Conservative mid-cycle update does relatively little for a respectable hot hatch with a fine engine but a flawed ride in the UK

What is it?

The Seat Leon Cupra 290 is a mildly overhauled version of the Spanish car maker's range-topping hot hatchback. It’s available in three-door SC, five-door hatchback and five-door estate bodystyles, the three-door being just a touch cheaper than the equivalent five-door.

The main news here is a new sports exhaust, a modest power and torque hike and a similarly modest inflationary price hike, arming the Leon a little better to deal with more powerful competitors that it now faces two years after launch: the likes of the Honda Civic Type R and Ford Focus RS. So the car’s turbocharged 2.0-litre engine now develops a peak 286bhp, up from 276bhp. Its 258lb ft of torque now comes over a spread of revs broadened out by 550rpm in all, to 1700-5800rpm.

Performance claims for the car are unchanged, albeit pretty conservative: 5.7sec to 62mph for the fastest three-door. That we figured the outgoing 276bhp Cupra, in DSG form, at 5.9sec to 60mph – with the non-negotiable presence of plenty of unwanted wheelspin in the mix thanks to the car’s hilariously ineffective launch control system – suggests a well-driven manual might be a 5.5sec car in ideal conditions and probably deserves consideration as one of the very quickest front-drive performance cars out there.

Seat has also simplified the Cupra buying routine a bit, deleting the more affordable 261bhp three-door – but keeping the optional ‘Sub8’ pack, which brings with it a brake upgrade, lightweight 19in wheels and Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres. Adaptive dampers, an electronically controlled locking front differential and variable-rate ‘progressive’ steering are still all standard, while new Black-line, White-line and Orange-line option packs add two-tone 19in wheels and coloured body bits to personalise the exterior.

What's it like?

On the 19in alloys of our Black-line five-door test car, the Cupra 290 is unexpectedly firm-riding – which is a disappointment given the praise we poured on the pleasingly rounded dynamic character of the car two years ago. Fidgeting and thumping over road scars and expansion joints, the suspension will try your patience on a long journey and isn’t nearly so cleverly managed on these wheels and low-profile tyres by the standard-fit DCC adaptive damping as you’d like.

The car’s Comfort, Sport, Cupra and Individual drive modes allow what seems like plentiful scope for adjustment of the ride to begin with, but ultimately none of them produces the balance of ride suppleness and close wheel control that a hot hatchback needs to work well on UK roads. Firm, short springing and what you’d imagine must be quite a lot of unsprung mass give the car’s adaptive dampers a lot to do and little wheel travel in which to operate. The car’s B-road gait therefore ends up feeling quite choppy, crashy and abrupt.

Handling is undoubtedly strong, though – as is the Leon Cupra’s engine. Seat’s variable-rate steering is heavy and should really produce better contact patch feedback, but its weight is generally consistent and the ramp-up of its directness off centre is gradual. As a result, the car steers with good response and corners with balance, accuracy and stability. Try a fast getaway from a T-junction and you’ll find traction is strong, too – although some steering interference is telegraphed up through the column as the locking front differential comes into play.

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The shift quality of the Leon’s six-speed manual gearbox is a bit fussy and light, but it’s easy enough to use once you’re used to the notchiness. Seat’s mildly modified Cupra engine, meanwhile, retains its proclivity for the dramatic and finds even greater urgency at high revs than it used to. The VW Group’s EA888 engine somehow always seemed like more of a fire-cracker in the Leon Cupra than it does in the Audi S3 and Volkswagen Golf R, and continues to – reserving even more whoosh for the last 2000rpm of the rev range. We could still live without the added aural spice of the ‘sound symposer’, mind you – although the effect of the new sports exhaust is a welcome one.

Should I buy one?

Right now, it’s hard to recommend that a hot hatchback buyer spends his £30k on anything other than a Ford Focus RS – and this lightly updated Leon doesn’t do much to change that.

The Cupra may provide a more road-friendly ride than the Ford on its standard 18in alloys, but it certainly doesn't on 19s. And although it’s fast and involving enough in its way, it isn’t in the Focus's league for driver entertainment.

If that seems dismissive of what’s a very respectable performance machine, we’ll tolerate the accusation. The truth is, the hot hatchback market is much tougher now than it was two years ago. Although it may not know it yet, Seat probably needed to do more to prevent the Leon Cupra from being left behind within it.

Seat Leon Cupra 290

Location Surrey; On sale Now; Price £29,755; Engine 4 cyls, 1984cc, turbo, petrol; Power 286bhp at 5600rpm; Torque 258lb ft at 1700-5800rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Kerbweight 1395kg; 0-62mph 5.9sec; Top speed 155mph; Economy 42.2mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 156g/km, 28%

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

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Ken Healy 18 May 2016

Seat cupra 290

Matt what a ridiciculous review. I've driven both cars and let's be honest here you are absolutely talking rubbish on ride quality . On Irish roads , the focus is a lot firmer than the seat. The price difference is huge , try €15000!!!! The performance figures in the real world are pretty much the same once moving. Yes you can act like a yob off the lights in the ford with the awd system and yes it's a quicker car to 60mph and drift mode...... What a ridiculous feature. On any given day on a dry track the standard Leon cupra will match the times off the focus. Put the sub 8 pack on the seat and it will beat any car in its category including the focus. Ford can keep its yobbish looks and drift mode, I'll keep my €15000. Time will tell but I bet and we have already seen that ford is already experiencing problems with their car. It's an overhyped hot hatch reported on by people on fords books!
hulahoop 29 March 2016

good car poor interior

i have just been driving an ST 290 version of these for the last week and I have to say I disagree with a lot of this review. The adaptive dampers are excellent and in comfort setting the ride is far superior to my Octavia VRS. In sport or Cupra settings the handling is exceptional and in the dry I think this would be a match the Golf R.
One thing I am puzzled about though is no reviews mention the awful plasticky interior? The Golf and Skoda both put this to shame.
Haffy79 27 March 2016

A strange review of what is

A strange review of what is essentially the same car as its predecessor with a deleted silencer and new badge at the rear. The majority of 280s make close to 300bhp stock so it is unlikely that Seat have genuinely squeezed an extra 10bhp out. The ride on these cars has always been one of the plus points and in comfort mode very civilised and the sport or Cupra setting genuinely make a difference. Perhaps they reviewed the 261bhp version as they have always come with 19in wheels and no other review I have read to date has mentioned that the ride is too firm. It certainly won't be able to complete with the RS in many ways but will be a much more comfortable everyday hot hatch for people wanting genuine pace and understated looks with a auto gearbox.