SEAT's third generation Leon is also offered as an ST estate. It might be the best car you'd never heard of. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
With 587-litres of luggage space and riding on the same MQB chassis as the Volkswagen Golf Mk 7, the SEAT Leon ST estate offers sharp handling, excellent build quality, solid practicality and some great toys at prices around £1,300 less than an equivalent Golf. It's hard to grumble at that sort of deal.
The very concept of the compact estate car is one that I find it rather difficult to wrap my head around. Isn't it a little like a slow supercar, a two-seat people mover or an ugly coupe; something that rather defeats the initial premise? There have been countless small estate models marketed that have largely been studiously and correctly ignored by the British car buying public, the pert lines of the hatchbacks upon which they were based disfigured by hastily added glazing at the back.
Once in a while we get compact estate cars that are worth their salt though, which add practicality without spoiling the balance and styling philosophy of the original vehicle. To that rather select list add SEAT's smart Leon ST.
Received wisdom dictates that the bigger the engine in your Leon, the better it would be and that was true until fairly recently. The ST models are powered by more modestly-sized powerplants with one of the highlights being a 1.2-litre petrol lump. All the engines in the line-up feature direct injection and turbocharging, and have been engineered for efficiency. We'll start with the diesels. The 1.6 TDI generates 110PS and 250Nm of torque, while the 2.0 TDI develops either 150PS and 320Nm of torque - or 184PS and 380Nm of torque.
If you're more interested in a petrol model, the range starts with a 1.2 TSI unit with 110PS. Next up are 1.4 TSI units with either 125 or 150PS. At the top of the petrol range, there's an FR model with a 1.8 TSI unit generating 180PS, a powerplant which utilises a combination of direct and manifold injection.
Depending on the engine, transmission options range from five and six-speed manual gearboxes or the twin-clutch six and seven-speed DSG sequential gearboxes. The chassis of the SEAT Leon is simple in its architecture with MacPherson strut front suspension, while the rear uses torsion beam suspension for engines up to 150PS. Go for a more powerful model and you then get a multi-link rear set-up that's a bit more geared towards performance driving.
Design and Build
Like its hatchback sibling, the Leon ST is built on the Volkswagen Group's Modularer Querbaukasten architecture which, in layman's terms means 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. So they've adjusted the wheelbase of this model to allow for a bit more space? Er, no. It has the same wheelbase as the five-door hatch but the ST gains an extra 27cm at the back, for a total length of 4.54m.
The styling is neat without being obviously a load lugger. It's certainly a sleeker looking thing than the rather blocky Golf estate but there's a price to pay for that. While you'll be able to shoehorn 605-litres of luggage into the rear end of a Golf with the rear seats in place (and 1,620-litres with them folded), the Leon ST manages 587-litres and 1,470-litres respectively. That's significantly less but ask yourself when was the last time you used your car as a pantechnicon. If you really need all that space on a very occasional basis, rent a van and don't drive one the rest of the year.
Market and Model
The ST estate is priced from just under the £19,000 mark, so you're looking at a premium of around £1,000 above the five-door model. SEAT has always had to box a little bit clever with the Leon's pricing. With sporty versions of the both the Skoda Octavia and the Volkswagen Golf on offer, the Leon has to occupy the middle ground between, so there's usually a decent amount of standard equipment fitted as standard. We've yet to see the full UK line-up, but expect a carry-over from the old trims with the FR acting as the sporting choice.
A lot of resource has been devoted to the vehicle's infotainment hub, the basis of which is formed by the Media System Touch which includes a CD radio with an SD card slot, four speakers and a five-inch touch screen. Spend more and you get the Media System Colour or Media System Plus with a 5.8-inch touch screen with three-dimensional HD graphics, iPod connectivity, an optional DAB tuner, voice recognition and eight speakers. The options list is really worth spending some time on. You can get two camera-based full-beam and lane-keeping assistants, as well as adaptive cruise control, which can be set between 18 and 100mph.
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. Couple that with some of the most fuel-efficient engines in the VW Group parts portfolio and the end result is one of the most cost-effective family cars that is in any way sporty. The downsized engines offer decent punch when you get the turbochargers up to speed and excellent economy when driven with a little more restraint.
The 1.6 TDI in Ecomotive form features a start/stop system and brake energy recuperation, and returns better than 83mpg on average and just 89g/km of CO2. Go for the brawnier 2.0 TDI and there's hardly any penalty for the added urge - you're looking at 68.9mpg and 108g/km. The petrol 1.2 TSI version manages 57.6mpg on the combined cycle and 114g/km of CO2. Thanks to advanced construction techniques and the use of lightweight materials in the body's manufacture, the overall weight has been kept very competitive.
So, the big question. Just who would buy a SEAT Leon ST over the standard five-door hatch? After all, that car's hardly a vehicle that forces you to pack just a pair of drawers and a toothbrush for a weekend away, delivering 380-litres of boot space with the rear seats in place. The 570-litres you get in this ST certainly aces that and it's about what you'd get if you opted for a full-size saloon like a VW Passat. In other words, you get the practicality of a big car with the easy parking and jinky manoeuvrability of a much smaller one. Perhaps there's the answer to our initial question.
With some great engines, a design that's bang up to date and a shape that doesn't instantly appear as if you've started down the slippery slope to pipe and slippersville, the SEAT Leon ST has a whole lot going for it. If you need an estate but wouldn't want to be seen dead in one, there is an alternative to a small SUV. You're looking at it right here, but let's keep it between us, right?