Hot hatch showdown: Seat Leon Cupra R vs Honda Civic Type R
12 August 2020 - autocar
The Seat Leon Cupra R is 306bhp of fiery, finely honed fun - but can it match the latest Honda Civic Type R for driving thrills?
Regardless of the outcome of this showdown, if you're talking about hot hatches in the conventional sense, the current Civic Type R is the best money can buy.
No other front-driven car for which you can lay down a deposit at your nearest dealership marries such crushing pace with such a deep-seated sense of mechanical involvement. In fact, the only reason this magazine's road testers elected to bestow upon it four and a half stars is because those so inclined were a little more vociferous in their sentiments than the ones who would give it five. Although it no longer rages, the debate lingers.
As you've probably surmised, we haven't committed editorial hara-kiri and given up the verdict in the first line. Rather, the Honda is the only car in this duo that you can actually buy. Why a nation famous for loosening the purse strings in the pursuit of agile, affordable, peppy shopping carts should be allocated a paltry 24 cars from a run of 799 is anybody's guess, but each right-hand-drive example of the lava-hot Seat Leon Cupra R is now spoken for, which renders this twin test both academic and fascinating.
Academic, because even should this £34,995 newcomer bury its esteemed rival in a win that would come as a considerable but welcome surprise, you still can't have one. Fascinating because this is the last Cupra model before 'Cupra' becomes an independent, performance-oriented institution in the manner of Mercedes-AMG. What this car portends–its relative strengths, drawbacks, focus and, most important for us, the ability to entertain is therefore the concern of anybody who might at some point seriously consider buying a hot hatch.
This battle is for the moral victory. Perhaps for you, it's a conflict that the Japanese car has already surrendered. You will by now have formed your own opinion of the FK8-generation Civic Type R's aesthetics, and it may not be entirely favourable. However, with the distinctive-looking Honda sitting longer and wider but no taller than the Seat Leon Cupra R, for sheer presence we're talking cold-blooded murder here.
Moreover, in classic Championship White, many of the intricacies swallowed up by darker hues emerge: Mitsubishi Evolution-style vortex generators on the trailing edge of the roof; side-skirt fins; a vast ventdraining the front wheel arches of lift-inducing pressure; the way the end-plates of that colossal wing flair at their base. Look closely and you'll notice that even the headlight lenses feature aero mouldings. It's a curious, formidable thing that could only ever have been born in Japan and, to these eyes, it's handsome in the same way haggis is tasty.
But enough about this 316bhp Honda, which starts up with an unexpectedly demure burble lost among the harder frequencies and altogether less sociable amplitude of its rip-snorting rival. Previous Cupra variants based on this third-generation Leon have been phenomenally quick point to point but have tempered that with a demeanour that cruises under the radar. That's not the case here. The front and rear valances, skirts and wing are wrought of genuine carbonfibre (the Honda gets a derisible artificial wrap) and there's copper-coloured detailing everywhere, not least on the intake blades and two-tone 19in alloy wheels, which works far better than it should.
Those wheels fail to obscure Brembo brakes that are larger than the ones on the Leon Cupra 300 and book-end a front axle that has had its geometry tweaked to offer a degree more negative camber. With new suspension uprights as well, Seat's aim has been to make the chassis feel a little more 'pointy', although the contact patch is 10mm narrower at each corner than the Honda's. Even so, aided by smooth Tarmac and warm tyres, the Cupra R's shockingly direct changes in trajectory threatened to rip rubber from rim on its international launch in Spain last year.
Flow the car through a few British bends and you're greeted by what is arguably its métier. The steering rack has been quickened a touch just off centre and has a crisp levity to it, weighting up naturally and with a steely core that transmits, yes, some genuine feel. The narrow gauge of the rim (manufacturers of even far more expensive, potent machinery, please take note) and indulgently soft Alcantara upholstery that, I suspect, is the same as that used in the new Porsche 911 GT3 certainly help. Overall, it's a fantastic, flickable helm.
Then there's the engine. Rarely is the lump under the bonnet the most memorable aspect of a hot hatch, and that's the case with the Cupra R, although for a four-cylinder workhorse, this one is absurdly talented.
Its peak torque of 280lb ft arrives at only 1800rpm and yet, somehow, that same level of twist is still flooding through the six-speed manual gearbox at 5700rpm. Too much of its character is dependent on exhaust tuning, but a more tractable, cultured four-pot you'll not find in anything with five seats and boot.
It is a shame, then, that some of the basics – and the more nuanced complexities – are lacking. The seats are too high-set and, strangely, given the magnitude of the bolsters, flat across their backs. The throw of this manual 'box is decently short but giddily light. The brake pedal – quite beautifully positioned in relation to the others – feels too generously servo-assisted and, on its retuned adaptive dampers, the chassislacks the final pinch of pliancy that allows its exertions to fade from your thoughts.
Most telling, even in wet weather – as on the day of our photo shoot – the adjustability that bubbles up from within the best hot hatch exponents is lamentably absent, although the pace on offer is nothing short of spectacular. On British roads, the overall result is a peculiar device, and one that strongly hints at an uncompromised mission statement but ultimately delivers something of a movie punch.
The Civic, meanwhile, dispenses a roundhouse, the discombobulating effects of which quickly rearrange your notion of what really constitutes 'feeling'. The scarlet seats not only look fabulous but also cup the torso more securely. Crucially, they set your posterior more purposely low down and the consequent impression – unique among this car's rivals – is of being securely enveloped within the chassis.
Get going and you'll find the right sort of heft in the steering and clutch and pleasing resistance in the throttle pedal's action. Response isn't as gloriously sharp as it is in the Seat and, lacking that car's twin-scroll turbo, this 316bhp 2.0-litre four isn't as willing at lower crank speeds. However, the scales shift at the top of the rev range, where this over-square VTEC engine feasts on the final stretch of the 7000rpm redline with a zeal that's just a little alarming if you're not ready for it. The Honda also weighs an adult passenger less than the Seat, and you notice it.
The one-two that makes the Seat drop a knee comes from the Type R's gearshift and damping. The shift quality – honed assiduously by Honda for two decades – is short, tight, notchy perfection. The suspension, with its new rear multi- links, is something we've criticised in the past for being overly stiff but, in this instance, it simply feels the more adroit. The Civic's nose duly dives for apices with the composure of an ice-breaker cruising through a frozen pond.
It must be said, however, that in these conditions the Civic's mechanical limited-slip differential has to be exploited more deftly and with greater care than its more forgiving electronic equivalent in the Leon. On low-friction surfaces, it is less predictable, locking up earlier and pushing the nose wide to sometimes startling effect. The risk- to-reward ratio is that much more engaging in the Honda, which raises the stakes further still with its oft-cited penchant for oversteer.
You could flay these charges for miles and never find the gap between them to be more than a handful of car lengths. Were the Leon wearing the track-day-spec Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres that a fifth of owners are expected to specify, I dare say it would be the quicker car. Whatever the rubber, it's also the easier of two to live with so would be the preference of the non-enthusiast members of your household. And it's for precisely that reason it loses this contest with its head held high but ultimately by some margin.
The Civic Type R bottles the sensations common to bona fide sports cars and it's a bottle you get to screw the top off on any road and at almost any speed. In the end, it's simple: this limited- run Seat promises great things for an incipient Cupra brand, but the Honda is comfortably there already.
1st - Honda Civic Type R: A magnificent achievement from Honda. Tangibly the more involving proposition here, despite the unquestionable quality of its opposition
2nd - Seat Leon Cupra R: Phenomenally quick Leon bodes well for the Cupra sub-brand but never feels more than the sum of its admittedly impressive parts