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SEAT Leon Cupra Mk1: Buying guide and review (1998-2005)

SEAT Leon Cupra Mk1: Buying guide and review (1998-2005) Classic and Performance Car
SEAT Leon Cupra Mk1 SEAT Leon Cupra Mk1 SEAT Leon Cupra Mk1 SEAT Leon Cupra Mk1 SEAT Leon Cupra Mk1 SEAT Leon Cupra Mk1
The SEAT Leon Cupra was a bit of an own goal for the Volkswagen group. Based on the Golf Mk4 platform, the Leon was targeted at a more youthful market and thus featured sportier styling along with a slightly less sumptuously clad interior. It slotted in below the Golf range pricewise, but in terms of driver enjoyment it was a clear winner.
Sharing the GTI’s running gear, the Cupra added a level of engagement that was sorely lacking in the Golf and in the final few years of production, Cupra R versions could be had with a slightly detuned Audi S3 motor, giving it serious performance bargain status – especially today.

Which Leon to buy?

The Cupra was introduced in 1998, featuring the same 180bhp 1.8 20 valve turbo engine as the Golf GTI. Performance was slightly better thanks to slightly lower weight, and handling that was far more engaging too. Drive was to the front wheels through a six-speed manual transmission, and the interior was derived from the A3 – which is no bad thing. 
The Cupra R arrived in 2002, sporting 207bhp and uprated Brembo brakes, improved suspension settings and an even quicker steering rack. It was updated in 2003 with the motor from the S3 (slightly detuned to 222bhp) and has become the most desirable of all the Cupra variants. To differentiate between the two models, check for an AMK engine plate on earlier cars or BAM for the 222bhp version. The standard Cupra retained the same engine throughout and was renamed the FR in late 2004.
Standard specifications may not have been as high as in the Golf Mk4, but they were generous nonetheless and in the range-topping Cupra models air conditioning, electric windows, traction control and sports seats were all standard fitment. Cupra R models got an oval tailpipe, those Brembo calipers and climate control.
Some special versions such as the left-hand drive only four-wheel drive VR6 engined Cupras never made it to our market but in truth the torquey 1.8-litre turbo mills provide at least as much straight line pace and is a lot easier to modify.
Many cars will have been remapped to liberate some extra horses from under the bonnet and as long as the work has been done professionally – and not to extremes – do not be put off by a few mild upgrades. Cars sporting uprated turbos, pistons and suspensions should be approached with a bit more caution however, the extra strain on the internals can lead to serious bills down the line.

Performance and specs

2001 SEAT Leon Cupra R
Engine 1781cc 20 valve DOHC, in-line four-cylinder
Power 207bhp @ 5800rpm 
Torque 199lb ft @ 2100rpm
Top speed 147mph 
0-60mph 6.9 seconds 
Fuel consumption 32mpg 
Gearbox Six-speed manual

Dimensions and weight

Wheelbase 2513mm
Length 4184mm
Width 1742mm
Height 1457mm
Weight 1350kg

Common problems

• Parts and spares are well catered for, and there are a number of specialists who have in-depth knowledge of Cupra models. As it’s based on the Mk4 Golf, much of the running gear is interchangeable with other cars.

• Cambelt changes should be carried out every 60,000miles as snapped belts may mean an engine rebuild. Tensioners and dampers should also be renewed at this stage.
• Gearboxes are strong and generally only play up if too much boost is channelled through them. 
• Water pumps can fail which can lead to warped heads and in extreme cases seized pistons, best to get these replaced with the cambelt to avoid issues.
• Turbos last well past 90,000miles if well cared for, but aggressive remapping, hard driving without allowing for a warming up and cooling down periods, as well as infrequent oil changes can all drastically shorten its lifespan.
• Coil packs, especially on earlier cars tend to fail rather frequently. A common fault across the VAG range, the newer cars are slightly better in this regard. Spark plugs should be done at least every 40,000 miles too.
• The fully galvanised body shells should be rust free, and any bubbling paint could indicate a poorly executed respray. Cupra R splitters are low to the ground and tend to crack.
• Three main recalls affected the Leon models, the first was for a potentially defective passenger airbag. The other two were for potential brake failure due to electrical faults or brake pipe cracking. Certain models manufactured up to the end of 2001 were affected so check if yours was one.

