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Telegraph / Tech - Game

Seat Leon Cupra R: the best hot hatchback so far?

I have to admit that in doing this job for the last 30-plus years, there might have been very occasional times when I've broken the law.
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I have to admit that in doing this job for the last 30-plus years, there might have been very occasional times when I've broken the law. Not habitually, you understand, but just in the course of getting the story - it happens.

Right now I'm contemplating a stretch of public road, running 6.5km up a steep hill in Rubió in Catalonia, Spain. It's empty. I'm parked right in the middle. Blipping the engine, getting a feel of the clutch weight and bite. Think the opening scene of Baby Driver, with a stiff dusty wind replacing the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's Bell Bottoms soundtrack.

Slot first gear and breathe. 

Now! Side-step the clutch and feel the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres bite into the abrasive blacktop; slipping on dust, biting and slipping again. The engine races with an angry rasp, the nose darting each way.

Slot second and back on it. Third, then fourth, each change firing a thimble of fuel down the exhaust which crackles and spalls against the rocks. Well over 100mph, brake hard for the first corner and turn.

The grip is phenomenal - and with 306bhp to play with you need all the traction you can get

I can see a tractor and a bird of prey swirling as the tyres nip and rush, just on the edge of adhesion. The speed limit here is 50kph, I'm doing 120, dancing on the brink. Somewhere a bell is tolling. Just hope there's nothing coming the other way...

This is the new Cupra R, a study in going fast from Seat Sport, Catalan purveyors of quick stuff. It'll be on the rarest sights on UK roads, even if you could catch it. With its copper highlights and gorgeous matt-grey bodywork, which we won't get as it's thousands of pounds extra, this car is a rare thing indeed.

Snatched as a half-finished Leon Cupra off the Martorell production line and wheeled across the road into Seat Sport's workshops, it gets bodywork additions including carbon-fibre details on the front and rear spoilers, side skirts and a rear diffuser. The front wheelarches are widened and there are copper-coloured details including the mirrors.

The standard Leon bodyshell gains carbon-fibre details on the front and rear spoilers, side skirts and a rear diffuser. The front wheelarches are widened, too

Less obvious are the new front uprights that alter the front-wheel camber angles, a complete new exhaust system, re-calibrated software, those Michelins on 19-inch rims and monster ventilated and drilled front discs clamped by four-pot Brembo calipers. Inside,there's copper stitching for the front bucket seats and matching dash and door highlights.

It looks pretty good, too, although it's a shame about that paint not being available here. The car is almost invisible as well, which is very good news if you are going very fast on a public road. Which I am.

The Cupra R has the supple, almost rubbery responses of a seriously quick road car, but even though we're going very, very fast, the chassis feels nowhere near its limits. On the tighter sections of this road, it’s a job to keep your reactions ahead of the car, positioning is everything, but the corners come up so fast you are sometimes just holding on, going as fast as you dare, dimly aware of the blurred pines, umber  Montserrat rocks and the jinking, shuddering tyres.

Even so it’s a faithful friend; the Cupra R is helping, guiding and encouraging as you throw it onwards, faster and ever faster.

There are a few copper-coloured highlights inside, otherwise it's standard Leon - which means an eminently practical five-door family hatchback

There's a new mode for the dynamic chassis selection, Cupra; noisier, more taut. The Volkswagen Group EA888 turbo petrol engine has been given a few more revs and an additional 10bhp over its standard stablemate's 296bhp. It sounds slightly muted, but purposeful, and when it digs so deep at around 4,500rpm and beyond there’s a lovely whooshing menace to it.

I can't see the orange-lit instruments well so I don't try and opt to change by ear, throwing it into a series of blind second-gear corners. The new front uprights and negative camber give an eagerness to the turn-in and though such suspension geometry tweaks can have the effect of destroying delicate feedback, in fact there’s more than enough understanding coming up through the steering.

