We named the SEAT Leon as our 2013 Car of the Year so fitting it with a more powerful engine and sportier chassis sounded like a winning recipe, and it is. Available with either 261bhp or 276bhp, the SEAT Leon Cupra punches above its price tag and comes with equipment you have to pay extra for on the Volkswagen Golf GTI.  But it’s not all about searing pace and sharp looks, the SEAT Leon Cupra also has a softer side for when you want to take things easy.

Peel back the skin of the SEAT Leon Cupra and most of what you’ll find is identical to the Volkswagen Golf GTI. Both cars sit on Volkswagen's lightweight MQB architecture, both use a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine and both send power through the front wheels. But while the Golf is available with either 217bhp or 227bhp with the Performance Pack fitted, the Leon Cupra packs a massive 261bhp or 276bhp under its bonnet.

• Best hot hatchbacks

Despite only costing a fraction more than the Golf, model for model, the SEAT Leon Cupra comes with a front limited slip differential as standard and three-stage adaptive dampers. You can choose between a five-door or a shorter-wheelbase three-door model, too. Lowered suspension and variable-ratio steering ensure its quick in the corners, but soften off the suspension and the Cupra is happy to waft around like a standard Leon. 

Our choice: SEAT Leon Cupra 280

Styling

The SEAT Leon uses the Volkswagen Group’s MQB platform, so it shares its running gear with the Volkswagen Golf, Audi A3 and Skoda Octavia. However, it’s arguable that the SEAT Leon is better looking, especially in three-door SC guise.

The standard SEAT Leon has a sharp nose, well defined creases in the bodywork and a tidy rear - all of which give it a sporty appearance - while the flagship SEAT Leon Cupra model gets a few more enhancements. The biggest change is the addition of large 19-inch polished alloys on Cupra 280 models (lower-spec Cupra 265 cars make do with silver 18-inch rims) and bright red brake calipers.

The bright LED headlights found on the SEAT Leon Cupra are standard and there’s a subtle chequered flag badge on the grille, while larger air intakes and gloss black trim have been added behind the number plate. SEAT also gives the Leon Cupra a bigger roof spoiler, twin oval exhausts at the back and Cupra lettering across the tailgate, but the reality is that only diehard hot hatch fans will be able to recognise a Cupra model over a lower-spec Leon FR.

SEAT offers Dynamic Grey paint as a £695 option on the Leon Cupra, but it doesn’t really help it to stand out any better. SEAT has updated the interior of the Leon Cupra with new Alcantara-trimmed sports seats, LED interior lighting, Cupra logos around the cabin, and an upgraded infotainment system with sat-nav. The Cupra 280 model adds gloss black trim, while the excellent build quality and logical dash layout mean the SEAT Leon is very easy to get on with.

Driving

The SEAT Leon Cupra is powered by the Volkswagen Group’s 2.0-litre TSI turbo petrol engine, although its power has been turned up to a healthy 276bhp, making the Leon Cupra one of the most potent hot hatchbacks on the road. Previously, that would have plagued the front-wheel-drive SEAT Leon with masses of torque steer, but the addition of a limited-slip diff and SEAT’s clever XDS electronics mean it’s hugely capable in corners.

Turn in at high speed, and the SEAT Leon Cupra simply tucks its nose into the bend and sticks to its line, as the electronically controlled diff suppresses understeer by sending power to the wheel with more grip. Thankfully, there’s plenty of that from the wide tyres, while the sharp steering means the chassis responds to the slightest of inputs.

Unlike lower-spec cars in the SEAT Leon range, you can fully disengage the stability control on the Cupra, which allows you to explore the limits of its ability on the track. Still, you’ll be travelling at quite a rate before it breaks loose.

With 276bhp, the SEAT Leon Cupra delivers explosive performance in a straight line, while models with the DSG gearbox feature launch control.

• SEAT Leon Cupra smashes Nurburgring FWD lap record

Reliability

With the full weight of the VW Group’s engineering team behind it, the Leon Cupra is a beautifully designed and built bit of kit. The whole theory behind the MQB platform is to be able to replicate components in huge numbers, which ensures low costs for SEAT, but also proven tech for the end customer.

As a performance machine, the Cupra’s brakes and tyres will encounter more wear and tear than the standard car, assuming it’s driven enthusiastically. It’s fair to say SEAT’s latest family of products, including the Leon, Mii and Toledo have raised the bar substantially in terms of quality, but it doesn’t always score as highly as it should when it comes to customer satisfaction.

For example, SEAT came 27th overall in our Driver Power satisfaction survey, while its dealership network came dead last in our dealership poll. However, the standard Leon scored the full five-star rating in its Euro NCAP crash test, outperforming the Ford Focus

Practicality

The practicality of your SEAT Leon Cupra depends on which model you go for. The three-door Leon SC model has a wheelbase that's 52mm shorter than the five-door Cupra, which chops down rear legroom slightly, and the more sloping roof also means there’s a few mm less headroom. However, SEAT has managed to maintain the exact same boot space for both models but at 380-litres, although that’s still 25-litres down on the Renault Megane.

Fold down the rear seats in the SEAT Leon Cupra and its boot space increases to a substantial 1,210-litres - however, a step in the floor of every SEAT Leon stops you sliding heavy objects all the way in. Nevertheless, hooks for your shopping bags and a lower load lip are useful additions.

It’s clear that the SEAT Leon has been designed from the outset not only to look good, but to be used as a family car. Wide door openings, enough rear head and leg room for adults – even in the SC – and spacious front seats make it perfect for long journeys. There are plenty of cubby holes dotted around, too, in the centre console, glove box and door bins. 

Running Costs

Even though the Cupra is the flagship of the Leon line, it still uses the same running gear as the rest of the Leon range, albeit in upgraded form. Fortunately, this also means the SEAT Leon Cupra has the same five-star Euro NCAP crash test rating. What's more, LED headlights, a clever diff and an enhanced stability control system help it feel even more secure on the road.

SEAT dealers came bottom in our Driver Power 2013 satisfaction survey, so you may not receive the best service from them if you do decide to take the plunge with the Cupra. However, in light of these results, the brand is likely to make changes that will help to improve the customer experience.

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