The Volkswagen Group has a bold strategy for turning Seat into the marque of choice for the discerning and not-so-wealthy enthusiast. The theory is that Europe's youth will indulge themselves with a Spanish hatch before trading up to an Audi when their coffers are filled.
It's a quest that has led to the creation of some focused and exciting sport compact cars, the best of which is the Leon Cupra R. This mid-sized hatchback is based on the same platform as the VW Golf and the outgoing Audi A3, and the R boasts the 225-bhp 1.8t engine that originally powered the S3. Indeed, it's best to think of the Seat as a poor man's S3 - without the Quattro drivetrain but with $11,000 lopped off the price.
To create the R, Seat's stylists imbued the standard Cupra with a bold body kit. The front end is particularly aggressive, where a redesigned bumper incorporates a small aerodynamic splitter and a pair of poly-elliptical fog lamps. In combination with some stunning five-spoke 18-inch alloys, it provides the Leon with a welcome dose of drama.
The interior is more somber, but it's been spiced up with some red stitching on the seats, wheel and gearknob. White-faced instruments also provide a welcome break from the funeral theme. And because the fascia is borrowed from the Audi A3, the quality is first rate - only the cheap cup holder suggests that this is a downmarket alternative.
The R has been lowered by 6mm compared with the 180-bhp Cupra and this, coupled with a new front subframe, a thinner front anti-roll bar and a quicker steering rack sharpens the handling. None of its siblings - not the S3 and certainly not the Golf GTi - are such a hoot to drive. By turning off the stability control and lifting off the throttle on the entry to a corner, it's possible to tempt the Leon into a glorious four-wheel drift.
In first and second gears the traction control works overtime to put the power down, but in the mid-range - anywhere from 2100-6000 rpm - the Seat can keep pace with a Ford Focus RS (which costs #3000 ($4710) more). The throttle response is excellent for a car with a single blower and a six-speed gearbox with well-chosen ratios also helps its cause.
The ride is firm and on some broken surfaces it can crash uncomfortably, but it seems a small price to pay for the body control. Crucially, this is a car that feels fun at low speeds - where the whoosh of the turbo is accompanied by a grin-inducing surge of acceleration.
In many ways, the Cupra R is the car that the Golf GTi should be but isn't. It may lack the single-minded pedigree of the Focus RS but it's a match for the Civic Type-R and at #16,995 ($26,700), represents outstanding value for the money.
Seat is booming in Europe right now and it's not hard to see why. As a cut price Audi with a smile on its face it, the brand has found its niche and with a 180-bhp version of the smaller Ibiza on the way, the news is only going to get better for the enthusiast. Except, of course, for those in America.