The Mk3 Leon may have a lot of Golf in its DNA, but it very much has its own identity and character. Particularly in the case of Ryan Bennie’s tuned SEAT Leon Cupra 290, which is rapidly turning into some sort of demented Touring Car…

Feature from Fast Car. Words: Daniel Bevis. Photography: Adrian Brannan.

For as long as mankind has been able to bang rocks together and communicate in anything more than a system of grunts, there’s been one mantra which people have also been using to proffer one another as advice: ‘Get a Golf.’

Alright, maybe the habit doesn’t stretch quite that far back, but certainly to 1974. When Volkswagen decided to replace their evergreen Beetle with a boxfresh new radicalist that delivered haymaker after haymaker to the traditionalists, there was more than a little gobsmackery among the automotive community: this pesky little upstart had its engine in the front, and a water-cooled engine no less; it was a hatchback, with boxy styling and all sorts of unseemly ideas. But it immediately became apparent that this bullish chancer was by far the best-in-class; indeed, it invented a new class all of its own, and each of its subsequent generations have remained at the top table. Sure, there have been a few misses among the countless hits (we’re looking at you, Mk3 GTI – and the less said about the launch-spec 2.0 Mk4 GTI the better), but on the whole the advice you’d always give to someone who doesn’t know much about cars when they ask you what they should buy is pretty much ‘Get a Golf’. It’s a car that ticks a lot of boxes.

Tuned SEAT Leon Cupra

This, naturally, is why there are so many on the modding scene. As well as being well-made and reliable and generally very good, they’re also extremely receptive to modifying, hence the massive aftermarket that now supports them. But what if you want to embrace all of these stellar ingredients without doing the obvious thing and getting a default Golf? What if you’re more of an offbeat thinker?

This is where Ryan Bennie ambles in from stage left, grinning from ear-to-ear and basking in the magnificence of his mainstream-dodging choices. You see, he’s opted to buy and modify the SEAT Leon Cupra. The Spanish Golf, if you will. It’s no secret that there’s a lot of parts-sharing across the VAG group, but each related model gets its own individual character. Take the MQB platform, which first emerged in 2012 – cars built on this platform include the Mk7 Golf (which is, er, a Golf), the Mk3 Skoda Octavia (which is a long Golf), the Mk3 Audi A3 (which is a posh Golf), and the Mk3 SEAT Leon. What’s this model’s USP? Well, the Latin Golf has a bit more flair, more verve, more of a cheeky character. And while the Cupra sub-brand has recently ballooned into something so significant that it’s slightly inexplicably become a brand in its own right, this is a badge which SEAT has been gluing to its hot performance models for years.

Tuned SEAT Leon Cupra

Back in 2016, this meant exciting things for the Leon. The car we’re looking at here is a SEAT Leon Cupra 290 – and yes, the number in the name does denote a power figure. To mark the 20th anniversary of the Cupra name, SEAT opted to shove a dazzling 290bhp into the crisply-designed hatchback; furthermore, the peak torque of 258lb.ft was available from as low as 1,750rpm – this was a desirable machine indeed, particularly when you factor in the shouty exhaust, Haldex-type LSD and customisable damper settings. So if it’s so desirable, why don’t we see them everywhere? Quite simply, it’s not a Golf. Despite the fact that it basically is. Missing the Wolfsburg badging puts people off – a performance SEAT can only ever really be an also-ran.

But like we say, Ryan’s an offbeat thinker. So when he started looking around for a car that wasn’t a Golf, the ultimate solution was clear: the Cupra 290 was the best not-a-Golf of the lot.

Tuned SEAT Leon Cupra

“I was initially looking at getting a similarly-aged Audi S3,” he explains, “but every time I went to view one it got sold, rotten bit of luck. Then a mate of mine asked what I thought about Mk3 Leon Cupras; I told him thought they were smart but I’d never really looked into them, so I decided to give a couple a test-drive. And from then I knew instantly that I needed one!”

Having scoured the market for just the right example, Ryan found this car in March 2019 – a totally stock 290 in Black Edition spec, which meant better seats and cool blacked-out trim. A truly excellent Golf alternative, with effortless power, endless poise, and vivacious amusement in spades. A number of boxes ticked from the off, then – but if you’re expecting us to walk the well-trodden path here of the proud new owner immediately tearing his car apart to mod the hell out of it, think again. See, this is actually Ryan’s first crack at it.

