Cupra Leon 245 VZ1 review
This lower-powered 2.0-litre version of the Cupra Leon is the least popular derivative, but perhaps the most appealing. It’s a fast, versatile, surprisingly economical hot hatch that’s decent value, but its badging still takes some explaining.
“What is that?” I’m sure I saw someone mouth as I exited the car park. A few years on from SEAT spinning-off the Cupra brand as a separate entity, the new arrangement still seems to confuse the average observer, but had I stopped to explain, this particular version of the Cupra Leon might have made life easier.
It’s not the ‘300’ pure combustion model with 296bhp, nor is it the 242bhp plug-in hybrid. Instead, it’s the least popular derivative in the range – the 242bhp 2.0-litre, or the ‘245’. So, in grossly oversimplified terms, it could be described as a Volkswagen Golf GTI with a different face and badges.
It gets the same widely-used ‘EA888’ inline-four turbo petrol engine in the same state of tune as in the hot VW Golf, powering the front wheels via a standard-fit ‘VAQ’ electronically-controlled locking differential. One difference here, however, is the gearbox choice, or lack of – while you can have the Golf with a manual, the Leon can only be specced with a seven-speed ‘DSG’ twin-clutch automatic.
There’s no badging to differentiate this from the other two Cupra Leons – instead, you have to look for little clues, like the lack of charging flap as seen on the PHEV version, and the use of a twin-exit exhaust in place of the trapezoidal trims found on that car and the quad unit used by the Leon 300.
It’s also the only Cupra Leon available in VZ1 trim, which swaps the 19-inch wheels for 18s and drops the adaptive dampers. You can have it as a VZ2 if preferred, but not a VZ3 – that trim level is reserved for the 29bhp model and the PHEV.
The Cupra branding remains something we’re on the fence about, but this is a handsome car overall. The cabin has some unusual trim choices, including a woven material on the steering wheel that’s oddly reminiscent of rattan furniture, but it’s a more interesting, more stylish interior than the Golf GTI’s.
In the middle of the dash is – sadly – the same fiddly infotainment system used in the GTI and other VW Group MQB-Evo cars, which must be used for the climate control settings. This is easier said than done on the move, and although you do at least get shortcut keys for the temperature on the screen bezel, they are – bafflingly – not backlit so cannot be seen after dark.
We’re still experiencing software issues with these cars, too. As found on multiple other VW Group vehicles, the Cupra Leon often seems to think it’s being driven elsewhere in Europe. The speed limit recognition system often seems to display the equivalent in kilometres per hour (for instance, 110 in a 70mph zone), and the cruise control will frequently slow the car down during a dual carriageway overtake, appearing to believe you are in fact undertaking.
There’s better news when it comes to the steering wheel controls, which are proper buttons rather than the badly thought-out haptic pads seen on higher-end versions of the Golf.
In any case, the Cupra Leon soon makes you forget about its cabin tech failings when you’re on the move. Exciting though the 296bhp version of this car might be, this one feels more than quick enough, and if anything, a touch quicker than the key figures might suggest. This is partly down to the available torque – while the power has taken a reasonable hit, the peak twist of 370Nm offered as low as 1,600rpm is only 30Nm down on what the mightiest Cupra Leon offers.
As we’ve seen time and time again, this inline-four is smooth, flexible, and nicely punchy in the mid-range. It makes a decent enough noise for a modern four-cylinder, although it’s noticeably less raucous than earlier deployments of this engine thanks to the adoption of a petrol particulate filter.
It doesn’t sound as aggressive under full load, and the angry pops and bangs once heard from the exhaust are replaced with occasional and very muted crackles in Sport and Cupra driving modes. The gearbox meanwhile is effective enough, if lacking the outright aggression and speed of some other dual-clutch units. Some nicer shift paddles wouldn’t go amiss, too.
The damping does stray into over-firm territory from time to time, but for the most part, it’s well balanced. The suspension succumbs to only small amounts of body roll during hard cornering but has enough give to soak up imperfections in the tarmac.
The steering will feel familiar to anyone who’s driven a fast VW Group product over the last few years. It doesn’t offer a great deal of feedback, and it’s a touch light in all modes, but it’s pleasingly fast, particularly as more lock is wound on thanks to the variable-ratio rack.
Fitted as standard is the VAQ electronically-controlled differential, which does a commendable job of managing front-end traction. You will find understeer sooner than you might in a car with a traditional mechanical limited-slip differential, however, such as the Honda Civic Type R.
Although it’s hard to put your finger on why, the Leon is ever-so-slightly more exciting to drive on a winding country road than the VW Golf GTI, and not a great deal less thrilling than Cupra Leon 300. It’s also a better long-distance tool than you might expect thanks in large part to its comfortable seating, and also because of its surprisingly good cruising economy, which can far exceed 40mpg if you’re careful. A 380-litre boot, meanwhile, is bang on the money for the segment.
In VZ1 trim, the 245 comes in at £33,100 on the road, undercutting the cheapest 300 by over £4,000. Spec-for-spec in VZ2, the difference drops to just over £2,700, although the monthly payments on a PCP deal with an £8,000 deposit are £55 less for the 245 at £345, albeit with a similar final payment.
An automatic VW Golf GTI is a little more per month on similar terms, so unless you’re sold on its badging, or want its optional manual, why not be more interesting and go for the Cupra? The only downside is you’ll have to get used to explaining what it is.
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