For many, the 1980s were the halcyon days of the hot hatchback. Yet as the next decade dawned, joyriding, ramraiding and soaring insurance premiums brought this go-faster fairytale to an abrupt end.
Until now. We’re currently in the midst of a second golden age for the hot hatch. And while classic heroes like the Peugeot 205 GTI and Renault 5 GT Turbo made do with around 115hp, many of today’s pocket rockets boast more than twice that.
Enter the SEAT Leon Cupra 290. As its name suggests, it packs a heavyweight 290hp punch (up 10hp from the old Cupra 280), making it the most powerful car the Spanish company has ever made. Scorchio. It’s a real contender for the “hottest hot hatch” title. It does, however, face some formidable competition.
My first encounter with the Cupra took place near Barcelona. SEAT had paid the local policía to close a tortuously twisty mountain road to all traffic – except me. So, with one eye on the rev counter and the other on the glowering traffic cop (they have guns here, you know), I fastened my seatbelt, flicked the Drive Profile switch into Cupra mode and floored the right pedal.
Sending all that oomph through the front wheels could be a recipe for wayward torque steer, but the Leon’s mechanical front differential does a good job of taming those wild horses. The extra 10hp is difficult to detect, but the snarl of the 2.0 litre turbocharged engine is pleasingly amplified through a lighter, louder exhaust.
Steering and throttle response are razorsharp, and the car dives into a series of sharp bends like an eager puppy. There’s no shortage of cornering grip, and it takes serious commitment to make the front end push wide. Ultimately though, there isn’t the fourwheeldrive traction of a Golf R or the delicious rearwheeldrive attitude of a Focus RS. For serious drivers, SEAT offers a £2,000 Sub8 Performance pack. Named after the Leon’s record-breaking sub-eight minute lap time around Germany’s Nürburgring racetrack, it includes uprated Brembo brakes and for a further £500 you get super-sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tyres. Both, however, are probably overkill for commuting or the school run.
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More usefully, the SEAT betters most rivals for fuel economy and is surprisingly comfortable, with a long-legged sixth gear for motorway cruising. For an extra £1,100, you can opt for the smooth-shifting DSG semi-automatic gearbox, which takes the strain out of urban driving without blunting performance (it actually makes the car slightly quicker).
There are three bodystyles: three-door SC hatchback, five-door hatchback and the ST estate. The SC is the bestlooking but least practical, while the five-door hatch suits most needs, with a useful 380litre boot (a Ford Focus holds 316 litres). The ST is the obvious choice for dad racers, though. Its boot swells to a very useful indeed 1,470 litres with the rear seats folded. Just don’t engage Cupra mode with the labrador in the back.
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Like a Golf GTI with added speed, style and, er, Spanishness, the hottest SEAT is both practical and great to drive. Unfortunately, the game has moved on in the past couple of years and an extra 10hp isn’t enough to defeat the 350hp Focus RS. Yes, the Ford costs around £1,300 more than the equivalent Leon five-door, and you can’t buy an RS estate. But those quibbles aside, the Focus gets our vote as the most exciting car in this class.
If you want something more subtle and civilised, the Golf R is certainly worth a look, too. Again, it’s more expensive than the Leon, but better residual (resale) values mean it actually works out cheaper with some monthly finance deals.