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The new Leon wants to become a standalone, bespoke Cupra with a series of targeted updates. Is it?

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The Cupra Leon is no longer a rebadged Seat with fancy trim. 

At least that’s what Cupra wants you to think. What once was Seat’s performance arm has broken a little freer of the mothership and developed the Leon as a standalone product with its own driving character, technology and options.

How is it trying to achieve this specifically? In a few ways; partly because it is one of the first cars in Cupra's line-up, along with the new Formentor, to receive the brand's new design language with a shark-nose front end and triangular matrix LEDs, but also because of an "environmentally conscious approach to performance" - achieved with more sustainable materials during manufacture - and new interior technology.

At the same time, the Leon is trying to grab a larger share of the performance car pie. The arrival of a brand new 329bhp engine and 268bhp plug-in hybrid (up 27bhp from before), with the option of front- or four-wheel drive, pure combustion or electrically assisted power. 

This increased focus on performance comes as competition in this sector of the market gets tougher than ever, not least because parent brand Volkswagen offers the similarly-conceived Golf GTI, Honda the brilliant Civic Type-R and, as a true alternative, Hyundai's equally tremendous Ioniq 5 N; a car which we’ve awarded five stars.

We’ve previously road tested the 306bhp four-wheel-drive estate and found it to be fiercely quick but lacking some involvement, while the hybrid’s 1.4 never felt at home in a performance derivative.

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The Leon, then, will need more than just a facelift to convince us that it is worthy of purchase over a Volkswagen Golf GTI, but also that it can stay at the top of the class as the old one did.

The Cupra Leon range at a glance

One of Cupra’s intentions with the new Leon was to simplify its engine and trim line-up, but it seems to have made things slightly more complicated by adding more trim levels and various tunes of the same engine.

The hatchback is always front-wheel drive and is powered by a four-cylinder engine, either a 2.0-litre with 295bhp in the five-door hatch or 329bhp in the estate, or a 1.5-litre petrol available as standard with 148bhp or 268bhp in plug-in hybrid guise. The estate comes with either the front-wheel-drive hybrid or the more powerful tune of the 2.0-litre with four-wheel drive. A six-speed manual is available only on base 1.5 mild hybrid trim, while a six-speed automatic and seven-speed DSG auto is available on cars higher in the range.

There are no less than seven trim levels – V1, V2, V3, VZ1, VZ2, VZ3 and VZ First Edition – but not all engine and trim combinations are possible.

DESIGN & STYLING

Cupra Leon side

The current Seat Leon has been around since 2020, while the Cupra Leon version followed about a year later after its launch, arriving with what we saw to be a slightly restrained design in Cupra guise. Compared with the last car, though, this one has been given a bespoke style to further differentiate it from Seat and give the models in the Cupra range a more family look.

Key to the redesign is triangular-shaped matrix LED lights, a broader grille designed to look more imposing, an illuminated rear badge, new alloy designs which can be finished in the brand's signature copper, and a 'shark nose' front end. Indeed, the restyle brings about some much-needed modernisation to the Leon's proportions and marks it out as a Cupra through and through, but the changes seem to complement the larger Formentor slightly better than the Leon, perhaps because the Formentor actually is a bespoke Cupra.

Mechanically, the Leon is composed of familiar MQB platform elements, though Cupra continues to limit itself to the more powerful powertrains from the Volkswagen Group parts warehouse.

The range starts from £30,765 with a 148bhp mild-hybrid 1.5-litre turbocharged four, which is paired with a six-speed manual gearbox and front-wheel drive only. Above that you can get the same engine with either mild-hybrid or plug-in hybrid power, which send drive through six- and seven-speed automatic gearboxes respectively.

On hotter VZ versions, that same 1.5 can be paired with a 19.7kWh battery, up from the previous car's 13kWh, for a total of 268bhp driven through the front wheels via a seven-speed auto only. 

Until this point the five-door hatchback and estate both share the same engine line-up, but the most powerful iterations of both cars are different. The five-door hatch uses the same 296bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged motor as before and the estate the same 329bhp 2.0-litre from the Volkswagen Golf R and Audi S3 - a new engine for Cupra's range.

