, but the BMW’s is more than adequate for day-to-day use.
What will they cost you?
The Cupra is the cheaper car to buy – even after factoring in the bigger discounts that are available on the BMW. However, that’s only half of the story, because the M135i holds on to its value better, and returns a respectable 33.9mpg in real-world driving. Our True MPG team hasn’t yet tested the Seat, but the VW Golf GTI (which uses the same engine and gearbox) managed just 31.5mpg.
The BMW’s higher CO2 emissions and higher list price mean it’s much more expensive as a company car, though; as a 40% rate taxpayer you’ll sacrifice £303 per month compared with £208 for the Cupra.
Similarly, the contract hire rate for the Cupra is £375 per month compared with the BMW's £414 a month.
The Seat has more standard kit; you get sat-nav, and front and rear parking sensors, which together add £1585 to the BMW’s price. Then again, the M135i has leather seats, which cost extra on the Seat. Both cars come with a DAB radio, a USB socket and automatic lights and wipers.
The Seat Leon Cupra looks great, is seriously fast and comes with a generous amount of standard kit. It’s also good fun in a slightly rabid, wayward fashion.
However, even with its slightly lower costs, the Cupra doesn’t better the BMW M135i, which remains the best mega-hatchback on the market. It’s faster, handles with more precision, is much more fun and feels a whole lot classier inside.
If that’s not enough, the fact that it’s also more comfortable and refined in everyday use should seal the deal.
BMW M135i auto
For Outstanding handling; better refinement; classier cabin
Against Short on standard kit; emissions
Verdict A little more expensive, but worth it
Seat Leon SC Cupra 280 DSG
For Fast; cheaper; stunning looks; lots of kit
Against Traction; firm ride; dreary cabin; not the best auto ’box
Verdict Cheaper Cupras make more sense