2016 SEAT Leon ST Cupra 290 Review
SEAT’s Leon Cupra Estate now has more power and extra driver aids but is it enough to beat the Golf R?
What do we have here?
The pinnacle of the three and five-door Leon coupe and hatchback is the Cupra model and now the ST, or five-door estate to you and me, has been given the latest range-topping treatment in the form of the Cupra 290.
It replaces the Cupra 280 and, yes you’ve guessed it, that change in numbers signifies an increase in power. The Cupra is powered by a 2.0-litre petrol engine that develops 286bhp, up by 10bhp over the previous model.
That’s not all that’s new as the Cupra 290 gets performance-enhancing technology which aims to make the Leon ST more engaging to drive. As standard, you now get a locking front differential, dynamic chassis control and progressive steering.
And so that every knows you’re in the latest Cupra, SEAT has bolted on some 19in alloy wheels while this Black Edition gets special black detailing and inside there are some rather scrumptious bucket seats.
How does it drive?
This is a relatively compact estate with a huge 286bhp on tap, so it’s unsurprising that it’s quick - very quick. Sixty-two miles-per-hour from stationary is dispatched in just 5.9 seconds and it’ll keep pushing on to a top speed of 155mph.
And it’s the wide power and torque band, 1700rpm to 5800rpm, that makes this engine so usable. In most situations, you’ll find it has an answer for your every need. From a quick getaway to overtaking, little catches out the Cupra 290.
It’s all connected to a six-speed DSG automatic gearbox, which at low speeds can be a little clunky but after that, the gear changes are super-quick and satisfyingly smooth. As well as having the option to leave it in auto-mode, letting the gearbox do all the work, there an override function for manual gearshifts either through the gear lever or the steering wheel-mounted paddles.
Those paddles are eternally useful for either quickly flicking down a gear or two to utilise some engine braking as you approach a corner or roundabout, or to being able to grip the wheel tightly as you exploit the Cupra’s road holding prowess.
Choice is a great thing and the Cupra provides it in bucket loads. Want to be in a decent handling hot-hatch with a comfortable ride with a peppy engine response? Then leave the SEAT Cupra Drive Profile in Normal mode.
If, however you want to turn your practical estate into a raging bull, then go for Sport or Cupra mode.
First off, you’ll hear the bull snorting through the rear exhausts, then you’ll notice the gearbox has automatically kicked down and gear or two. The steering will stiffen and the suspension firm up, while the sight of a hairpin, masquerading as a provocative matador, beckons you to charge.
Through the bends the ST grips exceptionally well and portrays little sign of body roll, maintaining a feeling of agility.
The progressive steering is excellent. At low speed it helps with manoeuvring, as the wheel is light to turn making it easy to park or drive around town. As speeds rise though it becomes firmer, giving the feeling of being planted and fixed to the road as you commit to sharper bends. It’s accurate too, allowing you to position the car exactly where you want.
Traditionally, more expensive and powerful cars are driven by their rear wheels, while lesser-powered cars, typically your family hatchbacks, are front wheel drive. This is to leave the front wheels to do all the steering and the back to do the propulsion. Too much power being sent to the front can overpower the limits of traction and can cause torque-steer.
The Leon is front-wheel-driven and to counter the effects of all the power going through those wheels, SEAT has fitted the Cupra with a front differential. The differential detects when a wheel loses traction and can send more power to the other wheel for optimum grip.
Even so, the Cupra still suffers from excessive wheelspin at low speed and when pulling away from junctions, while torque steer also has its wicked way, making the steering wheel dance under harder acceleration.
What's it like inside?
The SEAT Leon has one of the clearest and easiest to use interiors of any modern day production car. It’s simple, uncluttered and spacious while you’ll find everything where it should be. It also feels well screwed together with decent materials, although it does lack some sparkle and the materials are on the darker side.
For this performance car to stand out, SEAT has scattered Cupra badges throughout the interior, there’s a chequered-flag finish to the instrument dials, a flat-bottomed steering wheel and those Alcantara bucket seats, which will keep you in a vice-like hold to prevent you rolling about.
In the back, some knee space has been lost to the bucket seats, which are rather deep, however there’s loads of room otherwise.
Tilt the SEAT badge on the boot lid to open the cavernous boot, which is square and has a flat adjustable height floor.
Pull one of the two levers and the rear seats will drop, extending the load space, with only a slight rising of the boot floor the further forward you go.
Performance cars are rarely cheap to run as the temptation to use the available power is often too great to resist. Also, to keep the car on the road, there’s usually an expensive set of tyres on the large alloy wheels while insurance companies are happy to put them into a higher banding.
The Cupra has a claimed combined fuel economy cycle of 42.8mpg, however we returned around the 30mpg mark after a couple of days of mixed road driving.
With CO2 emissions of 154g/km, that means an annual road tax of £185, with company car users getting a 27% BIK banding.
Insurance companies have the ST Cupra Black in band 35E.
A set of four new tyres for the 19in alloys on this ST Cupra Black will cost from around £590.
As with all new SEAT cars, you get a three-year 60,000 miles manufactures warranty.
The SEAT Leon ST Cupra is a hugely accomplished and loveable car that fully deserves your consideration.
It’s full of character, is comfortable, practical and has the ability to be a lunatic, all at the same time. The ST does feel a little more composed and grown-up than its hatchback and coupe siblings, though.
Our biggest bugbear is the lack of low-speed traction due to all that power being sent to the front wheels.
It’s also rather distracting that a VW Golf R Estate is only £1670 more expensive than the ST Cupra and gets a more premium badge, nicer interior and most importantly, four-wheel-drive. It’s also one of our favourite cars.
If you went for the ST Cupra though, we doubt you’d be disappointed, although the non-Black version will save you circa £1,000 while the lesser powered but hugely entertaining FR is also worth considering at £24,040.
Driver's Seat Rating:
4 out of 5
It's worth considering:
Ford Focus ST Estate
SEAT Leon ST 1.8
2016 Seat Leon ST Cupra 290 Black DSG Stats:
Engine: 1984cc turbo petrol;
Transmission: 6-speed automatic;
Torque: 258lb ft;
Top speed: 155mph;
Economy: (official combined): 42.8mpg;
CO2/tax band: 154g/km;
BIK band: 27%;
Insurance Group: 35E;
Kerb weight: 1466kg;
Warranty: 3-years, 60,000 miles.