Words & photos - Daniel Bevis
276bhp. For car fans of a certain age, that’s a very significant figure. As we strove to rise through the ranks of the original iteration of Gran Turismo, the training-wheels Mazda Demio a fading memory, we reached for the automotive stars toward a galaxy of Japanese supernovae. The Honda NSX, the R32 Nissan Skyline GT-R, the deliciously obscure Subaru Impreza 22B, they were all subject to the gentleman’s agreement of Japanese manufacturers – the actual headline power figure was immaterial: from an official standpoint, they all had 276bhp. It was an important number.
Of course, time marches on and makes fools of us all. 276 is a pedestrian figure today, isn’t it? It’s not as if horsepower is rationed out to those most in need, it’s an abundant commodity. If it can be feasibly shoehorned into a sensible family hatchback, then why not, eh?
No, that’s an awful avenue of thought. Abandon that. Horsepower is brilliant, and we should count ourselves bloody lucky that today’s Golf equivalent can offer the sort of thrust that our teenage selves spent weeks on end saving up the credits to buy virtual facsimiles of. That SEAT’s magnificent León Cupra 280 manages to combine this ethereal grunt with everyday usability, sensible fuel economy, an even idle, and generous service intervals is frankly some kind of modern miracle.
And if your perceptions of front-wheel drive performance are still mired in Saab’s infamous early-noughties assertion that 250bhp was the technical limit before the whole thing imploded under the crushing volatility of its own torque-steer, think again. The Cupra 280 has a magical diff that’s artfully hewn from octarine and stardust, ensuring that you can bury the throttle at any quantity of revs, in any gear, and the damn thing just tears off toward the horizon like a retriever with the scent of fresh partridge in its nostrils. It can send up to 100% of the torque to either front wheel if need be. You don’t need to check that your thumbs are clear of the steering wheel spokes first in case it spins like a Catherine wheel – this is modern FWD performance wrapped up in a veneer of sensibleness. It all just works. It’s not trying to hurt you.
Of course, it’s not totally sensible. How could it be? That mighty, supercars-of-yore bhp figure combines with the otherworldy DSG ’box to hurtle the thing from standstill to 62mph in a befuddling 5.7 seconds. The León’s limited – limited! – to 155mph. It sounds hilarious, it accelerates like a cheetah with a burning tail, and the fancy suspension setup – slightly lowered all round, with a lovely new multi-link effort at the rear – combines with the dinner-plate-sized brakes to create a fabulously eager chassis. Oh, and if you push the ‘Cupra’ button, which firms up the dampers and sharpens the throttle response, the doorcards glow red. It’s a real wolf in hatchback’s clothing. It’s just gorgeous to drive, urging you to push it further and further toward the very bleeding edge of adhesion, that hyper-intelligent turbo forcing ever-more vast gobs of fresh air into the generously fuelled cylinders. It howls, it flies, it… suddenly calms down when you reach a village, allowing you to amble through sensibly and unobtrusively, annoying the local vicar by holding him up at a sedate pace. And when you reach the national speed limit markers, all hell breaks loose once again. Hydrocarbons collide, rubber molecules atomise, lubricated metals enmesh, and SEAT’s absurdly entertaining über-hatch makes a laughable mockery of the very fabric of physics itself.
Yes, I like this car. Rather a lot. If you get the chance, I urge you to try it – I think you’ll like it too.