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Cupra Leon VZx 2023 review

Curt Dupriez
Deputy editor

Feisty Spanish newcomer blends pace and maturity in its aspiration of laying claim as the new king of front-driven hot hatches

Good points

  • Inimitable styling
  • Lusty powertrain
  • Lithe and engaging dynamics
  • Surprisingly frugal

Needs work

  • Pricey as tested
  • No manual option
  • Fiddly interior controls
  • Depreciation question marks

The prancing horse. The blue oval. The…copper talon? Yes, the Spanish challenger brand, Cupra, has surfaced in Oz to bolster the Volkswagen Group’s family reach with a range selection aimed at gearheads and a distinctly different vibe than the usual warmed-up Vee Dub, Audi and Skoda suspects.

With brooding styling and deep swagger, Cupra’s taut line-up promises alternative go-fast metal for discerning petrolhead – and petrol-electric-head – tastes. And a key lynchpin in demonstrating seriousness of intent is the Leon VZx, the flagship of Cupra’s three-strong small hatchback line-up, out to assert itself as the feistiest front-driven hot hatch on the block or in the curves.

The top dog Leon is fortuitously timed. The VZx, with 221kW and 400Nm on tap, outpunches the locally available Volkswagen Golf GTI, largely offering a ‘GTI Clubsport’-like formula and level of purpose that is offered by VW in Europe, but remains forbidden fruit for Aussie buyers.

Cupra Leon VZx 2023 magnetic tech matte rear end

The Spanish upstart also catches the heroic Honda Civic Type-R on hiatus and the much-loved Renault Megane RS in its generational twilight, while the mighty Ford Focus RS nameplate is now defunct.

At $64,990 driveaway, the top dog Leon VZx overshoots logical if now gracefully ageing rival Hyundai i30 N (from about $50,000 driveaway) by some measure.

Golf R and Audi S3? Here, closer to kin, looks to be a more solid fight for fast-hatch lovers’ hearts and wallets. And while a cleanskin, unoptioned Leon VZx does undercut the all-paw Golf R by around seven grand, our test car, fitting extra-cost Brembo brakes, a glass roof and oh-so-Cupra satin paint, sails to $72,690 driveaway and right into the Volkswagen’s wheel tracks.

Cupra Leon VZx 2023 magnetic tech matte front end

That’s big coin for any fast front-driver. Especially for a fresh, largely unknown face with no providence on local roads (or racetracks) and precious little in local buyer minds.

Still, the Leon VZx is a quick charmer, especially at Chasing Cars HQ. A quick poll of the peanut gallery reveals unanimous praise for the cut of its seductive jib, inside and out, and even warmer enthusiasm for both the verve of its powertrain verve and the lithe nature of a chassis once you seriously dig in.

It just really divides the crew on pricing and value, despite winning everyone over by virtually any other critical measure. And that, despite some conspicuous Volkswagen Group DNA, its unique vibe brings huge appeal as a genuine alternative to the me-too, fast hatchback set.

How does the Leon VZx drive?

With a Golf GTI rivaling 180kW/370Nm in the lower-grade Leon VZ, how much extra x-factor – erm, sorry – does the harder-boosted 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol four bring? As it turns out, quite a lot.

This VZx’s spec and tune is lower in compression (9.3:1 v 9.6:1), plies peak torque higher in the rev range (from 2000rpm v 1600rpm) and demands higher octane (98 v 95RON) fuel. And yet this Cupra’s potent version of the evergreen EA888 engine seems to only hit goals.

Sheer performance? Yes, and more than the stats suggest. Its 5.7-second 0-100km/h was easily matched, at 5.65sec, by Chasing Cars’ own testing. And given the damp and slightly slippery conditions, there’s surely a smattering of extra pace in an ideal circumstance.

Cupra Leon VZx 2023 EA888 engine

But it’s really the breadth of drivability, a usable spread for all needs across four selectable driving modes, that’s perhaps most impressive. The Leon VZx’s powertrain combination of hot four, polished seven-speed wet-clutch DSG transmission and so-called VAQ electro-mechanical LSD proves to offer the right answers for all driving situations.