INTERIOR

Cupra leon interior dashboard

The most obvious changes inside are the new 12.9in infotainment screen and enhancements to material quality; both of which, to a certain extent, work to make the Leon's interior feel as upmarket as Cupra says it is. Elsewhere, it's standard Leon, which in most respects, is no bad thing.

So long as you stay away from the plug-in hybrids, whose battery packs rob space, the Leon is quite a roomy hatchback, offering 380 litres of boot space, and almost as much rear leg and head room as the most spacious rivals. The boot is a slightly awkward shape, though, and could really do with a variable floor.

In the front of the Leon are two sports seats with just enough lateral support to keep you in place during hard cornering, but whose bolsters aren’t too extreme for daily use. In lower-spec cars, they are adjusted manually and lack the pull-out thigh support and cushion angle adjustment of more expensive versions, but lumbar support is standard.

Even the lower-spec models keep up a reasonably convincing air of luxury. The materials are generally a cut above those in a Volkswagen Golf both in terms of feel and attractiveness. The cloth upholstery on the optional bucket seats is now made from a 73%-recycled vegan textile, while the real leather in other areas is claimed to be “environmentally conscious”.

Special mention needs to be made of the steering wheel, which is almost round and avoids the thick rim so pervasive in modern performance cars. Instead, it’s thin and firm, upholstered in pleasingly smooth leather and with a flat edge at the front that your thumbs naturally find. We wouldn’t be surprised if one or two of Cupra’s interior designers have 1980s Porsches in their private garages. And the spokes house real buttons, rather than touch panels.

Sadly, elsewhere in the Cupra Leon’s interior hasn’t entirely eluded the VW Group’s corporate penny-pinching department. The materials at the very top of the dashboard, door cards and centre console feel cheap and hollow, and the seat fabrics feel as though they are a very thin layer of fragile material draped over foam. Couple these with the fact that many functions such as the driving mode, stability control, heated seats and HVAC controls are run through the screen.

Said screen runs Volkswagen’s new operating system, MIB4, which is slick to respond to inputs and, in our time with it, free of bugs and glitches. It also helps that the sliders for setting the temperature and radio volume are now backlit, but it would be better if controls as crucial as these are kept as physical buttons. This would certainly be preferable to a slider which you have to find and aim at, or hidden in a submenu within a submenu that becomes too distracting when driving.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Cupra leon front

The previous plug-in hybrid iteration of the Cupra Leon was a car which we thought was a bit confused; its engine didn't really belong in a car with such sporting intentions and its efficiency was quickly losing competitiveness. This meant that it only felt right to find out what the new-engined PHEV is all about.

The 1.5-litre turbo four-pot, working in tandem with a 19kWh battery and electric motor, produces 268bhp, 310lb ft of torque and gets from 0-62mph in 7.1sec. Top speed is pegged at 155mph.

Those are all reasonably convincing numbers, but are they enough for a hot hatchback whose competition is the Golf GTI and Civic Type R? We’re not so sure. 

But if you look at it as a lukewarm hatch which will allow you to reap the benefits of long-term fuel savings, the engine makes a bit more sense. It also helps that when you're on the move, the powertrain makes very good use of its electric motor, being as strong in the mid-range as many hot hatchbacks.

Its six-speed DSG no doubt helps the Leon achieve its acceleration figures, and the ’box shifts quickly, too, responding well to the (disappointingly small and plasticky) paddles. And while it will upshift automatically at the redline, it leaves it late enough for it to rarely be an issue. Apart from some slight hesitancy during hurried three-point turns, it is impeccably behaved on the daily grind, too.

When you engage ‘Cupra’ mode, there is piped-in engine noise accompanied by a slight burble from the exhaust. The EA888 isn’t the most tuneful unit, and at higher revs the intake noise and valve thrash take over. In all of its applications this engine sounds ruthlessly efficient, getting on with the business of pulling you from one corner to the next with an admirable hunger for revs.

RIDE & HANDLING

Cupra leon tracking

The Leon exudes a no-nonsense feeling when you find some corners. There’s no contrived sportiness here, no needlessly heavy steering, unyielding suspension or complicated Haldex four-wheel drive system (unless, of course, you choose the most powerful estate).

The bottom trim, VZ1, gets 18in wheels with 225-section tyres and passive dampers. We suspect this set-up would harmonise well with the rest of the car’s character. Our test car, with its 19in wheels, 10mm-wider tyres and adaptive dampers, will be more representative of how people spec their cars, though.