Tuned SEAT Leon Cupra

“I’d never really tried modifying cars before, this is my first proper attempt,” he says. And it’s fair to say he seems to have a natural flair for it, doesn’t he? This isn’t just dipping a toe in the water, this fella’s going all-in. The first thing he did was to ease himself in old-school-style with limo tints and a sunstrip, before moving onto an exhaust resonator delete and de-wipering the tail. Things got a bit more in-depth as Ryan got into his stride, with a RamAir intake and some H&R lowering springs finding their way into the mix along with a strut brace and a pair of SEAT Aerodynamic sideskirts. The stride turned into a swagger with the addition of a set of two-piece BBS splits, by which time he was sufficiently deep into the modding scene to have had his eyes opened to a whole world of possibilities. Specifically, his attention turned to power.

Now, it’s worth knowing that, as well as never having really modded a car before, the 290bhp SEAT Leon Cupra was by far the quickest car he’d ever owned. In his day job as a coach driver, Ryan’s more than used to exploiting deep swells of torque on the day-to-day, but that’s a very different thing to the effervescent zinginess of a hard-boosting turbo four-pot. Nevertheless, it was immediately apparent how tuneable the EA888 motor was, and he wanted in. “I fitted a Forge carbon intake system, because who doesn’t like carbon?” he grins. “I got a custom 3in cat-back exhaust system made by Pipe Dynamics, then took it to MRC Scotland for a Stage 1 remap along with a DSG remap.”

The results were pretty startling – 362bhp and 359lb.ft, all deployed with whip-crack dual-clutch shifts to make every flex of the right ankle feel like a plunge into warp speed. And still the mods kept coming…

The biggest investment in the car so far came in the form of a set of OZ Racing Formula HLT wheels, a truly excellent choice which really suits the Leon’s Touring Car vibe, and the effect was further exacerbated by a Rieger rear diffuser and Air Design splitter. The panda-hued OE colour scheme meant that blacking-out of details was a must, so Ryan got busy smoothing and darkening the bumper inserts, before pulling the rug from onlookers’ feet by swapping out the SEAT badges for new-wave Cupra ‘X’ items.

“My favourite modification is the TCR Touring Car bonnet vent,” Ryan enthuses. “It might not be to everyone’s taste, but it really does catch people’s attention – especially with the carbon-on-carbon theme it has with the Forge intake peeking through from underneath.” He’s right, it’s an extremely cool touch, and proof positive that the student has become the master. The dude’s got plenty of plans too, currently weighing up the pros and cons of either coilovers or air-ride before he takes the next significant step in the build. Whatever happens, we’ll be keeping an eye on it – Ryan just seems to be really good at this stuff.

Tuned SEAT Leon Cupra

“The car hasn’t really turned out how I first imagined it,” he laughs. “There’s a fair few mods I never even thought of purchasing that are now on there, but I’m glad I bit the bullet and got them! I’d always wanted to modify a car as much as I could, and I’m still not finished so watch this space… but I like to have something unique and I like to think I’ve achieved that here. And as well as that, there was a promise to a mate who passed the year before I purchased the car, saying that if either of us was to pass away then the other would need to build a car worthy of them – I hope that he approves.”

We’d say that was a pretty safe bet. This guy hasn’t just taken an obscure base and seen how it turns out, he’s deliberately taken the offbeat not-a-Golf route and run with it, creating something truly unique. Mankind may be belligerently ploughing on with the ‘Get a Golf’ mantra, but Ryan just isn’t listening.

Tuned SEAT Leon Cupra

Tech Spec: Tuned Seat Leon Cupra


2.0-litre TSI EA888 Gen-3, Forge carbon intake, RamAir turbo elbow, Forge turbo muffler delete, custom 3in cat-back exhaust by Pipe Dynamics, Stage 1 map by MRC Scotland, 362bhp, 359lb ft


Factory DSG transmission and Haldex-type LSD, gearbox map by MRC Scotland, Powerflex dogbone mount


35mm H&R springs, front strut brace, BAF Motorsports K-brace



Wheels & tyres:

8.5x19in ET38 OZ Racing Formula HLT wheels with Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres


Custom bonnet with TCR Leon Touring Car vent, Air Design splitter, SEAT Aerodynamic sideskirts, Rieger rear diffuser, LeapWorks spoiler lip, limo tints, rear wiper delete, new Cupra ‘X’ logo badges front and rear


OEM Cupra, custom dead pedal and passenger footwell light