If you were compiling a list of the world's sportiest front wheel drive cars, you'd no doubt start with names like the MINI Cooper S, Volkswagen Golf GTI or Scirocco R, Ford Focus RS500 or Taurus SHO, Honda Integra Type R, Vauxhall/Opel Vectra or Astra VXR models, Peugeot 205 GTi, Alfa Romeo 147 or 156 GTA models, Nissan Altima Coupe, Mazda speed3, one of the Renaultsport Meganes, or if you're a little older perhaps the Lotus Elan, Lancia Fulvia, Fiat Abarth or Volvo S80 T6. Now there's a new name to put at the very top of that list and several new contenders gunning for the crown.
Spanish brand SEAT is not the first name you'd think of when it comes to outright world-beating sportiness, having been a down-market brand for most of its three quarters of a century existence.
The last twenty years though, have seen the brand's sportier models moving upmarket under new owner Volkswagen (via the Audi Group) and when SEAT announced its new Leon Cupra 280 had carved ten seconds off the front-wheel-drive (FWD) production car lap record for the Nürburgring Nordschleife circuit last week, the feat catapulted the sporting credibility of the brand into the global consciousness of automotive enthusiasts.
The Nürburgring Nordschleife circuit is widely considered the toughest and most demanding purpose-built racetrack in the world, having famously been nicknamed "The Green Hell" by three-time world F1 champion Jackie Stewart.
The demanding nature of the 20.8 km Nürburgring Nordschleife circuit, with its 33 left and 40 right bends, and the fact it is centrally-located in Europe and always available for testing, has seen a car's Nordschleife lap time become the commonly accepted yardstick for cars with sporting aspirations.
Which brings us back to the SEAT's performance in becoming the first production FWD model to dip below the eight-minute barrier.
7:58.4 is an astonishing lap time of the unforgiving German racetrack. It's not just ten seconds better than the previous FWD 'ring record set in 2011 by a Renaultsport Mégane 265 Trophy, but moves it into the company of rear-wheel drive and four-wheel-drive cars with double or more the Cupra's 280 hp, and purchase prices ranging ten times beyond the GBP 27,000 (approx. US$45,000) price tag of the SEAT Leon Cupra. One of the most commonly heard racetrack sayings ("when the flag drops, the b#!!&h1t; stops"), comes to mind as the stop watch does not bestow favors based on reputation.
Wikipedia keeps a list of the best lap times around the Nurburgring Nordschleife circuit and in light of the SEAT's astonishing lap time, here's the list of cars which it just bettered (click the image for closer examination):
And below are the cars which are only marginally faster around the Nurburgring Nordschleife circuit. Reputation is a fickle thing, and as a famous football coach once confided in me, "there are a lot of players running around in teams right now who are there based on their reputations, not on their current performance." The Nürburgring Nordschleife circuit simulates real world conditions better than drag strip time, dynamometer reading or airfield top speed run and if point-to-point times are what matters most to you, this list would make you think twice about buying that next supercar, because you could buy a SEAT Leon Cupra with performance package and another house with the change.
If that doesn't help put it in perspective, consider that it's not all that far behind the very fastest roadgoing motorcycles such as Kawasaki's ZX10-R, Aprilia's RSV4 and BMW's S1000RR, bikes with more than double the power-to-weight ratio and more performance than all but a dozen or so of Gizmag's four million readers a month know what to do with.
The car used to set the astonishing 7:58.4 lap time was a production-specification SEAT Leon Cupra 280 DSG, equipped with an optional Performance Pack that includes Brembo high-performance brakes, 19-inch alloy wheels and Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres.
Though the circuit's surface and safety features have long since been upgraded and the layout has been altered slightly, in achieving this lap time, the SEAT Leon Cupra 280 went around the same circuit much faster than Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Graham Hill, John Surtees et al did in their Formula One cars not all that long ago.
It might be souped up compared with the family sedan on which it is based, but the Leon Cupra is still a car that will happily troll to the supermarket and take the kids to school, yet it averaged 96 mph around the same Green Hell Jackie Stewart spoke of so reverently, topping 150 mph through the Tiergarten section. The circuit surface was dry, with an ambient temperature of 10ºC and a track temperature of 8ºC i.e. it could have gone faster in slightly warmer conditions.
Behind the wheel of the Leon Cupra 280 during its record-breaking lap time was Spanish driver Jordi Gené, official SEAT driver between 2003 and 2010 in European Touring Car and World Touring Car Championship racing.
The previous record – 8:08 - Mégane Renaultsport 265 Trophy
The incumbent just-broken record for production-specification front-wheel drive cars at the Nürburgring Nordschleife circuit was set in 2011 by a Renault team using a Mégane Renaultsport 265 Trophy driven by Renault Sport Development driver Laurent Hurgon.
The original record – 8:17 by Mégane Renaultsport R26.R
Renault Sport established the inaugural lap record (8:17) for a front-wheel drive production car at the Nordschleife in June, 2008 using a 265 hp Renault Sport Mégane R26.R also driven by Laurent Hurgon.
