Thruxton is the United Kingdom's fastest racing circuit. Located about an hour-and-a-half southwest of London, this sweeping twist of tarmac is a throwback to the days when circuits looked and felt dangerous-the run-off areas end, quite literally, in a hedge.
It's as much a test of the driver's manhood as it is of the car, which is why we're here to drive the new Seat Leon Cupra R. Boasting Volkswagen's familiar 1.8t engine tuned to 210 bhp, this is the car the Spanish company hopes will finally establish it as a major player in the sport compact car arena.
This engine was originally used in the Audi S3, which is also built on the same VW Golf-derived platform as the Leon, so think of the Leon Cupra R as a hotrod Golf, the GTI we don't get or as a poor man's Audi S3, minus the quattro drivetrain. In the UK, the Cupra R sells for 16,995 ($26,350), which is $11,000 cheaper than an S3, and $4,651 less than the new Ford Focus RS, but $1,550 more than a Honda Civic Type-R.
The simple, elegant lines of the Leon absorb the bold body kit. The front end is particularly aggressive, where a redesigned bumper incorporates a small aerodynamic splitter and a pair of poly-elliptical fog lamps. This assembly also hides the larger vents necessary to cool the twin front intercoolers, which are unique to the R.
It's a dramatic effect enhanced by the lowered suspension. The longitudinal arms and coil springs at the rear of the R sit 6mm closer to the ground than they do on the standard Cupra, and the bumpers are 45mm lower. Deep side skirts link the front and rear and complement the extended wheelwell moldings, which are necessary to accommodate the 225/40ZR-18 Pirelli P Zero Rossos.
This rubber frames twin-five-spoke alloys, which give a good view of the Brembo red, four-pot calipers. The discs are also suitably vast-12.6 in. at the front and 10 in. at the rear.
The bold theme is completed by the chopped tailgate, which incorporates a deep-set bumper arrangement and a discreet lip spoiler at the top of the hatchback. There's also a bold Cupra R badge located south of the right taillight.
While the outside of our test car is yellow, everything inside is black. Red stitching on the steering wheel and gearstick and optional Recaro seats spice up the interior.
2003 Seat Leon Cupra R
210 of Seat, Volkswagen and Audi horsepower
Out on the track we focus on the Complex, a tricky right-left-right called Campbell, Cobb and Segrave, respectively, that follows the pit straight and precedes a flat-out blast. Getting the corners right requires compromise: Enter Campbell too quickly, and you'll understeer wide, making a mess of the entry into Cobb.
To improve the Leon's athleticism, the R uses a new front sub-frame mounted to the chassis using Silentbloc bushings, a thinner (19mm) front anti-roll bar and quicker steering rack.
At the rear, increased spring and damper ratings are accompanied by Silentbloc mounts, which are designed to enhance the passive rear-wheel steering characteristics of the standard Cupra.
The mechanical systems are backed up by a stability system called Electronic Stability Program (ESP). There's no trick limited-slip diff like Ford uses in the new Focus RS. Instead, the Seat uses a traction control system with an Electronic Differential (EDS) to transfer the power to the road.
The changes are more than the sum of their parts. It's still necessary to use the throttle with finesse in first and second gear to avoid the tell-tale flicker of the tractioncontrol light, but once on the move, this car pulls cleanly and consistently.
And it's freakin' fast. Keep the engine between 2100 and 6000 rpm and the six-speed Seat can almost rival the Focus RS. In the corners, body roll is noticeable only by its absence, and the Seat is happy to hold a precise, consistent trajectory throughout the turn. This is a car that encourages fluency and precision, but, by turning off the ESP, it's easy to prompt the Leon into a glorious four-wheel drift.
There isn't much to complain about. The action of the aluminum brake pedal is too soft, and there's too much travel before there's any meaningful retardation. Once in action, though, the brakes prove impressively forceful. The steering could also do with more feel. The Leon turns in well enough, but it fails to communicate the minutiae of the grip levels.
Although we were never likely to threaten the lap record at Thruxton, we do leave knowing that the Cupra R is a more entertaining drive than the Honda Civic Type-R. This is a hell of an achievement for Seat, which has ambitions to become the Volkswagen Group's Alfa Romeo. It's also, we are promised, a sign of things to come from the marque, which can only be good news for any enthusiast. Except, of course, for those in America.