24 Jan 2013

Living with - Seat Leon Cupra

The Car - 2001 Seat Leon Cupra

In 1998 things in group VAG were not good.  The infamous Golf GTi had suffered the same fate as many a teenager of the day, it put on a few stone and hardly had enough energy to stir any form of emotional response bar whingeing.

The MKIV Golf platform, was an under-powered weighty lump of a thing that really in essence had no right to wear the heroic GTi badge, as all its drivers soon found out when it was pushed into a bend at any reasonable non-pensioner pace.  It turned in with as much enthusiasm as a sloth with sleeping sickness and understeered like it had flat front tyres.

The normally unfazed Germans were puzzled.

Ultimately they realised that maybe it was time to bring in the reinforcements - hail the the fun, siesta loving Spanish and the MKIV floorpan was despatched to warmer climes for SEAT’s engineers to have a play with it.  The overhaul brief?  Make it un-boring!

Many tons of paella and gallons of San Miguel later, October 1998 arrived and Seat put the serious re-styled and re-engineered Leon on the market and showed VW that with a small injection of flair and enthusiasm you can make a decent car from a duffer.

Having been a Saab 900 owner before the Leon, I was already addicted to turbo-charged cars and when the Saab had to go (in the state of tune it was in you were lucky to get 20mpg out of it) I knew I wanted turbo power again. Hunting around I found that on my budget, 3 cars were available:

  • Fiat's lovely Coupe turbo,
  • Audi's A3 1.8t Sport,
  • The later Saab 9-3 HOT Aero. 

As you notice there’s no Leon in the list.  It happened by accident really.

After a conversation on the phone with a friend in Nottingham, it turned out his work-mate had a Leon Cupra with a couple of small issues he couldn’t afford to have sorted, and he wanted to sell it.  As I’m a mechanic the 'issues' weren't a major issue to me.  So I arranged to have a look, test drove it, loved it, beat him down on price mercilessly and nicked it! (motor trade speak for buying a car for such a low price it’s almost criminal).

It was a 2001 Y-plate car with 120,000 miles on the clock, in black with a cloth interior and lovely multi-spoke alloys.  And that brings me on to issue 1.

Issue 1 – for some incredible reason a previous owner had fitted some of the hardest tyres known to mankind on the car.  Not only that, to add insult to injury each tyre was 20mm narrower than it should have been. Grip was a privilege not a given.

Issue 2 – central locking/alarm didn’t work on the keyfob.  Easy fix - new fob and re-programme at a Seat specialist.

Issue 3 – oil level warning light always on even though the level is fine when dipped.  Another easy fix - traced the fault to a malfunctioning bonnet switch, replaced it, and light goes out.

I drove the car for about 6 months getting used to it and its little foibles.  For example the traction control is a bit severe sometimes and can put you offline if you’re being a little over enthusiastic in slippery conditions. And, while we’re on the subject of handling, Seat has managed to really tame the understeer.  With decent tyres on the car it’s a massive improvement over the Golf it’s based on.  When it does let go, it does so really progressively and almost in slow motion as the traction control light flickers away on the dash board.  I’m running standard shocks and springs, mainly because the roads around me are so bad.  Uprating the shocks or fitting lowering springs would end up with me in an orthopaedic clinic quite quickly, not to mention the several dozen sumps from bottoming out over the hundreds of speed bumps.

The only real issue I had with the car was a personal one really.  It was just too subdued.  Too quiet.  So I got to work on sorting that - one K and N 57i air filter kit added, and a Forge dump valve which gives a great, as Richard Hammond would say, turbo noise and, lastly, removed the middle exhaust box and piped it straight through.

The Leon is a much better car to drive than any MKIV/V Golf.  It's comfortable, quiet when standard, averages about 40mpg driving normally, never goes below 25mpg even after turbo-glowing thrashes.

I have recently re-mapped the car, so it’s putting out about 210-215bhp now with added torque as well. It’s the first turbo car I've ever driven that doesn’t have any turbo lag.  Right from idle theres torque and the more revs the more you get, it feels more like a V6 the way it makes it's power - until it hits 4500rpm and theres a noticeable step in power and it really picks up and goes.  Keep it above that 4500rpm and you will be making very rapid progress.

Thankfully, the brakes are well up to the job, nice firm pedal with plenty of feel and enough power to bring the ABS in if you really stamp the pedal on a warm dry road. I use standard discs and pads, which seem to last ok and work well.

It's practical too being a 5-door car with a good sized boot, which can be expanded to twice the size as the back seats fold flat.  It even has a half decent stock stereo and comfortable seats.

My car has now just clocked 135,000 miles, it doesn’t smoke when its cold, it has good compression on all four cylinders, doesn’t burn any oil, starts first time every time and has never let me down. There's life in the old dog yet.

Overall it's a car I would heartily recommend to anyone, petrol head, Dad's car for the family and to have a little fun when on his own, your average Joe driver who wants a VAG group quality car that’s good on fuel and that eats motorway miles with ease and to anyone who just wants a cheap to run fun car which looks quite cool (I think).

It’s a real proper hot hatch.  But better than that it’s a hot hatch that doesn’t look like one.  Take the Cupra badging off and you cant tell it from any other Leon in the range (unless of course you know what your looking for).  It's my perfect car really, a subtle practical comfortable family hatchback and a great drivers car when the mood takes you.

Dads seem to stick to boring Peugeots and the like these days.  Don’t.  If there's even half an ounce of the twenty-something you left in your overworked stressed body, at least drive one, I promise you a stress relieving experience and you WILL have a silly teenage grin on your face when you get out.