Cupra is off to a hot start in Australia.
The Spanish brand, spun off from SEAT under the Volkswagen Group umbrella, is on track to deliver more than 1000 cars this year after officially opening orders in the middle of 2022, and is holding enough orders to do 500 more than that again.
The strongest seller so far is the Formentor SUV, but it’s been ably supported by the Leon hatchback on test here.
We’ve already driven the range-topping VZx and the plug-in hybrid VZe, now we’re hopping behind the wheel of the mid-range Leon VZ.
Under the skin, the VZ shares its oily bits with one of the world’s best-known hot hatches: the Volkswagen Golf GTI.
It’s not a carbon copy. Along with its more angular exterior, the Leon has a unique interior relative to its more demure German cousin, and the engineers at Cupra HQ in Barcelona say they’ve delivered a slightly livelier, more characterful drive.
The Leon is also meaningfully cheaper than the Golf. Sounds tasty.
How much does the Cupra Leon VZ cost?
The Leon VZ has a drive-away price of $57,490 nationwide, and a list price of $52,990 before on-roads.
It’s $6000 cheaper than than VZe plug-in hybrid, and $8000 cheaper than the VZx flagship. It undercuts the Volkswagen Golf GTI ($54,990, excluding $3900 Premium Package) with which it shares its platform and drivetrain.
It also takes on the Hyundai i30 Hatch N DCT ($49,200). The Ford Focus ST is gone from Australia, the Renault Megane RS is on its way out, and the Honda Civic Type R is a more serious beast, with a manual transmission and a price tag starting with a seven.
2023 Cupra Leon VZ pricing:
- Cupra Leon V: $43,990 ($47,990 drive-away)
- Cupra Leon VZ: $52,990 ($57,490 drive-away)
- Cupra Leon VZe: $60,490 (varies by state)
- Cupra Leon VZx: $61,490 ($65,490 drive-away)
Prices exclude on-road costs
What is the Cupra Leon VZ like on the inside?
The Leon is essentially a Spanish cousin to the Golf, and it feels it behind the wheel. That’s not to say it’s a carbon copy, though.
The fundamentals are excellent. Driver and passenger sit in sporty seats with plenty of bolstering, and tall drivers won’t have trouble getting comfortable.
Although the standard seats are trimmed in what feels like quality cloth, our tester had supple leather trim and heating thanks to the Leather and Sound Package.
It’s a box worth ticking, because with the nicer seats and sound system it brings the Leon feels like quite a premium little hatchback.
It’d be nice if the seats dropped lower to really deliver a sporty feel, but otherwise there isn’t much to complain about.
As you’d expect of a modern Volkswagen Group cabin, screens are the showpiece here. The touchscreen is a 12-inch unit running Cupra’s take on the software rolled out across the VW Golf and Skoda Octavia ranges, along with the same touch sliders below for volume and temperature control.
Points to Cupra for allowing owners to drop a widget on the home screen to control fan speed for the air-con, and for making shortcut buttons prominent – it’s easier to jump around the system than in the Golf – but it’s fiddly at times.
It’s also harder than it really should be to change drive modes. You need to dive through sub-menus in the mid-range VZ to find Sport or Cupra, which seems like a weird oversight for a brand that wants to be overtly sporty.
We’d love a prominent button on the dashboard, or a shortcut button to sit permanently on the touchscreen so you can flick into Sport more easily.
The digital cockpit is handsome, and features unique graphics in keeping with Cupra’s sportier remit. The steering wheel itself feels great in your hands, and has proper buttons instead of the touch controls rolling out elsewhere.
It’ll all feel familiar to anyone who’s been in a Golf before, but it does have a distinct flavour that’s unique to Cupra.
Rear seat space is about par for the class. The chunky seats with their one-piece backrests block forward visibility, but kids will be able to get comfortable back there without too much stress.
Average-sized adults will be able to slot back there as well, although the bigger Formentor or Ateca are better options if you’re lugging people around regularly.
Dual ISOFIX points and three top-tether points for child seats feature back there, along with a fold-down central armrest, air vents, and dual USB-C points.
The claimed 380L of boot space is up 6L on what you get in a Golf GTI, and the load bay itself is a broad space that’s easy enough to load awkward items into.
What’s under the bonnet?
Power in the Leon VZ comes from a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine (the EA888 engine used throughout the Volkswagen Group) making 180kW and 370Nm.
It’s sent to the front wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. The 100km/h sprint takes a claimed 6.4 seconds.
Claimed fuel economy is 6.7 litres per 100km on the combined cycle, we saw 8.1L/100km on a highway run with a healthy dose of spirited driving thrown in.
Premium 95 RON unleaded fuel is required as a minimum, and the fuel tank holds 50 litres.
How does the Cupra Leon VZ drive?
The Leon VZ is a nicely balanced take on the hot hatch formula.
Locked in Comfort mode it’s a capable daily driver. Ride quality is better than you’d expect on pockmarked roads, and the turbocharged engine has bags of torque.
You can mooch around without dipping too far into the throttle’s travel, and it has enough punch to keep up with traffic without ever really feeling stressed.
The dual-clutch transmission is smooth off the mark, and shuffles unobtrusively through the gears at a cruise. As has long been the case with Volkswagen Group hot hatches, the performance doesn’t really come with any compromise on the daily grind.