What’s key is roll-on response. In Comfort, the engine offers an effortless undertow of torque yet remains pliant in response – perfect for cruising or in heavy traffic. Climbing into Sport adds a measure of urgency that’s crisp and cooperative for swift backroad punts without seeming unhinged.

The further step up to the hottest Cupra mode unleashes a growl perhaps more a result of synthetic measure than the quad-tip exhaust hardware, but the punch and urgency is certifably track friendly if, pleasingly, tempered just enough for on-road friendliness.

Cupra Leon VZx 2023 steering wheel

It’s broad muscle, not lightswitch delivery, that’s most wonderful. And paired with perhaps the nicest, most intuitive dual-clutcher I’ve sampled from Volkswagen’s family. Nor is it numb pace: a big throttle squeeze exiting a sweeper will shimmy the nose for a moment before the tricky front LSD neatly sorts axle torque and plies assertive drive.

What’s totally unexpected is its frugality. The strong roll-on effect requires little throttle, but even across mixed driving punctuated with a lot of red-misted enthusiasm, the seven-litre consumption – for this much performance – against a 6.8L/100km claim is quite remarkable.

So we tested it twice, two long stints across two days. And its seven-litre consumption is genuine.

Cupra Leon VZx 2023 magnetic tech matte rear end

Steering, too, is as thoroughly honed as the powertrain: as fluid and measured as a fast Golf on its best day, the Spanish hatch conjures up even more pointiness from its front end. It is also very light and nimble on its rubber, alive and reactive to the driver’s nuanced inputs and whims.

Those Brembo are progressive and powerful. Arguments spiralled around the Chasing Cars office walls as to whether you need them and could save money without. For mine, the rest of the package is capable enough that, perhaps on track, the hardware’s talents would surely pay dividends sooner or later.

Interestingly, its 36.74-metre emergency braking best – from 100-0km/h – was over two metres longer than we found with testing the less-hardware-endowed VZe hybrid, albeit on a less-than-bone-dry surface.

Ride quality is, from moderate to downright rigid across 15 driver selectable settings, broad enough in scope to cater well for most situations for a hatchback this hot. If a down mark creeps into the Leon VZx’s on-road armour, it’s that around town the suspension hardware doesn’t isolate nasties as politely as some of Volkswagen Group’s go-fast alternatives.

Otherwise, on road and for its type, the Leon VZx is a hard act to fault. Regardless of its front-drive format. And perhaps the cherry topper is that, like in the finest of increasingly lost hot hatches tradition, it simply gets better the deeper you dig and the harder you drive it.

Drivability scorecard
Power & performance
Ride & refinement

How is the Leon VZx’s interior?

The top-spec Leon’s interior blends both the fresh and familiar. Yes, there’s an undeniable whiff of Volkswagen in material choice and detailed execution, but the net effect is markedly different to the Volkswagen Group’s small-stature Golf and Skoda Octavia cousins.

The enticing dark and brooding exterior theme continues in-cabin, its petrol blue leather and bronze highlights rich and distinctive. There’s even a whiff of Lamborghini – the horn cap shape, the hexagonal air vents – in the look and vibe.

It’s no Audi in terms of integration, though execution is quite solid, with ample soft touch surfaces and neat presentation, like the double-stitched dash top. The start-stop and drive mode buttons, as well as the Golf-like stubby transmission controller, are delightful inclusions.

Cupra Leon VZx 2023 interior

The seats are cosseting enough for assertive lateral support yet just relaxed enough for long-haul cruising comfort. There’s real driver focus to its low-slung nature and clear ergonomics at the helm, while the distinctive wheel and inspired wraparound ambient lighting – that handily glows orange in section as a blind-spot warning – conspire towards a sporty upmarket ambience.

