SEAT's Leon has, to date, been most appealing the more power you threw at it. So what's the third-generation one like with a little 1.2-litre engine? Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
If you want an inexpensive family hatch that doesn't remind you that you haven't shelled out in a major fashion, SEAT's Leon 1.2S has a lot to be said for it. It's smart looking, economical and if you choose the 105PS engine, fairly quick too.
Conventional wisdom tends to dictate that a small engine in a big car will result in a level of fun about equivalent to a thumb in the eye. You could point to several examples down the years, where manufacturers tried to cut costs by installing an asthmatic lump under the bonnet that just couldn't do the business. That was then though. These days car manufacturers have wised up. You can now buy big cars with small engines where small doesn't necessarily mean underpowered. Exhibit A is the SEAT Leon 1.2. What it lacks in cubic capacity it more than makes up for in clever engineering. This third generation Leon is a car that's making a name for itself by combining the driver appeal and value for money of the original car with the space and utility of the second-generation model. What's more, this time round the best buy isn't always the most expensive sports model.
SEAT will actually sell you two different versions of the 1.2-litre engine. There's an 86PS version and a usefully quicker 105PS version. This has enough about it to get to 60mph in just 9.7 seconds and keep going to 119mph.It drives through a six-speed manual gearbox that's light yet positive in its action. The chassis of the SEAT Leon is simple in its architecture with MacPherson strut front suspension, while the rear uses torsion beam suspension. Still, that's no bad thing as some of the very best hot hatches in this sector use exactly that set-up. The Leon rides and handles with polish. You'll notice the lack of weight at the front end when you turn in to a corner but the steering takes a little getting used to as it doesn't offer a great deal of feedback. There's plenty of grip, you just have to learn to trust the car's limits. The 1.2-litre engine is a good deal more refined than you might imagine, especially in 105PS guise. You might think that it does all of its best work at the top of the rev range, but that's far from the case. In fact, the peak torque figure of 175PS chimes in at an almost turbodiesel-like 1550rpm. It helps to dial in a few more revs than you'd expect to launch it off the line briskly but other than that it scores well. The long sixth gear makes motorway work refined and economical.
Design and Build
The Volkswagen Group's Modularer Querbaukasten architecture might seem a bit of a mouthful, but this is what underpins the Leon. Put simply, 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 too. Certain design cues remain, such as the 'Linea Dinimica' that runs rearwards over the wheel arches and the trapezoidal C-pillars, and you'll still recognise it 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 looks so obviously built down to a price. This, for many, was the biggest deterrent to the old Leon. That has been well and truly fixed.
Market and Model
The S model that we look at here marks the entry level point into Leon ownership and it's usually these cars that best illustrate how generous, or indeed otherwise, the manufacturers are when it comes to specifications. One item you won't be able to choose is the lovely DSG twin-clutch sequential gearbox, as this is only offered on SE versions of the 1.2-litre TSI 105PS engine. Still, it's no hardship to pedal along the manual model. Prices kick off at just over £15,500 for the 105PS car which isn't bad value at all, especially when one considers that the 105 PS diesel engine is another £1,700. Equipment levels are reasonably good too. It would have been nice to see alloy wheels when you're paying this much but the Leon S runs on 15-inch steels, so at least tyre replacement is going to be cheap. Otherwise you'll get air conditioning, heated mirrors, a colour media system with CD player and six speakers, Bluetooth, and steering wheel mounted audio and phone controls. Safety-wise you also get ESC stability control, tyre pressure monitoring and twin front, side, curtain and driver's knee airbags.
Cost of Ownership
The Leon has always been a vehicle that has carried an extremely reasonable asking price that is in turn backed up by solid residual values. The 1.2-litre petrol engines are sure to be attractive to used buyers who want a modern car but don't want to pay the earth. They're also part of a new vanguard of petrol engines that rival diesels for cost of ownership. SEAT claims a combined fuel economy figure of 57.6 mpg for the 105PS unit and 114g/km of carbon dioxide, although the economy figure dives quite dramatically if you do anything other than tickle the throttle pedal.
The SEAT Leon 1.2S might not be the most exciting car in SEAT's range but we'd wager that for quite a few people, it's going to prove the most appealing one. The 105PS engine will sell well, offering a clear £1,700 saving over an equivalent diesel and the sums will certainly work in your favour if you cover less than the average amount of miles per year and are looking to keep the car for three or four years. Of course, SEAT has devised the trim walk-up so that you'll be tempted to go for the alloy wheels and DSG gearbox option of the SE model but stick to your guns and you'll end up with very cost-effective family motoring. This third generation car is, above all, a very considered vehicle. It doesn't immediately hit you with headline-grabbing technology or drop-dead gorgeous styling. Instead it just quietly racks up the plus points and will appeal to those who've really done their homework. If you really do want a smart, five-door family hatch but don't want to pay through the nose, the Leon 1.2S makes a strong case for itself.