Seat (pronounced Say-at) celebrates another milestone this year, as it is 60 years since it was founded as the Sociedad Española de Automóviles de Turismo. Despite making some memorable cars, the Spanish firm spent decades teetering on the brink until Volkswagen came to its rescue, buying half of it in 1986 and the rest in 1990 with a £4bn-plus investment.
Volkswagen crouches over the car-building landscape like Simon Cowell presides over the world of pop. VW’s fingerprints are all over Europe’s bestsellers and its ability to manipulate the market borders on omnipotence. VW uses its vast power to guarantee cost effectiveness and technical excellence. It uses car brands to create economies of scale in the same way other manufacturers treat different models. For instance, if you buy a Mercedes you’ll see the same dashboard dials on the A-Class through to the E-Class. Buy a new Audi A1, however, and you’re getting a gussied-up VW Polo, which is a smarter Seat Ibiza, which is in turn a tarted-up Skoda Fabia. For good measure, VW also owns a big chunk of Suzuki as well as all of Bentley, Bugatti and Lamborghini – though clearly you won’t find, say, a Skoda ashtray used in the £1m Bugatti. But you may find a Bugatti owner using a Skoda as an ashtray…
So the Seat Leon (pronounced Lay-on) is in fact an Audi A3, which is a Golf, and so on… But the top-flight Leon – the Cupra R – really is something unique. There are almost 20 Leon variants – from the 1.2 Leon TSi, yours for 12 grand, to the green-minded 1.6 Leon Ecomotive, just under £14,776 and delivering a wallet-warming 74.3 miles to the gallon, and topping out with the Cupra R.
The flagship motor may look much the same as its lower-ranking siblings, but it is the fastest production car Seat has ever built. Its acceleration is so sparkling, so unexpected, that your stomach spends much of any journey in the back seat. The exhilarating zip is all thanks to its remarkable 261bhp engine – the same engine that appears in Audi’s S3 and Golf’s R. At £25,205, the Cupra R costs twice as much as the cheapest Leon – but it’s still cheaper than the S3 and the Golf R. In fact, in the steamy world of the hot hatch, this Leon has a reputation for being a bit of a bargain. It has all the vim and verve of the market leaders, but it’s £5,000 less.
The real price of raw, knuckle-whitening speed is usually nausea and an unforgiving ride. But the Cupra R manages to be fast, furious – and comfortable. And you don’t need to be Ruth Lawrence to work out why that’s a winning formula.