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The evolution of the CUPRA

The evolution of the CUPRA

David Hawthorne, Parts Sales Executive at TPS Northern Ireland, is our next contributor to choose a Volkswagen Group Icon. David has selected the Leon CUPRA – a sports performance ‘hot hatch’ as equally at home on the track as it is on the road.


When SEAT announced in 2018 it was launching the CUPRA as a standalone brand, it marked a coming of age for the popular sports model. Given its own identity, including a new logo, the CUPRA brand has now taken its fast-established icon status far into the future.

The CUPRA has always been SEAT’s ultimate expression of sportiness. As David says; “The CUPRA has built up a big enthusiast community and for those of us who love this vehicle, it’s always been considered to be a little bit different. It’s a modifier’s dream but unlike some performance models, not only does it look the part, but it drives like the part as well.”


It began in 1998 with the original Leon 20VT, a variant of the original SEAT Leon model. Based on the Volkswagen Group A4 (PQ34) platform, it shared many common components with other Volkswagen Group vehicles such as the Golf Mk4, Bora and Audi A3.

The early models were marked out by a deliberately limited choice of colour scheme. Only three body paints were available; red, yellow, and black, chosen in homage to the colours of Spain and Germany’s national flags - the partner countries involved in the original joint project.

A notable addition to the first-generation range was the CUPRA 4 TDI, equipped with a 1.9-litre turbocharged direct injection diesel engine. This would evolve later into the Top Sport model and eventually be rebranded as the Formula Racing (FR).


In 2005, the next-generation CUPRA arrived. Based on a Volkswagen Group A5 platform, similar to that used on the Volkswagen Golf Mk5, the first sport version to appear was the FR. Making its debut in 2006, it came complete with twin-exhaust pipes to the left rear, sport seats and an FR logoed gear stick to distinguish it from other models.

With additional models such as the TFSI CUPRA R added, it fast established its credentials in the sports performance market. So much so that in 2010, the Leon CUPRA took its place in the top ten of Autocar magazine’s ‘best hot hatchbacks of all time’ poll.

The latest generation arrived in 2012. Based on the Volkswagen Group MQB platform, it boasted a host of new features and an upgrade in performance. The new generation CUPRA R’s 310bhp dwarfed the previous R model outputs, and its 0 to 62mph in 5.5 seconds was over a second quicker than the original.


Such performance is rooted in SEAT’s motorsport heritage. With the CUPRA name originating from the combination of ‘Cup’ and ‘Racing’, the development of the road version will always be inextricably linked with its motorsport counterpart. The Leon CUPRA first burst onto the motorsport scene in 2002, tearing up the tarmac in various race series.

The SEAT Leon Supercopa one-make series began in Spain in 2002, with sister championships quickly established in other countries including Britain. In 2005, SEAT Sport recorded their first victory in the World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) with the Toledo CUPRA championship car winning at Silverstone.

The following year, the Leon CUPRA won the manufacturers title in the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC), with team drivers Jason Plato and Rob Huff taking nine wins between them. In 2008, the Leon CUPRA TDI was a dominant force in the WTCC, registering 11 wins and drivers Yvan Muller and Gabriele Tarquini taking a one-two in the overall driver standings.


As David says; “The SEAT Sports division have always had that ethos of looking at things and taking a different slant on them, which is very much carried over into the production car. It’s what makes the CUPRA such an exciting brand.” With the new CUPRA brand taking over SEAT Sport’s entire motorsport and racing division, it marks the dawn of a new era.

However, with just over 1.9 million SEAT Leon models sold since its launch 20 years ago and a well-established motorsport tradition, the new brand is built on solid foundations. In fact, with the winning formula of performance, design and specification as strong as ever, the new CUPRA brand is all revved up and ready to reinforce its iconic status.