SEAT's Leon has the hot hatch looks but does it measure up from a practical perspective? June Neary finds out.
Will It Suit Me?
SEAT are actively fashioning a sporty image for their products. The brand's positioning within the sprawling Volkswagen Group empire means that it's tasked with appealing to a younger, more image-conscious clientele than the cost-cutting Skoda marque and the upmarket offerings from Volkswagen and, ultimately, Audi. The Leon is SEAT's family hatchback and as such, it's central to this grand scheme, especially in the third generation guise we're looking at here. Pokier versions of the sporty SC models do battle with the likes of Renault's Megane Renaultsport, Vauxhall's Astra VXR and, in a slightly friendlier way, with their Volkswagen's Golf GTI sister vehicles but most of the Leon sales aren't made to boy or girl racers. Despite its hot hatch pretensions, the Leon's core market is family buyers who favour the more mundane and sensible models in the line-up. This is much more like it. Although I have been known to take a shine to the odd high-powered super hatch in my time, the rickety ride, hefty fuel bills and stratospheric insurance premiums mean you've really got to want that extra 50bhp. Most people will be looking considerably further down the Leon line-up at models like the 1.2-litre S that was dropped-off outside my house one sunny morning. On first impressions, there's very little not to like. 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. There's hardly a straight line to be seen and it's highly unlikely to be mistaken for any its family hatch rivals. You couldn't call it boring and I like it.
In the context of the finely sculpted exterior, the Leon's interior ambiance may come across as being a little on the dull side. There's always the suspicion with SEAT products that the quality of the materials has been deliberately toned down a notch in order to preserve the superiority of the equivalent Volkswagen model. That same impression is in evidence here but things have been improved with this third generation version and if we remember that we're examining a fairly lowly S derivative, things really aren't too bad. The standard of fit and finish is beyond reproach in the Leon and appraising yourself of the well laid-out controls is the work of just a few seconds. The design is neat and there's plenty of storage from the deep door pockets, glove box and cubbies between the seats. Only some tough feeling plastics and the lack of any design flair to match the car's bodywork are of serious disappointment. When this much care has been taken to give a car a swoopily, dynamic exterior, it's often the case that interior practicality suffers. With the Leon, however, space is a big strong point. There's loads of headroom in the cabin and travelling five-up with three across the back seat shouldn't present undue problems. The boot is also fairly spacious, although rivals do offer more capacity here and the loading aperture isn't ideally shaped for lifting in larger items. There are over 380-litres to play with - 40-litres more than before..
Behind the Wheel
Despite being equipped with one of the least powerful engines in the range, my 1.2 TSI Leon proved an engaging drive. It does much more than you would expect to live up to the sporty SEAT brand image with a firm ride that's just supple enough on longer trips. The car's body control in corners is excellent and it really spurs the driver on - perhaps more so than the passengers would sometimes like. The gearchange has a nice punchy, short-throw action that also adds to the sporty feel and the driving position is low, so you feel nestled into the car while at the wheel. The 105PS 1.2-litre engine I tried is refined but doesn't set the heart racing in the acceleration stakes. For that, you'll have to upgrade to one of the other power options. It gives you a 0-60mph time of 10s and a 119mph top speed but more salient to the car's target market will be combined fuel economy of over 57mpg. In the mainstream line-up, there's also a 140PS 1.4-litre petrol unit, a willing 105PS 1.6 TDI diesel, plus a couple of pokey 2.0-litre TDI diesels with either 150 or 184PS on tap.
Value For Money
Just under £16,000 will get you behind the wheel of a SEAT Leon 1.2-litre TSI S. It'll have air-conditioning, a CD stereo, electric front windows, remote central locking and electric wing mirrors. In terms of safety, there's ABS with brakeforce distribution, loads of airbags and ISOFIX child seat mountings. Take into account the eye-catching styling and the enjoyable driving experience along with the practical interior and it's hard to conclude that the Leon is anything but decent value for money.
Could I Live With One?
I could live with one very easily and most family buyers could too. Don't be put off by the Leon's sporty persona: beneath that innovative styling is a practical, well thought out interior. It is sporty but the qualities that make the high-powered models a real hoot to drive also come through in the lower-spec derivatives. Whichever Leon you choose, you'll be getting a solid family hatch all-rounder with the ability to turn heads and put a smile on its driver's face. April 8th 2013