The German hot hatch meets its even hotter Spanish rival and the result is a 510bhp heat wave on wheels.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

The German hot hatch meets its even hotter Spanish rival and the result is a 510bhp heat wave on wheels.

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VOLKSWAGEN’S Golf GTI has been the pocket-rocket benchmark for the working- class petrolhead in Singapore since the Mk 5 of 2003. 

In its current Mk 7 iteration, the go-go Golf is arguably the most complete car in its segment, with an excellent fun-functionality equation, great bang for the buck and “boyracy” good looks. 

But being the hatchback to beat means the VW Golf GTI is used for target practice by various competitors playing in the same arena – Audi with its S3 Sportback, Ford with its new Focus RS, Honda with its grey-import Civic Type R, MINI with its Cooper S hot tots, Renault with its Megane RS, (defunct) Skoda with its Octavia vRS and Subaru with its five-door WRX STI. 

The Golf GTI even has to contend with in-house competition from the Golf R. And now there’s another competitor, this time from the “house” next door in the Volkswagen Group domain – Seat with its Leon Cupra. 

The Spanish brand returned to Singapore (after a 13-year absence) with a model range headlined by a lionhearted Leon, which is out to bite the Golf GTI and bait 10 buyers along the way. Just 10, because the Leon Cupra is a limited edition, according to the dealership, Vertex Euro Motors. 

The two hatchbacks are around the same size and their wheelbases are just 3 millimetres apart, but the Leon is quite a bit wider and about 50kg heavier. 

More noticeable, of course, is the Leon’s fiercer exterior – more curves in the body shape, more creases in the sheet metal, sleeker lights, sharper side mirrors in garang black and a perkier rump. The front end of the Seat even manages to out- honeycomb the GTI. 

The Leon Cupra also has bigger alloy wheels (19-inch versus the Golf’s 18-inch), which have bigger brakes nestled within them (front 340mm x 30mm and rear 310mm x 22mm, versus the Golf’s 314 x 30mm and 300 x 12mm respectively) 

All four of the Cupra’s brake discs are ventilated, whereas only the Golf’s front stoppers are ventilated. 

Both cars can stop promptly and reduce their speed equally effectively, but there might be a difference in a racetrack environment where the braking is fervent and frequent. 

We’re much nearer to Simpang than to Sepang, so there are precious few opportunities to brake like a maniac and accelerate like a madman. These two machines encourage such behaviour, but one of them is even more encouraging. 

The Leon Cupra puts the driver in the hot “Seat” and tells him so with an engine that idles restlessly, at over 1000rpm if the Sport or sportier Cupra drive profile is selected. The Golf GTI engine maintains a steady 800rpm idling speed regardless of drive mode or driver mood. 

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The Seat’s throttle pedal is also more sensitive to any flexing of your ankle, and it directs a turbo motor with significantly more power than the already powerful 220bhp Golf – 70bhp more, for a total of 290bhp. The extra energy gives the Leon a 25 percent stronger power-to-weight ratio than the Golf. 

When pottering from point to point, those additional Barcelona horses aren’t galloping yet, so the speedy Spaniard feels no speedier than its German counterpart. 

But the Cupra engine registers a more enthusiastic uptick from 2500rpm to 3500rpm, in contrast to the GTI engine which delivers a progressive flow of horsepower during part-throttle driving. 

With a wide open throttle, the Cupra kicks off its flamenco performance – the fiery engine sings, the gearbox strums its six “guitar strings” quickly and the front 235/35 R19 Pirelli Zero tyres scramble for grip now and again. Feed the Spanish steeds’ need for speed and the spirited performance continues apace, threatening to leave the GTI in its exhaust wake. 

The GTI is not far behind, actually. In fact, it’s snapping at the heels of the Cupra and speeding towards the same imaginary checkered flag. But the Cupra is more eager to race towards its 6500rpm redline and actually revs over that high point, with some more oomph to give when the GTI is already running out of puff at 6000rpm. 

