SEAT's imprved third generation Leon will be most popular in 115PS 1.6-litre TDI diesel form. Jonathan Crouch finds out why
Ten Second Review
SEAT's Leon always appealed as good value, an affordable performance or economy hatchback - and that remains true today, especially with the car in improved 1.6-litre TDI diesel form. Literally from the floor upwards, Leon benefits from a big injection of shared Volkswagen technology. The results? High quality, sporting flair, 5 star safety and crisp style that package a genuine bargain for business and leisure use alike.
Why would you buy a SEAT Leon over so many rivals, especially those from the same Volkswagen parents? What has a Leon got that the Golf, Audi A3 and Skoda's Octavia lack? Well, one answer is that the Leon, now improved with smarter looks and extra media connectvity, sells through appealing style and a more affordable route to new technology, particularly as buyers look harder at costs in a tough economic climate.
Of all the compact Volkswagen Group models to use the organisation's hi-tech MQB modular transverse platform, the Leon is the most affordable. And it's at its most popular in the UK in the 1.6-litre TDI form we look at here.
Mind you, SEAT already offers a family hatchback with this same 115PS diesel engine, the Toledo, a car that sells for around £700 less. So why would you buy this Leon? Let's find out.
And on the road? Well, a SEAT is supposed to feel sporty. We've always been told that. Whether it should be is another question. After all, there've been times over the last decade when I've driven SEAT models on which such sportiness has been somewhat forced, with over-firm suspension bringing an unwelcome touch of Silverstone to the school run. Fine perhaps for more dynamic FR and Cupra Leon models but calculated to alienate customers used to the smooth-riding excellence of a rival Ford Focus or Volkswagen Golf.
So this third generation version had to get its act together here: it has. In this, the Spanish engineers have been helped immeasurably by the fact that like its Volkswagen Group cousins, the Audi A3, the Volkswagen Golf and the Skoda Octavia - but unlike SEAT's other family hatch, the Toledo - this car rides on the organisation's hi-tech MQB platform, underpinnings upon which billions of euros have been lavished. It shows too, this car able to handle even the poorest surfaces with supple confidence, yet hold its own on the twisty stuff, where bodyroll is well controlled.
Nice to have perhaps but hardly of crucial value in ordinary day-to-day family hatchback driving. The kind of motoring you'd very happily complete at the wheel of the Leon variant that'll be Britain's biggest seller, the 115PS 1.6 TDI diesel. Like the alternative 115PS 1.0-litre TSI petrol unit, it makes 62mph from rest in about 10s on the way to around 120mph.
Design and Build
As before, Leon buyers choose from either a five-door hatch, an 'ST' estate model or an 'SC' three-door coupe. In all three cases, SEAT says that visual style was one of the key reasons why people bought the original version of this car, so it wasn't necessary with this facelifted version to change the aesthetics too much. A few tweaks though, have been made. At the front and rear, there are revised bumpers and bodywork with sharper, more assertive lines, plus there's a smarter chromed front grille.
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. Otherwise, things are much as they were before, which means that passenger space is very class-competitive and there's a decently sized 380-litre boot in the hatch model. If you need more space than that, the ST estate offers 587-litres.
Market and Model
Expect to pay from around £17,500 for this 1.6-litre TDI diesel Leon, so there's a reasonable £700 premium to pay over the equivalent 1.2-litre TSI petrol model which boasts exactly the same power output - 105PS.
That's decent value, particularly as the Leon is pretty well equipped. Even the least expensive version of this 1.6 TDI model gets air conditioning, central locking, electric front windows, Bluetooth connectivity and power steering. Infotainment needs are met via a 5-inch touch screen with 6-speakers serving FM/AM radio and MP3-facility for the CD player. Auxiliary systems cater for SD cards and USBs. Vehicle security features remote locking acting on deadlocks, also capable of opening and closing windows remotely. There is the immobiliser that UK insurance makes mandatory and a versatile alarm system with a back-up system to sound the horn when towed away.
You pay extra for alloy wheels and metallic paint, the latter an option throughout the range. Moving to the SE versions, 16-inch diameter alloys replace the smaller steel items and cruise control is added. SE also allows traction assistance of the of the XDS electronic differential, clever front fog lamps that follow cornering moves--and electric rear windows.
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 ultimate expression of this can be found in the fully-fledged 1.6 TDI diesel 110PS Ecomotive model, in which guise this car is capable of returning nearly 90mpg on the combined cycle and hybrid-like CO2 emissions of well under 90g/km. Yes really. But you don't have to push the Ecomotive boat out to get super-frugal figures. Even a standard 1.6 TDI 105PS Leon manages 74.3mpg on the combined cycle and 99g/km of CO2 - which means a theoretical driving range of over 800 miles.
I think the Leon is now not just a vastly improved hatchback, but one that deserves priority on customer shopping lists, ticking so many topical boxes in this frenzied corner of the car market. Sure there are weaknesses, but our overwhelming impression remains favourable. The Leon is the pick of the VW-Audi-Skoda offerings on the basis of value versus quality and ability. And that makes it a benchmark outside the Volkswagen trio.
If you want an affordable vehicle that you can be proud of in the business car park or a private drive, give Leon a long hard look, especially in 1.6-littre TDI diesel form. You want good looks? Tick Leon's box. Want 74-mpg economy and free road tax? Tick box. 5-star safety standards? Tick that box. Good showroom equipment backed by options tuned to today's wish lists? Tick that box too. Then tick the Buy It Now box. Job done.