It ticks many equipment boxes you ought to expect from a small hatch at its price point, including a 10.25-inch digital driver’s screen, powered and heated seat functionality, wireless smartphone mirroring and three-zone climate control. The Beats-branded nine-speaker 340w stereo is a nice touch.

The large 12.0-inch multimedia touchscreen unit, as part of this model’s recent global update, offers a crispness and slickness befitting the flagship pitch but, unsurprisingly not unlike today’s Golf, much of the vehicle’s feature adjustments are clumsily and distractingly accessed through the screen. And the silly HVAC controls are impossible to see in the dark.

Cupra Leon VZx 2023 petrol blue leather seats

Rear space is decent if unremarkable, though the seating itself is shapely and mature with plenty of long-haul comfort as a four-adult prospect. Air vent and dual USB-C ports – to match the first-row pair – cover essential conveniences and while there are lighter and airier small hatches out there the sense of purpose and occasion promised in row one does continue through to rear occupancy.

Boot space is a usable 380 litres while the rear seatbacks stow in 40:60 split to allow a reasonably spacious load area. There’s also a handy ski port as standard.

Cupra Leon VZx 2023 boot space cargo area

Interior scorecard
Layout & materials
Cabin technology
Driver comfort
Passenger space

What are the Leon VZx’s running costs?

Again, genuine real-world consumption barely higher than its thrifty 6.8L/100km remains remarkable for a device promising and delivering the performance that the Leon VZx does. But it does demand 98RON to deliver its goodness.

A real sweetener for early adopters of Volkswagen’s Spanish challenger brand is three years of complimentary basic servicing at fairly usual 12-month, 15,000-kilometre terms. This can be topped up to a five-year plan, at a one-off $1200, which also unlocks a conditional concierge service that’ll pick-up and drop-off your Leon for servicing.

Cupra Leon VZx 2023 magnetic tech matte front end

By comparison, a five year/75,000km service plan for a Golf GTI sets you back $2800, while the Hyundai i30 N costs $1675 to service over five years/50,000km.

Warranty is a Volkswagen-like five years and unlimited kilometres rather than a Skoda-like seven years.

Running costs scorecard

The final verdict

Both on paper and in delivery, the Cupra Leon VZx offers a compelling, mature and interesting hot hatch proposition that’s surprisingly unique.

Despite the Volkswagen Group DNA carousing through its Spanish veins, the ultimate Leon brings its own distinctively different character while also plugging a level of hot front-driven performance not currently offered by obvious corporate cousins of a go-fast nature.

Key to its appealing pitch is that it brings poise and polish along with its pace. And while there are elements of the Leon VZx execution that feel quite mainstream, by and large the experience is more premium, be it features or manner, than might otherwise expect.

The catch? Of course, it’s that circa-$73k driveaway price.

Cupra Leon VZx front 3/4 2022

Sure, you can start pulling out the frills – the optional glass roof, the fancy matte paintwork or the big Brembo brakes – to land at a $60,990 list price or around $65k on road. But why rationalise what’s clearly an indulgent and somewhat exclusive hot hatch offering to make it more affordable and measurably less interesting and enticing?

Besides, in resale terms, do you want to be caught without those sexy Brembos, whether you need them or not?

In choosing Cupra Leon VZx, you’re clearly taking a hot punt, in both senses of the term.

But if strong first impressions are anything to go by, there’s a big payoff for what’s a distinctive and compelling new hot hatch alternative. Copper talons and all.

Overall rating
Overall rating
Running costs
Overall rating
Running costs

Variant tested VZx

Options fitted
Brembo Brake Package
Matte Paint
Approximate on‑road price Including registration and government charges

Key specs (as tested)

1984 cc
221kW at 5300rpm
400Nm at 2000rpm
Power to weight ratio
Fuel type
Fuel capacity
50 litres
6.8L/100km (claimed)
Average Range
735km (claimed)
Front Wheel Drive
4398 mm
1799 mm
1465 mm
Unoccupied weight
1503 kg

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