First Drive

2016 Seat Leon Cupra 290 review

Seat has revised its Leon Cupra hot hatch to make it even faster. We find out if it can challenge the latest and greatest hot hatches.

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When it was launched back in 2014, 276bhp seemed a lot of power for a sub-Β£30k hot hatch. Things have changed in the last two years, though, with more and more rivals edging closer to (and even passing) the 300bhp mark.

In an attempt to keep up, Seat has squeezed an extra 10bhp out of its Leon Cupra to make the 290 model you see here. Tweaks to the engine and a new exhaust may have increased power, but emissions and economy remain unchanged.

You also get Seat’s Full Link system added to the infotainment set-up as standard. This allows you to pair your smartphone through Android Auto, Apple Carplay or Mirrorlink depending on your handset. You can then access a limited range of functions through the touchscreen, helping you to stay connected more safely.

Apart from that, things are much as they were. Visually, the only way to tell a 290 from a 280 is by the badging. As before, you get a standard limited slip differential to help you accelerate out of corners more effectively and the option of the Sub8 performance pack. The latter adds bigger brakes and wheels, side skirts and stickier tyres.

What is the 2016 Seat Leon Cupra 290 like to drive?

If you’re hoping the extra power will make a big difference to the performance, you’ll be a bit disappointed. Yes, the 290 a very rapid hatchback – 0-62mph can take as little as 5.6sec if you choose the DSG automatic gearbox – but the old Cupra 280 wasn't much slower. Unless you drove the two cars back-to-back, we doubt you’d tell the difference.

Seat also says the Cupra's 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine is more flexible than before. It’ll pull willingly from around 2000rpm, so you can make pretty rapid progress without changing gear very often at all. Even in sixth gear, the Leon will get from 50mph to 70mph very quickly indeed.

Ultimately, though, it isn’t as much fun to drive as our favourite hot hatchbacks. There’s an awful lot of grip available, especially if you go for the optional track-focus tyres, but the Cupra never involves you as much as something like a Ford Focus RS. There’s less feedback from the steering and the Cupra struggles to transfer its power to the road as effectively as the best hot hatches.

We were impressed by the optional big brakes of the Performance Pack, though. Not only were they strong, they held up to hard use well with no noticeable fade. On the subject of optional bits, the sticky Michelin tyres proved exceedingly grippy on warm, dry tarmac, although they may be less effective on a damp British B-road.

What is the 2016 Seat Leon Cupra 290 like inside?

With the exception of the Full Link infotainment software, the interior is unchanged. That is to say there’s plenty of recognisable switchgear from the VW Group parts bin. That said, although the interior doesn't feel cheap, the Cupra isn't as classy inside as a VW Golf GTI or even a Skoda Octavia vRS.

The upper portion of the dashboard is soft but there's plenty of hard plastic elsewhere. It may have been acceptable when the Leon was launched, but things have moved on somewhat. The same goes for the small 6.5in infotainment screen, although this is at least easy to navigate and paired quickly with the Android device Seat provided to test the Full Link system.

Three and five-door versions are available and there's even a Cupra estate. The boot is a reasonable size, but there's a big lip at the aperture in hatchback versions.

Should I buy one?

If you were interested in the old Cupra 280, then you'll probably find the extra power and connectivity tempting. The ability to choose from a three or five-door hatch or an estate is also a boon.

The problem is that the Cupra range starts at Β£28,375 and ends at more than Β£32,000 for a DSG-equipped estate. Factor in the Sub8 performance pack and you can spend another Β£2000 or so on top of that figure.

For similar money, you could buy a Ford Focus RS, which offers even more pace and better handling. It may not be as economical, but it's a lot more fun. If you need more room, then the spacious yet rapid Golf R Estate isn't much pricier, either. The Cupra is still a good car, but some of the competition is even better.

What Car? says...

Rivals

Ford Focus RS

Volkswagen Golf R

Seat Leon SC Cupra 290 DSG Engine size 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol Price from Β£28,375 Power 286bhp Torque 258lb ft 0-62mph 5.6 seconds Top speed 155mph Fuel economy 43.5mpg CO2 149g/km