Cupra’s hybrid Leon: It looks like a hot hatchback, but where’s the peel-back-your-eyelids thrust?

This reworked Leon from Seat’s hot-car brand is softer and gentler than you might expect

Cupra Leon
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Year: 2021
Fuel: Hybrid

If Cupra has a problem it's that people kind of half-know what it means. Seat has been using Cupra as its hot-car brand for well over a decade. For a certain sector of motoring fandom it was well-known that a Seat Leon with a Cupra badge meant you were getting the mechanical package of a Volkswagen Golf GTI with more power and at a significant discount.

Previous Cupra models were very pleasantly hooligany (and actually, as far as canny second-hand buys go, the last-generation 310hp 4WD Leon Cupra ST estate is a pretty good one), but how will people take to the change in attitude and mission statement?

As with so much in live, all things change and yet they stay the same. Or as The Who rather more succinctly put it, meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Seat is reinventing Cupra to be its torch-bearer into the electric world, so, with the exception of the old Cupra Ateca SUV, the entire range will now be available in plugin-hybrid form, and in the very near future in fully-electric form.

The total power outputs make for impressive reading, as do the on-paper ecofacts – a claimed 35g/km of CO2, with a 52km electric-only range, and claimed fuel economy of just 1.4 litres per 100km. So it's a hot hatch with a conscience

So this new Cupra Leon hatchback is actually a plugin-hybrid, mixing and matching a 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine with a 13kWh battery and an external charging port.


The total power outputs make for impressive reading – 245hp and 400Nm of torque. Impressive, too, are the on-paper ecofacts – a claimed 35g/km of CO2, with a 52km electric-only range, and claimed fuel economy of just 1.4 litres per 100km. So it’s a hot hatch with an ecoconscience.

That seems all new, but then you realise that once again the Cupra Leon is basically taking the same setup as used by the new VW Golf GTE (and, for that matter, the Skoda Octavia RS PHEV), and suddenly it all seems the same again.

There’s more new-for-old-for-new in the fact that Cupra is now – officially, and you get lightly ticked-off by Seat people for forgetting it – its own, separate, discrete brand now. The badge is no longer a stylised Seat S but a sort of double-pronged atomic fork that looks either like something you’d get in a tattoo parlour or possibly a prop from a Klingon-heavy episode of Star Trek.

Cupra's uniqueness is underlined by the fact that it now has its own brand-specific models – the handsome Formentor crossover, which is on sale now, and the Tavascan and Born electric cars, which will be on sale in due course – but is equally undermined by the fact that this Leon is, well, a Leon, and recognisably the same basic car that you can buy in Seat-badged form with a humble 1.0-litre engine.

So it’s confusing. And it doesn’t get any less confusing when you drive it. You’ve got to say, I reckon, that this Cupra Leon really looks the hot-hatch part, with its matte-grey paint, the neatly-integrated bodykit, the mesh grille, and the menacing-looking 19-inch alloy wheels. Those wheels will, you assume, wreck the ride quality. Previously we’ve driven a standard Seat Leon on 18-inch wheels, and that nearly had us booked into the osteopath, so hard was its ride.

Not so, though. Actually, whoever is wielding the spanners at Cupra deserves some sort of ride-quality medal for the Leon’s chassis settings – even with the big wheels it rides with exceptional decorum and comfort. Which is not to say that it’s soft, but it is never uncomfortable or jarring. Bravo, Cupra.

It’s also lacking a little bit of animalistic behaviour in the performance department. The claimed 0-100km/h time of 6.7secs is solid, and it’s certainly not slow, but there’s none of the peeling-your-eyelids-off thrust that you expect from a hot-hatch with 245hp.

The Cupra Leon instead parcels out its power more discreetly than that, shoving you forward with conviction, but not violence. Is that a good thing? Well, that’s debatable. Presumably there is the kind of car-buyer (basically me 20 years ago if I’d had any money) that has the need for speed, and doubtless the 300hp petrol-only version of the Cupra Leon would provide just that.

This PHEV version, though, feels more measured, more balanced, more of an all-rounder. Show it a tight, twisty road and it sheds its extra kilos – it’s carrying an extra 100kg compared to the petrol-only model – and feels accurate, agile and engaging. It’s never quite thrilling, though. It never grabs you by the scruff of your neck, nor encourages you to do the same to it, and really attack the road ahead.

The Cupra Leon's measured approach pays dividends when you're on longer journeys, where you appreciate the high-quality cabin and wonderfully comfortable bucket seats

Again this is not necessarily a bad thing. The Cupra Leon’s more measured approach pays dividends when you’re on longer journeys, where you appreciate more the high-quality cabin and the wonderfully comfortable high-backed bucket seats.

Or when you’re decanting children and dogs into it, and no one is complaining about a rough-edged ride nor exhausting tyre noise on a long journey.

Again, though, I’m not sure how this is going to play. The Cupra Leon was a car that very definitely grew on me during my time with it, but it still, to me, feels like a bit of a mixed bag.

It’s impressive in so many ways, although there are niggles – with options its price tag is uncomfortably close to €50,000, the software for the central touchscreen is still infuriating, and it struggled to better 8.0-litres per 100km when you’re driving with a discharged battery, although you should easily be able to top 40km from a fully-charged battery.

Actually, I think its biggest problem will be convincing people that, no, Cupra really is its own thing now, even if it is still making hot Leons with VW parts.

Lowdown: Cupra Leon PHEV VZ2

Power: 1.4-litre petrol engine plus plugin-hybrid electric module putting out 245hp and 400Nm of torque with a six-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive
CO2 emissions (annual motor tax): 35g/km (€140)
Electric range: 68km. L/100km (MPG) 1.4 (201)
0-100km/h: 6.7 seconds
Price: €49,042 as tested; Cupra Leon starts at €46,210
Verdict: Softer and gentler than you'd expect. Is that a bad thing, we wonder?

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in motoring