Can this new entry-level hot hatch shake up the game?

Cupra’s best-selling hatchback blends comfort, styling and great value

Car companies have a surprisingly good track record when they spin off side projects. Toyota created Lexus, Hyundai made Genesis, Nissan has Infiniti and now, one of the Volkswagen Group’s offspring – Cupra – is finding traction with Australian buyers.

While it may wear the ‘entry-level’ label, the Cupra Leon V warm hatch shows the premium small car class that comfort, equipment, and driving agility need not be mutually exclusive – nor break the bank. Here is the full review of the car test-driven by our automotive expert, Tom Fraser.

What we love

Big, new infotainment screen looks brilliant

Engaging drive character wills you to go faster

Level of standard equipment

What we don’t

Deep boot and high load lip for the boot

Travel Assist safety system lacks steering wheel sensitivity

Wish it was louder

It’s not easy to launch a new car brand in Australia, but the unique sense of style and performance offered by Volkswagen offshoot Cupra has found a niche in the Australian market.

After the brand’s launch off the back end of the pandemic, it now counts a solid range of products from full electric vehicles to potent hot hatches. The brand’s most recent arrival leans towards the latter within the Spanish brand’s stable, with the 2024 Cupra Leon V ‘warm hatch’ hitting showrooms midway through 2023.

While its price and positioning suggest an entry-level premium small hatchback, Cupra’s burgeoning reputation should stand for a sporty drive character and curious style accenting – even in the most affordable variant. We’ve saddled up in a Nevada White example to find out whether the entry-level still delivers strongly on the brand’s promise.

How much does the Cupra Leon cost in Australia?

At its launch in July 2023, Cupra offered a limited-time drive-away offer of $47,990 nationwide for the Leon V. While the brand no longer offers that introductory price, it’s since risen only $1200, meaning anyone can get themselves into a Cupra Leon V for $49,190 drive-away. Its comparative list price is $45,190 (excluding on-road costs).

Though it’s now not quite as attractive as the introductory pricing, and may not represent a the most affordable small hatch available, in the premium end of the marketthe Cupra Leon V still represents a ripper deal for that kind of coin, as you’ll discover throughout the rest of this review.

Do note that the car on test – and depicted in photos – is an MY23 Cupra Leon V. The only difference between it and the new MY24 car is the addition of digital radio (DAB+) as standard.

The Leon V is the most affordable variant of the Cupra Leon range, but more powerful (and better equipped) alternatives are offered, such as the Leon VZ ($57,990 drive-away) or Leon VZe ($61,690 drive-away) plug-in hybrid variant.

The Leon V might ordinarily find a natural rival in the Volkswagen Golf GTI, which starts from around $55,000 before on-road costs. However, the Leon V’s less powerful engine and fewer amenities mean it’s priced more aggressively. Power comes from a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine that sends 140kW/320Nm to the front wheels. It also features a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. There are next to no additional items worth adding to the Cupra’s bottom line, aside from a $2,550 Leather and Sound Package that affords leather upholstery, heated front seats, a nine-speaker Beats sound system, copper stitching for the dash, tilting side mirrors, and a driver’s seat with electric adjustment and memory function. Standard fare is generous – Cupras received a new 12-inch touchscreen infotainment system throughout 2023, which the Leon V gets, plus items including a heated steering wheel, wireless phone charging, adaptive damping control, cloth/leather trim sports seats, tri-zone climate control, ambient interior lighting, and keyless entry and start. The LED lights also turn on automatically.

How much space does the Cupra Leon have inside?

It doesn’t take long to appreciate the level of comfort, equipment, and quietness offered by the Leon V’s cabin. While it might be entry-level in terms of the Cupra range, the interior feel is anything but.

From the get-go, it’s obvious the Leon V’s front seat space is driver-centric, with a wide centre console that pushes your legs closer to the footwell and sports seats that keep you set firmly in front of the steering wheel. The light-up start button is pure theatre. Grab hold of any interior panel and there are minimal creaks or rattles, plus the feel of the cloth-insert seats is plush and supportive. Most surfaces are covered in pliant, soft-touch materials, though there’s no felt lining for the door pockets like that offered on some other Volkswagen Group cars. With the manually adjustable seat controls it’s simple to manoeuvre the front seats into the right spot for a correct driving position. There is great side support from the bolstering and a ‘cupped’ seat base makes the seats feel bucketed.

Storage around the front row extends to a couple of slots in the centre console, which are handy for stowing keys or sunglasses, plus a small tray under the central screen houses a wireless phone charger. The centre console also contains a pair of cupholders (though only one is useable for a standard bottle size) and a lidded bin. I love all the copper accenting through the cabin. It elevates the space to feel more premium than any old small hatchback and hints at the car’s sporty character. There are minimal other trim inlays to get excited about in the front row, but I think Cupra’s done enough to liven the feel with its selection of choice materials and copper highlights.