Both hatches essentially have the same quick-fire 6-speed dual-clutch gearbox, but the Cupra changes gears more aggressively, whether upshifting/downshifting automatically or paddle- shifting manually. Yet, the greater aggression of the Cupra’s gearchanges isn’t at the expense of slickness, with the transmission every bit as well- oiled as the one in the Golf. 

The Cupra also beats the GTI in sporty sound effects, with even juicier engine notes and even fruitier exhaust “pipes”. 

That being said and heard, the racket generated by the Seat rocket might get tiresome and attract unwanted attention as the Golf goes about its business in relative stealth. 

On the handling test sheet, the Cupra ticks the same boxes as the GTI – [confident], [enjoyable], [controllable] – but with a little more pressure from the petrolhead’s pencil. 

In the same corners where the GTI would grip and proceed, the Cupra would bite and let rip. En route from entry to apex and exit, the GTI is rapid, whereas the Cupra is rabid. 

If I use a corny dance analogy to describe the two cars’ difference in cornering behaviour, the Golf is like techno disco and the Leon is like macarena. 

All the dance moves are energetic, but the German dancer is more mechanical and its beats are full of synthesizer rhythms, in contrast to the animated Spaniard and its Latin tunes played by a live band. 

When the dancing ends and it’s time to drive home, the Golf becomes the more likeable dancer. Its ride is quieter and its suspension is able to deflect the rougher patches of tarmac which would disturb the Leon and its occupants. 

In Singapore, where exceeding the speed limit anywhere is pushing your luck, the performance gap between Cupra and GTI isn’t that wide – for the chap driving the two cars back to back, negotiating the gap in question is more like crossing a side street than dashing across a main road. 

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Inside the cabins, the differences could sway a buyer in either direction, depending on his personal taste and innate desire for haste. 

The faster-colour scheme, for instance, is “red”-hot in the GTI and “white”-hot in the Cupra. The Cupra’s checkered-flag logo is everywhere (I counted six), unlike the “GTI” emblem (only on the steering wheel). 

The Cupra’s instrumentation is also more indicative of serious performance – 300km/h speedometer versus the GTI’s 280km/h speedo, plus customisable Sport Information digital dials (power output, turbo boost, g-force, oil and water temperatures) instead of the GTI’s eco- oriented Think Blue Trainer (the Cupra also has a similar feature called Eco Trainer). 

Both steering wheels look good, feel very good in your hands, twirl sweetly in every situation (they’re variable-ratio) and have paddles for the DIY driver to play with. 

But compared to the GTI rack, the Cupra’s steering is generally too light and supplies discernibly less feedback. It also puts fewer features at your fingertips (no cruise control, for instance). The GTI even steers for you with its Park Assist automated parallel parking. 

Other goodies aboard the Golf make the Leon appear lean – keyless entry and push- button ignition instead of an insert-and-twist key, an electric parking brake instead of a good old handbrake, an 8-inch infotainment touchscreen with integral navigation instead of a 6.5-inch system with Garmin GPS ($400 dealer-installed accessory), and a standard panoramic sunroof ($5000 factory option for the Leon). 

In addition, the GTI driver’s seat is electrically adjusted. The Cupra’s chair behind the wheel is not only adjusted manually, but also a tad short on thigh support vis-a-vis the GTI’s. But the part-Alcantara upholstery is lovely and almost as comfy as the GTI’s “Vienna” leather. 

Closer inspection would reveal, unlike Volkswagen with the Golf, Seat has left the Leon’s A-pillars, doorbins and glovebox untrimmed, consequently making the interior look cheaper. 

Another item that cheapens the Leon is the self-service metal strut that props up the bonnet – the Golf has a convenient built-in gas strut for this purpose. 

The two hatchbacks have the same 380-litre boot capacity, more or less the same amount of cabin space and an equally broad centre armrest for the pair of passengers in the back. 

But it’s easier to stash sundries in the Golf thanks to its roomier storage compartments, and the Golf’s auto air-conditioning feels more effective. 

So, which of these hatches of hotness do I prefer? 

If I were a reckless 30-something who would drive the hot hatch like I stole it, I prefer the Seat Leon Cupra. If I were a restless 40-something who would drive the hot hatch like I bought it, I prefer the Volkswagen Golf GTI.