The Space Race of the 20th century was as much about the US and Soviet Union attempting to intimidate one another by building bigger and faster rockets as propelling astronauts into the cosmos. And in a similar vein, today’s car makers are embroiled in their own battle to build the ultimate hot hatch, pushing the envelope of performance as far as it can possibly go.

• Best hot hatchbacks 

The latest addition to Auto Express’ fleet is our current hot hatch champion, the SEAT Leon Cupra 280, and just like the rockets of the fifties and sixties, our DSG automatic model features cutting-edge tech to make the most of the 276bhp being fed to the front wheels, in the form of launch control.

However, unlike a complex space rocket, it’s extremely easy to use. Simply press a button to switch off the stability control, select Cupra mode via the Drive Profile menu and place your feet on both pedals. The electronics then take over, holding engine revs at around 3,000rpm, and when you take your left foot off the brake, the Leon blasts off.

SEAT claims that its hot hatch can sprint from 0-62mph in 5.7 seconds, although our slippery winter roads mean you’ll get a flurry of wheelspin rather than a fast time.

We’re going to have to wait until the weather warms up to make the most of the launch control system, but the Cupra mode also makes a big difference to the way that the Leon performs in corners. Stick with Comfort mode, and the car is surprisingly docile. The ride is firm, but it smooths out bumps pretty well and is far from uncomfortable, while the DSG gearbox is responsive in auto mode. 

Select the Cupra setting, and the Leon’s steering, throttle and diff settings are all optimised to deliver excellent cornering ability. There’s barely a hint of understeer, even if you’re a little ham-fisted with the throttle mid-bend, while the sharp steering responds instantly to your inputs. There aren’t many cars in any class that feel as capable on a twisty road.

Add in a big boot and a spacious cabin, and the Leon Cupra is just as practical as any other hot hatch, although our car’s three-door body makes it a bit tricky to get in and out of the back seats.

There are plenty of goodies, too, including LED headlights, 19-inch alloys, sat-nav and LED interior lighting, while we’ve added leather, adaptive cruise control and a sunroof to make our car even more appealing. Plus, these luxuries make the Cupra’s searing acceleration even more surprising to unwitting passengers...

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