Spanish VW subsidiary Seat has finally launched their range-topping Leon Cupra hatch locally, nearly two years after its Auto Africa showing.
When the Leon Cupra was originally shown at the 2006 Auto Africa Motor Show, public reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Unfortunately, in the interim, South Africans have had to wait - some would say too long - for the Latin hot hatch prodigy to arrive locally.
Euro 4 engine fuel compliance issues complicated local homologation, contributing greatly to the local launch delay. With this resolved now, the Leon Cupra has arrived, and it has a tough act to follow.
Its track racing sibling has dominated Class T of the local production car championship since debut last year in the hands of Graeme Nathan and Phillip Kekana.
Beyond the bi-xenon headlights, detailed black grille finish, offset chrome-trimmed single exhaust and red coloured brake callipers, the Cupra is not easily distinguishable from its lesser FR sibling.
The distinctive Seat Leon styling, showcasing VW master designer Walter de' Silva's deft aesthetic touch, remains alluring. Front styling, with the small, centre grille and ovoid headlights set it apart from other Japanese and German challengers.
Along the flanks the downward curving styling crease seals off the curvaceous shape perfectly. With door handles integrated into the small-window frame of the rear doors the profile has a flush, nearly Coupe like appearance.
It might not scream boy racer, yet the styling is elegant and purposeful, an ode to fine Catalonian design, which is hardly surprising considering Seat is headquartered in Barcelona.
There is an inverse irony to the Cupra when you climbe inside. The figure-hugging sports seats with their embossed, red Cupra logos are comfortable, yet finished in cloth, which is hardly bespoke hot hatch territory.
And then there is the horrid, squared off centre-stack, with its undersized buttons and cheap trim. The instrumentation is passable, yet the interior, manually adjustable sports seats and all, culminates to a rather underwhelming experience in commensuration to the fabulously styling exterior styling and detailing.
Equipment levels are keen too. You get dual front airbags augmented by front aide and curtain items for safety. Infotainment is MP3 enabled and Bluetooth synergised too, while auxiliary input caters for your iPod.
Stonking 2-litre turbo motor
Justifying the red brake callipers and sports style racing seats is a 2-litre, direct injection turbocharged engine producing 177 kW between 5 700- and 6 300 r/min. Although it's hardly a 7 000 r/min hot hatch screamer, with 300Nm available from 2 200 r/min to 5 500 r/min the result is an awfully tractable turbocharged power train.
Driving the front wheels through a six-speed manual gearbox - featuring one of the oddest looking gearknobs around - the Cupra should top off 247 km/h, and dispatch the boy-racer 0-100 km/h statistic in 6.4 seconds.
Perhaps a truer indication of its torquey nature and relentless acceleration is the respectably rapid 24.6 second one kilometre sprint time.
Hugging the asphalt 14 mm lower than its Leon siblings, the Cupra features independent McPherson strut front suspension with a smaller stabiliser bar to increase responsiveness. At the rear a four-arm multilink set-up is charged with keeping the 1 334 kg- Cupra tidy when pushing on.
Those bright red callipers grab onto 345 x 30 mm ventilated discs up front, whilst the entire system is ABS and EBA enabled.
Seat bravely chose Kyalami as a launch venue. After Graham Nathan scared us stupid with an introductory quick lap in the Cupra race car, we set about exploring the undulating home of South African motorsport in the road going Cupras.
With a light clutch action and quick shifting six-speed box -albeit lacking in tactile feel and gate navigating precision at the limit - you appreciate just how tractable the 2-litre turbo motor is.
Channelling 177 kW to the tarmac in a front-wheel drive car is always going to be interesting, even more so when accompanied by 300 Nm of torque. Despite this the Cupra is not too unruly in tight corners under acceleration, which was surprising, as I was expecting lashings of torque steer.
On the quicker sweeps it doggedly followed the set line, yet under deceleration in cambered corners it can get a bit skittish around the rear. The brakes themselves took a pounding yet kept scrubbing off speed without noticeable fade lap after lap.
Whether it was the 225/40 mm Dunlop rubber or some badly chosen lines, but turn-in behaviour and steering feedback was not as sharp as one would have liked.
Handling is benign overall though, with plenty of grip, and acceleration through the gears quite rapid. It might not be as focused as the R26 Megane on a track, but the Cupra retains a requisite amount of hot hatch handling credibility.
Superbly styled, well equipped and with VW servicing back-up (the 10 Seat dealers have VW 'twin-partner' dealerships which handle services and parts), the Leon Cupra easily shades its VW GTI cousin in terms of outright pace, if not interior ambiance.
It is very well priced too. Considering strong Euro appreciation and inflationary pressure which has been brought to bear on the new car market since the Cupra was shown at Auto Africa in 2006 with Seat promising to keep to their original projected price then.
And they have, making it strong value at only R264 000.