First Drive - SEAT Leon ST Cupra 290 Black DSG

I have a personal rule at the moment. That rule is never to turn down an offer to drive a new car so when SEAT unexpectedly offered me the keys to the most powerful car they make and as long as I wanted around Millbrook there was no way I was turning them down.

The Car

SEAT Leon Cupra 290 Black

SEAT Leon Cupra 290 Black

The current, third generation SEAT Leon has been around since 2011 and shares its MQB platform with the current VW Golf (Mk7), Audi A3 (Mk3) and Skoda Octavia (Mk3). Unlike the previous two generations of Leon, the Mk3 is available as both a three-door hatchback; the Leon SC; and five-door estate; the ST, driven here; as well as the core five-door hatchback.
The Leon ST Cupra 290 Black DSG tested here is, until the Ateca launch later this year, the flagship SEAT.

The Looks

The Spoiler, bumper insert and twin exhausts mark this out as a Cupra 290

The Spoiler, bumper insert and twin exhausts mark this out as a Cupra 290

The Leon ST follows the current SEAT-flavour of the VW Group design language. It has handsome proportions with crisp edges, but the extra length of the ST rear overhang hasn't been entirely disguised. That said, it's a good looking transformation from hatchback to estate.
The exterior changes are subtle - the nineteen-inch alloys; revised, more muscular front bumper; a rear bumper with a dark lower panel and space for the twin, squared-off exhaust pipes are relatively easy to spot, but the red brake callipers, black mirrors housings and tinted rear windows are significantly less obvious. This is not a car that's going to attract undue attention and for most people that will probably not be an issue.
It's also worth mentioning that unless you want your Leon ST FR 290 Black in red (yes, I know), you have to pay a colour tax of £575.

Comfortable front sports seats eat into rear legroom

Comfortable front sports seats eat into rear legroom

The Inside

Luggage space is large, flat and easy to access

Luggage space is large, flat and easy to access

As with the exterior, the interior of the Leon follows the Seat variant of VW Group design language, with many buttons and controls instantly recognisable from VWs, Skodas and Audis. This isn't a problem, merely an observation.
The boot area is large, square and flat, but has little storage space underneath because of the full-size spare wheel. Many people will see that as a trade-off worth having for the extra peace of mind.
Space in the rear is reasonable, but in FR models such as the car I was driving the chunky front sports seats (more of them in a moment) do rob some of the rear legroom, something worth bearing in mind if rear seat space is a requirement.
Up front, there are no such compromises. The aforementioned sports seats, with their Alcantara facings and leather bolsters, hold the driver and front passenger firmly in place and give the impression that they'd be a comfortable place to stay for many hours at a time. There are no adjustable squabs or bolsters - they're simply not needed.

The Controls

Flat-bottomed steering wheel aside, the front of the LEON is a comfortable, well laid out place to be

Flat-bottomed steering wheel aside, the front of the LEON is a comfortable, well laid out place to be

Just like my father's new Husqvarna garden tractor, the Leon ST Cupra has a flat-bottomed steering wheel. You know, "because race car". The steering wheel houses the only significant flaw in the control surfaces - the flappy paddles for the DSG are cheap-feeling plastic tabs.
I had some trouble getting the car back out of "Cupra Mode" after I'd been playing at Motoring Journalist by turning all the settings to 11, but in real life can be solved by reading the manual.
Otherwise, everything is about right. The seat, pedals and wheel are aligned, the dials are clear, and the single-zone climate control works just as you'd expect.

The Drive

VW Group's 2.0 TSi engine makes you question whether you need a Golf R after all

VW Group's 2.0 TSi engine makes you question whether you need a Golf R after all

Everything mentioned so far is just as expected, it's a car from Volkswagen Group after all. What I didn't expect is just how this car feels on the road. The engine is the same two-litre unit found in many VW products tuned to 290 DIN hp and 350 Nm of torque. In the test car, it was paired to the same slick 6-speed DSG gearbox found across most VW ranges.  The engine and gearbox work well together, with plenty of torque and perfectly timed shifts. It's as rapid as you'd expect too, with 62mph possible in 5.2 seconds and a limited top speed of 155mph.

The nerdy amongst you will notice that these numbers are remarkably similar to the Golf R with which it shares its engine and platform. Where the Cupra 290 varies from the Golf R is how it transfers its power to the tarmac. The Leon does without the Golf's all wheel drive and replaces it with a mechanical front limited slip differential.

While I haven't driven a Golf R, I was on the same portion of Millbrook at the same time as an enthusiastically driven Golf R estate and the Leon didn't shame itself. Turn-in was sharp, there was no wallow over Millbrook's crests, and it could corner hard enough to shift my camera mount. Most importantly it was fun. It was an unexpected amount of fun for an understated family estate.

The Conclusion

The Leon ST Cupra 290 Black is a surprising car. Drawn together from across VW's generic component bin it feels greater than the sum of its parts. Its performance and handling call into question the £5,000 premium that Volkswagen ask for the equivalent Golf R. If you like the looks and aren't adamant you need a German brand badge on your German-feeling car then this is very definitely a car worthy of your attention.

The SEAT Leon ST costs from £18,695 with the FR 290 starting at £29,675.