SEAT's improved Leon has smarter 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 improved third generation guise we're looking at here. Pokier versions of the sporty SC models do battle with the likes of Ford's Focus ST and the Volkswagen's Golf GTI but most of the Leon sales aren't made to boy or girl racers. The Leon's core market is family buyers who favour the more mundane and sensible models in the line-up. Most people will be looking at models like the 1.0-litre TSI variant I tried. There's a choice of hatch, coupe and estate bodystyles. On first impressions, there's very little not to like. On this revised model, at the front and rear, there are revised bumpers and bodywork with sharper, more assertive lines, plus there's a smarter chromed front grille. As a result, the Leon now looks a lot sharper and more aggressive, with real edge to the detailing. 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 its finely sculpted exterior, the Leon's interior ambiance always tended o come across as being a little on the dull side. This improved version s lightly better in that regard. Inside, the ambient lighting LEDs' intensity can be regulated as the driver wishes from the newly redesigned eight-inch central infotainment screen. This monitor eliminates the need for many of the buttons and dials that were scattered around the fascia on the previous model. From this monitor, the LED ambient lighting of the cabin can be dimmed or intensified, giving the interior a classy feel. 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.
Behind the Wheel
Despite being equipped with one of the least powerful engines in the range, my 1.0 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 115PS 1.0-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. Other petrol engine options include a 1.4-litre EcoTSI variant with efficient Cylinder-on-Demand technology. And a 1.8-litre TSI powerplant with 180PS. As before, Cupra versions get the 2.0 TSI petrol engine from the Golf GTI, but in an uprated form up to 300PS. Most Leon buyers though, will want a diesel. Here again at the foot of the range there's a fresh option, a 115PS version of the VW Group's familiar 1.6-litre TDI unit. Above that sit the usual 2.0-litre TDI units, offered with either 150 or 184PS. When it comes to gearboxes, the range includes five- or six-speed manual options, all well as double-clutch DSG auto 'boxes with six- or seven-speeds.
Value For Money
The Leon range starts at around £18,000 but you'll need around £19,000 to et yourself into the 1.0 TSI variant I tried. Across the line-up, key equipment features include 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. Beneath the sporty styling is a practical, well thought out interior. 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.