New contender No. 1 – Honda Civic Type R
The most obvious contender for SEAT's new lap record is Honda. In September 2012, Honda CEO Takanobu Ito announced the second coming of the Civic Type-R which was subsequently unveiled in Geneva last week – the same day the SEAT Cupra's new 'ring record was announced.
It must have been a mixed day for him, as 18 months previously, he had specifically targeted the Nurburgring lap record in his announcement speech with the words: "With the application of technologies which will be cultivated through participation in WTCC (World Touring Car Championship) starting this year, the all-new Civic Type-R is being developed with the goal of becoming the fastest front-wheel drive vehicle on the Nurburgring race course."
Since then the car has been seen testing on Nurburgring, and has spent a lot of time in the workshops of Honda's "go to" performance tuners, Mugen, getting every last horsepower from the vehicle.
On the day of Honda's Civic Type R announcement, no doubt aware that SEAT had carved a further ten seconds off Renault's lap record, the new Honda's weight remained undisclosed, while the output of the Type R's turbocharged 16 valve VTEC two liter engine was only mentioned as "more than 280 PS", presumably meaning Honda was intending to find a way to extract even more performance than the originally targeted 280 PS (206 kW) before the car hits showrooms 12 months from now.
SEAT set the Nurburgring lap record several weeks before the Geneva Motor Show and did not do the traditional immediate announcement, though videos circulated on YouTube showing the record had been set, and a number of automotive journalists ran articles wondering if the videos were accurate or internet hoaxes. SEAT obviously wanted to make the announcement in the presence of the world's automotive media, and hence the official announcement was delayed until the Geneva Show.
New Contender No. 2 - Vauxhall/Opel Astra VXR Extreme
Another other obvious contender for the lap record, which also broke cover at the Geneva Show, was the Vauxhall/Opel Astra VXR Extreme which already boasts an engine with more power (221 kW compared with the 206 kW of the SEAT), and a lightweight 1139 kg dry weight.
What's more, that weight has been optimized by building most of the top half of the car in Carbon Fiber to lower the car's center-of-gravity
If Opel decides to go after the record with the Extreme Astra VXR, Honda might find itself with a target that has moved a second time before it can even fire a shot. It would also be a shame not to prove that all the engineering lavished on creating the EXTREME was for go and not for show.
Not New Contender No. 3 – Renault Sport
Last but not least, the French Renault Sport team has a proud history in all hues of automotive sporting endeavor and after setting the initial FWD 'ring record and then breaking its own record prior to SEAT's unexpected incursion, and being aware that Honda had targeted its record 18 months ago ... the Renault team can also be expected to play a hand in the way this game unfolds.
Of all these potential FWD contenders with their miniature engines, Renault is the one with the most current and relevant expertise in engine development, engine downsizing, knowledge of energy management through Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems and its expertise in electric vehicle technology through the brand's Z.E. program.
Honda's motors have always been superb, but Renault's motors have powered Sebastien Vettel's Red Bull to a still unfinished string of four consecutive F1 championships which Vettel and Red Bull are accumulating. On top of that, Renault won two championships in its own right with Fernando Alonso driving in 2005/06. That mean Renault engines have chalked up six of the last nine championships at the highest level for both drivers and constructors.
New regulations this year mean that just seven days from now when the Formula One season kicks off at Albert Park in Australia, we'll see an entirely new engine in every car on the grid – a 1.6 liter turbocharged engine limited to 15,000rpm with two energy recovery systems (ERS). That's Renault's engine in Vettel's 2014 car under testing in Bahrain last month below. It might be a bit hard to cut through the visual clutter of the sponsorship stickers (you're looking at tens of millions of dollars in advertising right now), but if you look closely on Ricciardo's helmet and the nosecone, you'll see the Renault logo.
A host of other changes will ensure the new generation of F1 engines will be more in line with mass-production requirements - five power units will be allowed for each driver for the entire season.
Restriction will also apply to fuel consumption, with cars forced to use one third less fuel at the same time as producing world class power outputs from the new electrified 1.6-litre V6 Turbo configuration.
Renault is one of three suppliers to have taken on this not inconsiderable challenge, and used the Geneva Show to present its new Energy F1 2014 Power Unit, proudly developed in its F1 engine engineering headquarters in Viry-Châtillon, near Paris.
The Renault Energy F1 Power Unit is an engineering masterpiece based around a turbocharged internal combustion engine with two energy recovery systems which recuperate the energy contained in exhaust emissions (heat energy) and under braking to push the envelope of performance AND fuel efficiency AND exhaust emissions.
During its Geneva announcements, the French brand repeatedly underlined its "determination to make its F1 technology available to all motorists."
The next step for sporty FWD pocket rockets will be to deliver usable horsepower (think driving enjoyment, responsive pick-up and blistering acceleration) using a combination of fuel and electrical energy.
Oh, and one last point. The new 1.6 liter Renault hybrid F1 drive train produces 750 horsepower - that's more than three times any of the above-mentioned car engines produce. When Renault develops its next car in this category, horsepower will not be an issue. That's the Renault 750 horsepower electrified 1.6-litre V6 Turbo below.