Having said that, the negative-camber, wheels-out stance can make the car feel twitchy through bends and sure enough Cupra R keeps you busy at the wheel, but it doesn't feel nervous. Part of the calmness comes from the active limited-slip differential, which helps the car turn, but also takes the edge off the nervousness.

The R gains lovely copper flashes to distinguish it from the standard Cupra. The UK won't get the distinctive matt grey paintwork, however

And the front-end bite is phenomenal, so much so that when you dive for the apex you’re fearful of lifting off in case the back wheels over take the fronts and the car spins. Fear not, however, because in the main this is a point-and-squirt machine and those extraordinary Michelins hang on with grim persistence even when you dab the brakes half-way through the turn, although after a morning doing this sort of thing the Michelins look as though they’ve been gnawed by rats.

You don’t get quite that pushed-into-the-road feel you get in the be-winged Honda Civic Type R, but it rides pretty well. You aren’t really aware of the 20kg of aerodynamic force pushing you down, although small bumps on the motorway will have the back end bunny-hopping along in sympathy if you inadvertently leave the settings in Cupra mode. Slacken it off and you could live with this car as a daily driver.

Driven this hard, you need to have care for the clutch since it’s easy to miss synchronizing the pedal lift and throttle opening when pressing on, resulting in a tiny spike of over-revs.

The grip from revised front suspension and Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres has to be experienced to be believed

And those seats are really lovely, with great side support, but none of that horrible shoulder-pushing of rivals, just a firm cradling.

The rest of the car is pretty much standard Leon, a usefully proportioned family hatchback. People can fit in the back, the 380-litre boot is big enough for their luggage and the fuel consumption (when not driving it like a lunatic) is quoted at 38mpg.

How rare? Seat Sport is building just 799 - and it rebuffs all suggestions that it will do another series like Renault did with its over-subscribed Clio Williams model in the Nineties, which ended up being three distinct series and more than 12,000 cars. Of that number, the UK will get only 24.

On a suitably winding road, there's little to touch the Catalan missile

This is Seat Sport's first limited-edition car and it's easy to confuse a car's rarity with its desirability and its quality of greatness. The changes to the standard Cupra aren't huge, but on the road they amount to a lot.

Of course, you'll have guessed by now that Seat had closed the road, so this was effectively an authorised and marshalled rally special stage. But the drive was so utterly engaging that I hadn't noticed at the start that I'd forgotten to fasten my seatbelt and the tolling bell was the warning chime.

It's a measure of this extraordinary Seat's greatness, that I simply hadn't noticed...

THE FACTS

Seat Leon Cupra R

TESTED 1,984cc, four-cylinder turbo petrol, six-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive

PRICE/ON SALE from £34,995/now  

POWER/TORQUE 306bhp @ 5,800rpm/280lb ft @ 1,800rpm

TOP SPEED 155mph

ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 5.8sec

FUEL ECONOMY 38.7mpg (EU Combined)

CO2 EMISSIONS 170g/km

VED £500 first year, then £140

VERDICT Not a huge amount of changes for Seat's family hot hatch, but what a transformation. Thoroughly engaging to drive, powerful and hugely desirable, the Leon Cupra R is also a viable daily driver. What a shame they won't build more.

TELEGRAPH RATING Five stars out of five

THE RIVALS

Honda Civic Type R, from £32,995

Amazing be-winged monster is the fastest in its its class around the Nurburgring Nordschleife and a genuinely super-fast hatchback, with real downforce and a screaming Honda engine. Trouble is, could you honestly live with those looks?

BMW M140i, from £33,680

The purists' choice, and its lovely six-cylinder turbo engine is hard to argue against, but this base car doesn't come with a lot of kit, the chassis isn't quite as focussed as the Seat or Honda's and it's rear-wheel drive; can you cope, honestly?

Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S, from £34,495

Criticisms of the over-finessed feeling of the Golf GTI are justified - except for this rarefied version, which is extraordinarily focused and with a chassis set-up that is spot on. The only problem is the 4x4 Golf R ,which is just as fast and costs the same.

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