The second row is surprisingly spacious behind my own driving position. I’m not short at 194cm, but I found there is good knee space and generous head room. Space for my feet was less comfortable, but at least there’s a good few amenities to keep back-seat passengers happy. It’s a noticeably deep boot, which means you’re reaching in to pick out items from the space, plus the high load lip doesn’t make loading in heavy items an easy prospect. Under the boot floor lies a space-saver spare wheel.

Does the Cupra Leon have Apple CarPlay and Android Auto?

A major aspect of the Leon V’s cabin is the massive 12-inch touchscreen display mounted smack-bang on the dashboard. It’s joined by a 10.25-inch digital instrument display in front of the driver, and although there’s no head-up display, between the two screens there’s more than enough in-your-face information. The main infotainment display is brilliantly presented with crisp, clear graphics. It comes with satellite navigation, AM/FM radio receiving, digital (DAB+) radio, and wireless Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. The digital instrument cluster is brilliant – it can cycle between map views, various gauge displays, and even show information within the gauge displays such as song information, a G-meter, and fuel data.

Is the Cupra Leon a safe car? The Cupra Leon range was awarded a five-star ANCAP safety rating in 2020, and the Leon V is included in this assessment. Calling out the particulars, the Leon scored 91 per cent for adult occupant protection, 88 per cent for child occupant protection, 71 per cent for vulnerable road user protection (pedestrians and cyclists), and 80 per cent for safety assist technology.

What safety technology does the Cupra Leon have? Even from the base variant, a whole host of active and passive safety technology (and equipment) is included with the Leon V. In terms of safety tech, the Leon V gets Front Assist with pedestrian and cyclist detection (autonomous emergency braking AEB), driver fatigue monitoring, adaptive cruise control with lane-centring and stop-and-go assistance, Lane Assist, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, rear-view camera, and front/rear parking sensors. In practice, these systems functioned perfectly and there were no false positives for things like the AEB. I like the fact that the blind-spot monitor uses the car’s ambient lighting system to alert of cars behind your shoulder – it’s a neat integration that I’m surprised other manufacturers don’t do.

How much does the Cupra Leon cost to maintain? All Cupra models come with a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty from the date of delivery. Cupra offers a choice of capped-price servicing packages at the point of purchase: $990 for three visits or $1990 for five visits.

Is the Cupra Leon fuel-efficient? For a sporty-leaning hatchback, Cupra quotes a surprisingly low fuel consumption of 6.2 litres per 100 kilometres over a combined fuel cycle. However, its 55-litre fuel tank must be refuelled with more expensive 95-octane petrol. In terms of actual fuel use, it turns out the claim is not too far off reality. My time spent in the Leon V returned a 6.4L/100km economy across a mix of road types.

What is the Cupra Leon like to drive?

In keeping with the ‘punches beyond its weight grade’ narrative I’ve peddled throughout this review, the Cupra’s driving experience is another aspect that feels far more cohesive than the sum of its parts. It can only count on 140kW/320Nm outputs sent through the front wheels – well below other established hot hatches on the market – but the Leon V is sprightlier than you’d imagine.

Though it won’t have the driver’s (or passenger’s) eyes widened with the acceleration from a standstill, the sprint away from a set of traffic lights is quick. It pulls hard throughout the rev range and gearshifts from the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox are slick. At freeway speeds, the car has a compliant ride quality that smooths over undulations and bumps, which makes for a refined experience for the nine-to-five. However, there’s a fair amount of tyre noise emanating from the wheel wells at 100km/h. At slower speeds, the Leon V’s wheels can thud through road cracks abruptly, though not to an uncomfortable extent. It is merely noticeable around suburban surrounds in particular. Switching things up, I drove the Leon V out to western Victoria for a quick blast and was quickly rewarded for making the effort. Though there’s no outright ‘Cupra’ mode like you’d find in its showroom stablemates, the Sport mode firms up the suspension to keep the car taut through bends. The gearbox also perks up by holding onto gears longer, keeping it within the optimal torque range, and the steering becomes a heftier weight. It’s not a huge transformation, but the Sport mode makes this car bloody entertaining to drive around a set of twisty roads, and it wills you to go faster after each successive bend. At times, while using the adaptive cruise-control system and its lane-centring function, the software decided I wasn’t touching the steering wheel and got upset – even though my hands were firmly on the wheel. It seems like the system needs to be just that little bit more sensitive to when a driver is gripping the steering wheel. Mid-corner bumps, quick changes in direction, unsuspecting full-throttle kick-downs; the polished Cupra Leon V takes it all in its stride and keeps the driver entertained whether driving sportily or sedately.

Should I buy a Cupra Leon? After driving the entry-level Cupra Leon V, I think it’s all the car I’d ever need. You can get quicker, better-equipped versions in the VZ, VZx or even go plug-in hybrid, but for the spend I couldn’t see myself going past this range opener. Cupra representatives suggest stock levels of the Leon are “good” and all stock is viewable online via this link. As at the end of January 2024, the brand holds around 100 Leons in stock, with roughly half of them being entry-level Leon V variants.

If you want to read more about the latest Cupra Leon news visit this link.