It has light, direct steering and decent all-round visibility, so it’s easy to slot into tight spaces, and the suite of cameras and sensors means there’s no excuse to scrape those pretty wheels.
With that said, the Leon falls into a familiar trap on Australian highways. With the cruise set to 100km/h there’s a lot of road roar from the 19-inch wheels, forcing you to crank the stereo to drown it out.
It’s not a dealbreaker – the same issue afflicts premium European hatches like the Mercedes-Benz A-Class and Audi A3 – but it’s the most noticeable issue in what’s otherwise a very refined package.
A full suite of active driver assists is on hand to keep a gap to the vehicle in front, keep you between the white lines, and warn of hidden obstacles in your blind-spot at highway speeds, all of which are smartly calibrated.
Cupra gives you Sport and Cupra modes, but you can also configure the car using an Individual mode.
The adaptive dampers can be toggled through a huge range of tunes, from more relaxed than in Comfort to firmer than in the most aggressive Cupra mode; while the steering, engine, and exhaust are all configurable as well.
On the bumpy back roads between Melbourne and Haunted Hills, everything locked in the most aggressive Cupra mode except the suspension, which was set somewhere between Comfort and Sport, was the right mix.
Set up as such the Leon is a fun, fast way to cover ground. The front end is keen to turn, body roll is kept nicely in check even with the adaptive dampers set up with a focus on compliance.
The steering is accurate and direct, so it’s easy to place the car where you want it, and there’s plenty of torque on tap to drag you out of corners from low in the rev range.
It’s still not as lively as a Focus ST, but it does feel more adjustable than a GTI.
The rear end is more in play under brakes or when you lift off the throttle, but it still feels approachable – it’s tied down, but offers more leeway to play with. That’s a good space to occupy.
Shifts from the seven-speed transmission are sharp in Cupra mode, and pulling the plastic paddles behind the wheel elicits an instant response. When you take charge with the paddles the car will actually stay in the gear you’ve chosen unless it absolutely can’t.
Cupra has tuned the fake sound in the car to be a bit different from what you get elsewhere in the Volkswagen Group, and it does have a character of its own.
What do you get?
Leon V highlights:
- 18-inch alloy wheels
- LED headlights
- LED daytime running lights
- Fog lights with cornering function
- LED tail lights
- Automatic headlights
- Automatic high-beam
- Rain-sensing wipers
- Rear tinted windows
- 10.25-inch Digital Cockpit cluster
- 12-inch touchscreen infotainment display
- Wireless Apple CarPlay, Android Auto
- Wireless phone charger
- 4 x USB-C ports
- Heated, leather-wrapped steering wheel
- Heated, power folding side mirrors
- Paddle shifters
- Configurable ambient lighting
- Black headliner
- Cloth sports bucket seats in Black
- Driver profile selection
- Dynamic Chassis Control
- Progressive steering
- Keyless entry and start
- Auto-dimming rear-view mirror
- 3-zone climate control
- Illuminated sill panels
- Aluminium pedals
- Semi-autonomous parking assist
Leon VZ adds:
- 19-inch black-and-silver alloy wheels
Power sunroof: $1800 (all models)
Leather and Sound package: $2450 (V, VZ)
- Leather upholstery
- Heated front seats
- Power driver’s seat with memory
- Mirror memory
- Dashboard with copper-coloured stitching
- 9-speaker Beats sound system
Is the Cupra Leon VZ safe?
The Cupra Leon wears a five-star ANCAP safety rating, based on Euro NCAP testing conducted on the SEAT Leon in 2020.
It received an adult occupant protection rating of 91 per cent, a child occupant protection rating of 88 per cent, a vulnerable road user protection rating of 71 per cent, and a safety assist rating of 80 per cent.
Standard safety equipment includes:
- 10 airbags incl. front-centre, driver’s knee
- AEB incl. Pedestrian, Cyclist detection
- Adaptive cruise control with stop/go
- Blind-spot monitoring
- Rear cross-traffic alert
- Driver fatigue monitoring
- Lane keep assist
- Proactive passenger protection (pre-cash)
- Reversing camera
- Safe exit warning
- Travel Assist (adaptive cruise + lane centring)
How much does the Cupra Leon VZ cost to run?
The Cupra Leon is covered by a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty.
Cupra also throws in three years of complementary scheduled servicing with all models, which represents a saving of around $1200-$1500 based on what Skoda and Volkswagen charge.
You can add a two-year Service Pack to extend coverage to five years or 75,000 kilometres – pricing for petrol models is $1200.
CarExpert’s Take on the Cupra Leon VZ
The Leon VZ delivers on the promise set out by Cupra.
It takes tried and tested Volkswagen Group bones and adds a bit of spice, with the added bonus of undercutting its corporate cousins on price. Throw in the fact it’s a good looking alternative to the mainstream with a nicely appointed interior, and it’s easy to see the appeal.
Although it doesn’t have the same sense of mongrel about it as the VZx we drove earlier in 2022, the VZ still has enough of an edge to keep keen drivers engaged without undermining its daily drivability.
Should you cancel that Golf GTI order and head to your local Cupra Garage? If you want to stand out from the crowd, there’s no harm in having a look.
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MORE: Everything Cupra Leon