The dampers are adjustable through no fewer than 12 settings, and there are three drive modes available spanning Comfort, Sport, and Cupra. That sort of granularity is overkill, no doubt, but with a bit of experimentation, there is a good compromise in there.

We found that the standard Sport preset soaks up big bumps very adroitly while taming the worst of the body roll. It allows some movement, but in the absence of any real feedback from the steering, that’s quite helpful in gauging what the chassis is doing. Moving the slider further to the right ramps up the control, but also introduces brittleness, so the firmer settings are better left for a smooth track.

On a road with some medium sweepers, the chassis shows itself to be sweetly balanced. The stability control can be turned off, and a well-timed lift of the throttle will make the rear end edge ever so slightly wide. 

If only the steering would give a little more back. At two turns lock to lock, it’s pretty quick but never feels nervous. It’s also perfectly accurate and it’s possible to vary the weight in the driving mode settings. It’s not plagued by unnatural weighting or the elasticated feeling found in fast Fords, so the lack of feedback is never an impediment to fast road driving, but a touch more communication would complete the dynamic picture.

Comfort and isolation

Despite the 19in wheels and 35-aspect tyre sidewalls fitted to our test car, on its adaptive dampers this car rides more comfortably than the vast majority of cooking family cars. Put the suspension in its softest mode and the Leon lopes along, flattening most bumps in the road but not forgetting a firm undertone. It’s well controlled too, so it never becomes a floaty barge.

That compliance makes it all the more obvious when the suspension does run out of ideas. The lack of tyre sidewall can only be camouflaged so much, and the nastiest potholes will elicit a noticeable bang as the 19in wheel smacks through it. On the rare occasion that you encounter a pothole when the front suspension is already at the top of its stroke, it feels like the strut may come through the bonnet.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Cupra Leon front three quarter lead

With a starting price of £30,765 for the standard Leon V1, this new car is actually £2335 cheaper than the previous cheapest Leon. Although, admittedly, those cars skipped ordinary V trims and went straight to VZ trim. This rises to £33,080 for the V2 trim and £34,730 for the V3. VZ trims, meanwhile, begin at £42,020 and rise to £47,805 for the most expensive. The most powerful variant, the 329bhp Leon estate, comes in at £49,825, or conveniently just £105 less than the Volkswagen Golf R.

VERDICT

Cupra leon front three quarter verdict

Aside from the performance branding, rapid outright pace, a sweetly balanced but still comfortable chassis, it is difficult to justify the Leon as a bespoke Cupra. But ultimately it is still a practical and well-designed hatchback with tremendous rolling refinement typical of something in the class above. Our only complaints are that it continues to be hampered by an aversion to buttons, the interior's quality, which, while improved, is a bit hit and miss in places, its steering is slightly dull and the hybrid engine continues to not really belong in a sporting hatchback. 

However, viewed as an all-round proposition, its practicality and comfort keep the Cupra Leon competitive with the rest in its class, and the offering of a manual gearbox on basic versions is a nice addition. But while this facelift has undoubtedly brought some crucial modernisation and quality lifts to the whole package, it remains hard to differentiate it from a regular Seat Leon.

Jonathan Bryce

Jonathan Bryce
Title: Editorial Assistant

Jonathan is an editorial assistant working with Autocar. He has held this position since March 2024, having previously studied at the University of Glasgow before moving to London to become an editorial apprentice and pursue a career in motoring journalism. 

His role at work involves writing news stories, travelling to launch events and interviewing some of the industry's most influential executives, writing used car reviews and used car advice articles, updating and uploading articles for the Autocar website and making sure they are optimised for search engines, and regularly appearing on Autocar's social media channels including Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube.

Illya Verpraet

Illya Verpraet Road Tester Autocar
Title: Road Tester

As part of Autocar’s road test team, Illya drives everything from superminis to supercars, and writes reviews, comparison tests, as well as the odd feature and news story. 

Much of his time is spent wrangling the data logger and wielding the tape measure to gather the data for Autocar’s eight-page road tests, which are the most rigorous in the business thanks to independent performance, fuel consumption and noise figures.

Cupra Leon First drives