Model history

1998: SEAT Leon Cupra introduced with 180bhp 20v turbo engine. Six-speed manual gearbox and four-door body style standard. Specification includes air conditioning, electric windows and sports suspension.
2001: Cupra R introduced with 207bhp and detail upgrades over standard Cupra including Brembo brakes
2003: Cupra R gets detuned 222bhp engine from S3
2004: Cupra gets rebranded as an FR with no mechanical changes
2005: Final year of production for first generation Cupra models

Owners clubs, forums and websites

• www.seatcupra.net – Cupra enthusiast site
• www.seatowners.club – SEAT owners club
• www.leonoc.com – Leon enthusiast site

Summary and prices

The earliest Cupras are now languishing under the £1000 mark. While a few clean high-milers may be lurking down there, it’s better to start your search closer to the £2000 mark, which gets you a 2003 model with a proper service history.

Cupra R models, especially with low mileages tend to range between £3000 and £5000. The later S3-engined cars are especially sought after. Offering a desirable mix of pace and practicality, the first gen Cupra is a desirable thing and at these prices it has precious few rivals. 

Words: John Tallodi
SEAT Leon Cupra Mk1 SEAT Leon Cupra Mk1 SEAT Leon Cupra Mk1 SEAT Leon Cupra Mk1 SEAT Leon Cupra Mk1 SEAT Leon Cupra Mk1
Last updated: 23rd Feb 2017
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1495 34000 GBP
  • SEAT Leon

    £23,500 £23,500

    Variant name:Sport Coupe Cupra ,Derivative:Cupra ,Variant: 2.0 TSI Cupra 300 3dr DSG Seat Leon 2.0 TSI Cupra 300 3dr DSG

    • Year: 2018
    • Mileage: 5119 mi
    • Engine size: 2
    For sale
    £23,500 £23,500
    Marshall Motor Group-Marshall SEAT of Braintree
    01376 767043 View contact number
  • SEAT Leon

    £1,495 £1,495

    ** Awaiting Preparation **, Climate Control, Air Conditioning, Sports Seats, Immobiliser, Remote Central Locking, Power Steering, Traction Control, Trip Computer, ABS, Multiple Airbags, Front Fog Lamps, Electric Mirrors, Electric Windows, Radio Cassette, Multi-Disc CD Player, Alloy wheels, Part service history

    • Mileage: 156000 mi
    • Engine size: 1781
    For sale
    £1,495 £1,495
  • SEAT Leon

    £17,500 £17,500

    Variant name:Hatchback Cupra ,Derivative:Cupra ,Variant: Cupra 280 TSI Semi-Auto A low mileage 276 BHP hot hatch with a full service history! In Midnight Black metallic with black alloys, red brake calipers and red exterior styling. Full leather with heated front seats, front & rear parking sensors, sat nav and Bluetooth!

    • Year: 2015
    • Mileage: 23699 mi
    • Engine size: 2
    For sale
    £17,500 £17,500
  • SEAT Leon

    £14,999 £14,999

    Variant name:2.0 TSI Cupra 280 3dr D ,Derivative:Cupra ,Variant: 2.0 TSI Cupra 280 3dr D ABS,Alloy Wheels,Automatic Gearbox,Automatic Headlights,Automatic Wipers,Bluetooth Prepared,CD Player,Climate Control,Cruise Control,Electric Mirrors,Electric Windows,Front Fog Lights,iPod Connection,Isofix Seats,Leather Steering Wheel,Power Steering,Satellite Navigation,Traction Control,Upgraded Alloy Wheels

    • Year: 2014
    • Mileage: 28000 mi
    • Engine size: 2
    For sale
    £14,999 £14,999