The Blue Oval is nudging into £30k+ executive territory with flood of new, pricier models
SEAT Leon review (2013 onwards)
What: SEAT Leon five-door hatchback
Where: Malaga, Spain
Date: November 2012
Price: £15,670 - £22,375
Available: On sale now, arriving in March 2013
Key rivals: Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai i30, Kia Cee’d, Mazda 3, Renault Megane, Toyota Auris, Vauxhall Astra, Volkswagen Golf
Using the same technology as the latest VW Golf and Audi A3 but costing less, the new SEAT Leon is an attractive yet pragmatic family hatchback choice
We like: good to drive, strong engine line-up, well equipped, spacious, keen value
We don’t like: interior plastics not quite the best (nit-picking)
The current SEAT Leon is a tough act for the new 2013 version to follow in the UK. It combines distinctive looks with a sporty image, good value and strong all-round performance to provide an alternative choice to the big boys that demands few compromises.
In fact, the package is so convincing at this point that 2012 is looking certain to be the second best sales year in the model’s history here – and could even end up setting a new all-time record. For a car in its final year on the market this is basically unheard of.
Better than the old Leon in every respect
So how do you top that? Easy: offer consumers an all-new model based on the exact same underpinnings as the very latest Volkswagen Golf and Audi A3 – the VW Group’s new “MQB” platform for anyone who hasn’t been introduced – stacked with similar levels of technology at a slightly lower price.
Thus creating a new Leon that is better than the old Leon in - essentially - every respect. Some might quibble over the looks, which are arguably the Audi as a hamster with its pouches stuffed and less individual than before, but the new Leon is more efficient, more powerful and has more passenger space.
Every car gets air conditioning as standard, and the five-door hatch tested here is the vanguard for what will soon become a three-pronged attack, also comprising a racier three-door SC and an extra practical ST estate. The force is strong with this one.
Initial UK engine choice for the new Leon consists of three petrol and three diesel engines. Each is turbocharged for improved performance and efficiency, starting with the 105hp 1.2-litre TSI petrol.
We would happily stop at this point as well, since it’s our pick of the range. But for the sake of completeness you can also choose a 140hp 1.4 TSI and a 180hp 1.8 TSI on the petrol side, plus a 105hp 1.6 TDI and two flavours of 2.0 TDI on the diesel side, offering 150hp and 184hp – both of which we also drove.
The worst you can say about the diesels is that they’re a little noisy – especially the range-topping unit, as you might expect. On balance, we’d stick with the 150hp version anyway, as the extra 34hp didn’t seem frisky enough to justify the additional expense.
Either way you get a linear power delivery with plenty of overtaking torque. While we didn’t get to try the 1.6 that’s likely to prove most popular of all, experience of this engine in other VW Group products means we’re confident it won’t disappoint.
Which brings us neatly back to the 1.2-litre TSI petrol. Compared to those torque-rich diesels we found ourselves a touch more circumspect about passing slower traffic. But that aside, the super sweet nature of this diminutive firecracker means it really is all the engine most people will ever need.
Think of the size in terms of advantages rather than disadvantages. Total weight is only 1,113kg, and if you go easy on it, fuel consumption will certainly be modest. Yet it’s the way it responds when you wring its neck that makes a lasting impression – it just wants to keep on giving and giving.
Ride and handling
As with the other MQB products, the new Leon makes significant weight savings over the car it replaces. In the SEAT’s case the average is a whopping 90kg, which, thanks to the increased use of higher strength steel, comes without sacrificing safety or strength. The new car is 15% stiffer than the old one.
Reduced weight and increased strength both benefit ride and handling, as the stronger structure allows the suspension to work more effectively and the lower weight means there’s less mass for it to control. The Leon is keen to turn, grippy when it does so, and generally impressive at smothering bumps.
In other words, pretty much like the latest Golf and A3, then – which shouldn’t come as a massive surprise. Like those cars it offers an inspired combination of composure and comfort without leaving the driver feeling completely remote. Even Leons with lower specification suspension are well balanced at speed, too.
What does lower specification suspension mean? Like the Golf, all Leons with up to 150hp have a less sophisticated rear axle design – which saves on costs. It means the more powerful models are slightly more composed when you’re pressing on, but for us this actually made the lesser cars more involving.
Most buyers are unlikely to be bothered in any case – regardless of what’s fitted at the back, the Leon glories in a smooth ride and precise, neatly weighted steering that delivers well synthesised feedback. If you want more, pick the FR trim level, which includes stiffer springs and dampers, and reduced ride height.
With FR available across almost the entire engine line up, it now functions like Audi’s S line trim, instead of as a mild, standalone, performance model. Below this you’ll find SE, and then the entry-level S – which only comes with the 1.2-litre petrol and 1.6-litre diesel engines.
S buyers are hardly short-changed, however, since every single Leon will be sold with air conditioning and a touchscreen infotainment system – not to mention six speakers, Bluetooth, heated mirrors, seven airbags, and stability control. Ill-equipped it is not.
Upgrade to SE and you get alloy wheels, cruise control and a bigger and better touchscreen; FR adds front and rear parking sensors, dual-zone climate, and SEAT Drive Profile, giving you Normal, Sport and Eco settings, plus a custom Individual option. Yep, SEAT’s now got its own version of Audi drive select.
Premium stuff. The cabin plastics aren’t quite as alluring, unfortunately. This is the one area where SEAT still isn’t able – or allowed – to compete with its posher siblings. But the overall design of the interior is much improved compared to the previous car, and there will be few complaints about how it’s screwed together.
Similarly, while the new Leon is 52mm shorter than it was before, the distance between the wheels has increased by 58mm. This exaggerated ‘wheel at each corner’ stance helps with the ride and the handling, but it also means more passenger room. Rear leg and headroom is appreciably better as a result.
Boot space is up over the old car as well, by a not insubstantial 39 litres. The resulting 380-litre volume matches the A3 Sportback, and can be extended by dropping the rear seats. Six-speed manual gearboxes are standard on all but the five-speed 1.6 TDI, with DSG autos optional on select engine choices.
Economy and safety
Reduced weight is good for efficiency, too, and with every Leon featuring standard stop-start technology none of them emit more than 139g/km CO2. Even more remarkable, the 184hp diesel, which does 0-62mph in 7.5 seconds, emits just 112g/km and officially returns a claimed 65.7mpg.
The 1.6-litre TDI is a 99g/km car – with a claimed 74.3mpg – and that’s before the introduction of the full Ecomotive version. Due next year, this should see emissions drop below 90g/km. Mega frugal.
The Leon doesn’t skimp on safety kit. In addition to all the airbags and the stability control, Multi Collision Brake avoids secondary accidents by slamming on the anchors after impact. From SE and above SEAT also includes the XDS traction system, which helps the front-wheel drive Leon grip harder in the turns.
Visibility is excellent all round, and SEAT takes a segment first with an optional upgrade to full LED headlights. By contrast, it’s also nice to see a good old-fashioned traditional handbrake – which provides far greater certainty than the latest electronic alternatives. Progress isn’t always for the best.
The MSN Cars verdict
The new SEAT Leon is a brilliantly well-rounded family car. It’s got style and grace, space and pace.
The engines are efficient, it’s fun to drive and the combination of solid equipment levels, keen pricing and VW Group fundamentals means it has got the Ford Focus and the Vauxhall Astra firmly in its sights.
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