SEAT's third generation Leon looks tempting in sporty FR trim. Jonathan Crouch tries it.
Ten Second Review
If you'd like your family hatchback with a dash more attitude than the normal bland box, look to SEAT and its striking Leon. With the car benefiting from the best engineering that the Volkswagen Group can offer, think of it as a Golf with a sharper suit and a keener price tag. Oh, and a bit of a sporty feel in racy FR form.
It took quite a while for the public to warm to the radical step change that SEAT introduced when it moved from the hugely popular Mk1 SEAT Leon of 2000 to the bigger and slicker second generation car introduced in 2005. That's often how it is when radical designs are introduced. Many of the cars that we slated as being ugly now look really good. The Leon was never ugly but some of the other designs spun off that styling theme in the SEAT line up weren't the happiest looking things. The benefit of hindsight shows that the Leon was the best interpretation of ex-Alfa man Walter da Silva's design language. It never reprised the sales success of the original, and SEAT is looking to kick start interest in the Leon line with a third generation model that shares the basic proportioning of its predecessor but which looks tauter and a good deal more modern. Especially in the sporty FR form we look at here. Still want that Golf?
The Leon made its name as a sporty selection and the latest line-up is powered by a series of downsized yet powerful TDI diesel and TSI petrol engines. In FR spec, you can expect to choose between 1.4 or 1.8-litre TSI petrol units or the 2.0-litre TDI diesel: we tried it in 150PS form. The Leon FR hot hatch features an interesting function called SEAT Drive Profile. This allows the driver to vary the characteristics of the power steering, throttle control and even the engine sound via a sound actuator using three modes: eco, comfort and sport. There is also a facility to tailor the settings according to the driver's preference. The interior ambient LED lighting changes according to the selected setting: white in eco and comfort modes, and red in sport. No red mist please. FR models get firmer suspension and wider tyres than standard variants, but even here, the ride balance is one you'll be happy to live with in the traffic jams, urban jungles and motorway mileages of real life. There's an extra dash of spirit in this car which for some reason, I just don't feel in an apparently identical Volkswagen Golf. Perhaps the sportier styling and more dynamic brand image that this SEAT has lead you to push it that little bit harder, revealing unexpected handling talent that a Golf or an Octavia could also offer if only given the chance. Maybe. But somehow I doubt it.
Design and Build
The Leon is built on the Volkswagen Group's Modularer Querbaukasten architecture which, in layman's terms means it's built on the same chassis as an Audi A3 and the next generation Skoda Octavia and Volkswagen Golf. This modular layout allows the company to alter wheelbases and track widths to suit different cars. With the Leon the proportions look rather peachy, with a slight shift of the visual weight of the cabin over the rear wheels compared to the last car. With more bonnet and deeply sculpted sides, the Leon now looks a lot sharper and more aggressive, with real edge to the detailing around its lights and grille. At 4.26 metres long, the new Leon is actually five centimetres shorter than its predecessor, which means it's easier to park, but through clever packaging and a six centimetre longer wheelbase, SEAT has managed to improve interior space, especially for those in the back. Despite a shorter rear overhang, the 380-litre luggage bay is 40-litres bigger too. I'm still trying to figure that one out. Certain design cues remain, such as the 'Linea Dinimica' that runs rearwards over the wheel arches and the trapezoidal C-pillars, both ensuring that you'll still recognise this design as a Leon. It just looks like the 'after' shots in those muscle magazines. The cabin looks cleaner too, with a dashboard that no longer appears so obviously built down to a price. This, for many, was the biggest deterrent to the old Leon. Deterrent gone.
Market and Model
FR pricing starts at just under the £20,000 mark for the 1.4-litre TSI petrol variant, with a £1,000 premium if you want the pokier 1.8-litre petrol TSI and another £1,300 on top of that if you need the 2.0-litre TDI 150PS diesel version I tried. That means a premium of around £1,500 over standard SE trim. As well as a sportier look, the extra money buys you smart titanium 18-inch alloy wheels, a navigation system, a nine speaker sound set-up with sub-woofer and full LED headlights. That's in addition to the kit list boasted by all Leon models. This includes air conditioning, integrated hands-free phone operation with Bluetooth audio streaming and a colour touchscreen interface. In addition, every new Leon comes with seven airbags, anti-lock braking, traction control, electronic stability control with emergency brake assist, active front head restraints, ISOFIX with Top Tether anchorage, and remote central locking. Options include the opportunity of embellishing the EASYCONNECT package with Satellite Navigation and an Optical Parking Sensor system. Or perhaps specifying the 'Media System Plus' which increases the size of the screen and includes a proximity sensor so it can sense your finger coming towards it and offer extra options. I'd also want to look at the 135watt 6-channel 10-speaker SEAT sound system with its built-in boot-mounted sub-woofer.
Cost of Ownership
It's not easy to cut back the weight of a modern family hatchback in a market where buyers want their cars to be safer and more heavily equipped. Yet thanks to the installation of the Volkswagen Group's MQB platform, this SEAT manages to be up to 100kgs lighter than its immediate predecessor. On top of that, it boasts a range of engines that are said to be on average 22% more fuel and emissions-efficient than those in the second generation Leon range. This is chiefly thanks to the standard installation of a Start/Stop system that cuts the engine when you don't need it, stuck in traffic or waiting at the lights. Plus an Energy Recovery system that stores brake energy usually lost as heat and uses it to help power the car's electrical systems, ultimately preserving fuel. All part of what SEAT calls 'Ecomotive technology'. The 2.0 TDI 150PS variant we tried manages 68.9mpg on the combined cycle and 106g/km of CO2. Don't automatically tick the box for a TDI diesel Leon though until you've properly considered the petrol proposition. For the 1.4 TSI, the figures are 54.3mpg and 119g/km. And for the 1.8 TSI, you can expect 47.1mpg and 139g/km. Bear in mind that if you go for an 'FR' specification Leon, then your car with come with a 'Drive Profile' system incorporating an 'Eco' mode. This helps you maximise your running cost returns by trimming the air conditioning back, indicating the best gear change points and prompting a coasting mode on the motorway when a DSG gearbox is fitted.
The third generation SEAT Leon looks a very promising package indeed. Better looking than before, classier inside and out, with super-efficient engines and the retention of its sporting appeal in FR form, it's exactly the car the Spanish brand needs to resurrect its fortunes in this sector. With the old Leon, this was a car that you'd recommend with caveats. Something like : 'It's a good car but the interior's a weak point. You need to avoid some of the older diesel engines. And the driver technology is a bit behind the times'. None of that now. This time round, SEAT has surgically excised each of these reasons for passing the Leon over. We're excited, especially by this car in FR guise. If you're looking to buy a family hatchback with a bit of a spark to it, you should be too.