Seat Leon Cupra R | Spotted

Cupra has yet to deliver a proper hot hatch – maybe the old days can provide some inspiration…

By Matt Bird / Thursday, 26 October 2023 / Loading comments

Credit where it’s due to Cupra, it’s going great guns at the moment. As the fastest growing car brand in Europe it’s actually got VW questioning what to do with SEAT now – there was some discussion about transitioning it into a mobility solutions provider a few weeks back. That’s on top of building cars like the Born, which makes life harder for the VW equivalent than any old SEAT did, as well as selling what appears to be 300,000 Formentors in the UK. They’re everywhere. With the Tavascan on the way. 

But even with all that going for Cupra (plus a decent motorsport presence and cool concepts) there’s not really been anything to get enthusiasts’ blood pumping. There were rumours of a few five-cyliner Formentors coming here, which amounted to just 10 cars, the Born is better than ID 3 but far from exciting, and the Cupra Leon struggles to justify its premium over the old model. There’s hope, of course – if little to show for it at the moment. But the haters should look where the brand was five years ago. They move quickly in Barcelona…

Once upon a time, the Cupra SEATs were virtually hot hatch royalty. Not perhaps as deft or as sophisticated as the very best driving pocket rockets, but fast, fun, stylish and great value – far more than half the battle won. There was some motorsport success to celebrate, too, those 16v Ibizas of the mid-1990s paying tribute to F2 rally wins. Which is always cool. 

It was with the original Leon Cupra, however (once the name had changed from 20VT) that the SEAT hot hatch really came good. Yes, the interior was plain and there was a Golf buried underneath somewhere, but it was cheaper than a GTI, more stylish than anything with five doors had a right to be, and capable of more than 140mph – result. SEAT twigged it was onto a good thing, adding a 210hp Cupra R a couple of years later and finishing up the first generation of racy Leons with a 225hp R from 2002. Despite the the badge having continued in the Leon lineup in the 20 years since, memorably with the most recent Cupra R, it is arguable that none made quite the impact of the very first. 

Today, as with so much else, it’s tricky to find a really good 225hp car. They weren’t quite of the calibre (or following) of alternatives like the Golf R32, 147 GTA and Focus RS, not a hot hatch to keep for best or scurry away to preserve. Or lavish love on when they became cheap to buy. There are plenty of Cupra Rs still around, it seems, though many looked to have lived a life.

A few gems remain, however, like this one. A red example from 2003, it is yet to pass 30,000 miles – honest. It has never failed an MOT since 2006, with its first advisory not until 2011 and clean-as-a-whistle passes in the last four tests. The ad suggests the history is ‘superb’, too. 

Definitely looks great from here – the Leon has aged brilliantly, with the condition of wheels and paint a real testament to previous owners. It’ll definitely still draw a few admiring glances in 2023, which is appropriate when you consider that an asking price of £15k is top money for one of these. And while Cupra probably doesn’t have the brand cachet of something like the VQ Golf GTI, the good old days will still be remembered by a passionate few – this Leon only needs one of them to continue its story. 


Engine: 1,781cc, four-cyl turbo
Transmission: six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 225@5,900rpm
Torque (lb ft): 207@2,200-5,500rpm
MPG: 32.5
CO2: 211g/km
First registered: 2003
Recorded mileage: 29,707
Price new: £16,995 (2002)
Yours for: £14,995

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