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Hot Hatches

Seat Leon Cupra R
Base price : $22,000 (est.)
Engine : 4 cyl., turbo, 1781 cc, 20 val.
Output : 225 hp, 207 lb-ft
Transmission : 6-spd manual, FWD
Suspension f/r : strut / torsion beam
Weight : 3027 lbs
0-60 mph : 6.8 seconds
Top speed : 151 mph
200ft skidpad : 0.85 g
Pros  Torquey, four doors, looks
Cons  Aging chassis, heavy
Meanwhile, in Germany, Volkswagen has been putting General Motors to shame when it comes to platform-sharing. Volkswagen's Golf chassis also forms the basis for the Jetta (known as Bora in Europe), Czech-based Skoda Octavia, Spanish-built Seat Leon and Toledo, and even the Audi A3, S3 and TT. Seat's Leon Cupra R is one of the few hot hatchbacks that offer four proper doors. Based on the Mark IV Golf front-wheel-drive platform that debuted back in 1993, the Seat Leon Cupra R first debuted in 2001 with a 210 hp turbocharged four-cylinder engine, a derivation of the turbo engine that powers the VW Golf GTI 1.8T and all 4 cylinder Audi TT models. The engine was shared with the last generation of the Audi S3, but since the new-gen S3 will get a VR6 motor, the top Leon has been upgraded to 225 hp for 2003, thereby producing as much power as the Audi TT Quattro. Standard features include Brembo brakes, 18-inch wheels, low-profile tires and traction control. With a spacious Volkswagen-quality interior, the Spanish Leon exudes class, unlike the Peugeot. Normally, a front-driver with more that 225 hp going to the wheels is bound to succumb to enormous torque steer, Maxima-style. But thanks to its electronic nannies, the Leon stays composed under acceleration, with front-wheel burnouts still possible with the traction control turned off. There is virtually no noticeable turbo lag under normal acceleration. Turn-in at corners is wonderfully neutral, understeer and oversteer kept at a bare minimum. It is hard to imagine that the Leon is based on the same platform that the soft VW GTI models are built on.

Audi S3 Quattro
Base price : $28,000 (est.)
Engine : 4 cyl., turbo, 1781 cc, 20 val.
Output : 225 hp, 207 lb-ft
Transmission : 6-spd manual, AWD
Suspension f/r : strut / torsion beam
Weight : 3028 lbs
0-60 mph : 6.3 seconds
Top speed : 151 mph
200ft skidpad : 0.88 g
Pros  AWD, build quality, interior
Cons  Pricey, heavy, outdated
The Audi S3 Quattro is a step up from the Seat. Powered by the same engine and sitting on the same chassis as the Leon, the Audi has two inherent advantages - all-wheel-drive and a more luxurious interior. The Audi badge also adds prestige. But is it any better than its Golf-platformed siblings? Well, on its own merits, the S3 certainly is quite a car. Turbocharged power flows to all four wheels virtually lag-free. Straight-line acceleration is brisk, and cornering abilities are good enough to almost rival the WRX. Helped by 17-inch wheels and stiffened suspension, it can turn corners fairly well. Most critics consider the S3 a more practical alternative to the Audi TT Quattro. Both cars share the same engine and platform, and the S3 is actually lighter than the TT Quattro coupe by 200 lbs. Therefore, the S3 Quattro's sporting abilities are in no doubt. But how does it compare to other sporting hatchbacks? Well, it's rather dull. It's neutral handling in corners makes for a predictable drive at moderate speeds, but its tends towards understeer at the limit, while lightweight front-driven Clios and Peugeots can easily swing their tails out safely for tighter turn-in. The Golf chassis was never meant to serve as a basis for sports cars, and the TT has been receiving flak since it came out. Oddly enough, the FWD Leon Cupra R is receiving more critical acclaim for its tighter handling. This is due to the hardcore no-compromise suspension tuning of the Seat, while the expensive S3 attempts to provide decent ride quality for its well-off customers. Anyway, the new and improved Mark V Golf chassis will form the basis of the next 250+ hp S3, which should prove to be worth the money.


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