SEAT Leon Cupra R

Test venue: Shropshire

A grim and overcast November afternoon on the greasy lanes around Weston Park in Shropshire is not the ideal time to be test driving SEAT's powerful new Leon Cupra R, but the flagship model is exhilarating to drive nonetheless. It has been available through the UK dealer network since October and is sold with SEAT's effective Tracker Retrieve security system included.

Powered by an uprated 225 bhp petrol engine, the Cupra R will set you back an on-the-road price of 18,000. For that you benefit from a powerful 1.8-litre, 20-valve turbocharged engine, which will catapult you to the speed limit in under seven seconds and on to a top speed of 150 mph. Grunt is transmitted to the front driving wheels via a slick, close-ratio six-speed manual transmission.

But the new Cupra R has not been marketed as a boy racer machine and it has numerous other attributes to attract an older and more discerning customer. The British public will see a derivative of the new car involved in the 2004 British Touring Car Championship with the 2003 SEAT Cupra Challenge winner Robert Huff teaming up with former champion Jason Plato. The company now hopes that much of the success it has enjoyed on the race track this year has been passed down to its latest road car.

The revised powerplant slots into a rigid chassis and handling and road holding have been improved markedly by an effective ABS braking, EBA and ESP traction control system. Striking four-pot Brembo brakes give the Cupra R excellent braking qualities and 18-inch alloy wheels give it instant street appeal.

Many powerful front-wheel drive cars are overpowered and suffer from torque steer and inherent understeer. Sit in the figure-hugging sports seat and press the Cupra R's engine into life and you realise soon enough that this is a serious tool to drive quickly. There is limited torque steer and the traction control system prevents wheel spin and wheel snatch in the greasiest of road conditions.

The engine pulls strongly through the rev range with a delightful howl and the gearchange aids swift progress. SEAT boasts that the engine has a flatter torque curve - in layman's terms it offers constant levels of torque from as low as 1950 rpm right through the rev range to 5000 rpm, with peak power available at 5900 rpm with the R model. On the motorway it will cruise effortlessly at illegal speeds, although I felt that the sixth gear was a little unnecessary given the car's adequate gearing.

Cupra R is available in five colours and is fitted with the traditional sporty black and red interior with white instrument dials, which have become synonomous with hot hatches and performance saloons. Climate control, a six-CD player, electric windows, twin front and side airbags, Recaro seats and a satellite navigation system are also available as options. The navigation system is available for 1950, including VAT.

The SEAT Leon first went on sale in the UK in 2000 and sales are likely to top those for the brand's most successful model, the Ibiza. In total, five specification levels and eight engine derivatives are available, with prices starting from a mere 10,200 for the 1.4-litre 16-valve Cupra S version. A new 130 bhp, 1.9-litre TDI engine is also available for the 2004 model year.

There is no questioning the sporty look of the new Leon, with its large SEAT front logo, lowered sports suspension, side skirts and extended wheel arches. Red Brembo brakes distinguish the R model from its stablemate, the 20 V T Cupra.

To capture market share in such a fickle and cut throat market sector, the SEAT Cupra R needs to offer all round performance and handling. One of the new model's major strengths is its excellent chassis and suspension set-up. Cupra R is fitted with a new 'agile chassis concept', whereby the suspension has been lowered at the rear by six millimetres and a new subframe has been fitted.

A thinner front anti-roll bar is anchored to the spring assembly and the entire system gives the car a rigid feel to improve its handling ability. Push the Cupra R very hard into a traffic roundabout, for example, and it corners as if on rails.

Cupra R is not a cheap 'hot hatch' by any means. There is no disputing its power and sheer driving appeal, but don't expect residual values to do you any favours and you won't see many more that 25-27 miles per gallon in spirited driving conditions. It is a specialist model in a niche market.

But I'm sure that it will become one of the next cult 'hot hatches' for younger motoring enthusiasts, especially when the first of the newer models reach the second-hand market.

For further information or assistance please contact:

NDP Publicity Services
Holly House, Station Road, Newport,
Shropshire TF10 7EN United Kingdom

Tel/Fax: +44 (0) 1952 825001
Mobile: + 44 (0) 7831 123153 (UK)

Email: ndppublicity@googlemail.com

Web: www.ndp-publicity.com

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