By Jonathan Crouch
The SEAT Leon has long been a smart, under-rated pick for family hatchback buyers and was a particularly strong offering in the third generation 'Typ 5F'-series design originally launched in 2012. In seeking one of these MK3 models out on the used market, you'd ideally want to stretch to one of the substantially revised versions of this design, which means going for a car produced after the 2017 facelift. It's these later MK3 Leons that we're checking out here. In this form, the car remained good looking and sporty to drive, but it also got extra media and safety tech, an impressive extra three cylinder petrol option and a potent 'Cupra 300' performance flagship.
At its original launch back in 2012, the MK3 'Type 5F' version of the Leon marked the beginning of what SEAT itself described as its 'coming of age' as a car maker. It was a more mature, sophisticated product than anything we'd previously seen from the Spanish marque and formed the starting point for a programme of brand rejuvenation shortly afterwards consolidated by a range of SUVs sharing many aspects of Leon engineering.
Ah yes. Engineering. Like previous Leons, this car shared most of that with a Volkswagen Golf - and also with a Skoda Octavia and an Audi A3. SEAT's advertising though, tried to suggest that the Leon packaged all of this up with a bit more emotional involvement - a twist of Latino passion - as befitted the brand's intended status as a kind of 'Iberian Alfa Romeo'. Hence the lifestyle marketing, the rallying success and the World Touring Car Championship trophies. The company tried its best to imbue all of that into the wide range of additional variants that were launched following the MK3 model's original introduction. These included the SC coupe - the body style most commonly chosen by customers of the hot hatch Cupra models. And the ST estate - which formed the basis for the 'X-PERIENCE' soft roading version.
Following the introduction of the 2017 model year Leon model update we're looking at here, the range was simplified a bit (the SC coupe body shape and the SUV-style 'X-PERIENCE' version of the ST estate were quickly dropped). But plenty was gained, including upgraded media connectivity, stronger standards of safety and a slightly smarter look. Other changes include the addition of a clever new three cylinder 1.0-litre petrol engine, plus there's a revised 1.6-litre TDI diesel unit and a potent Cupra 300 high performance model at the top of the range. In 2018, a 310PS Cupra R hot hatch variant was launched with running gear from the Golf R. The MK3 Leon range was replaced in Spring 2020 by an all-new fourth generation design.
What You Get
At the original launch of this third generation Leon model, SEAT told us that their stylists used a special tool to design this car: light. Every day, the prototype was wheeled outside so the team could see how the reflections and highlights looked under the clear Spanish sun. The end result, a pure interpretation of the company's 'arrow head' design philosophy, is a reward for such attention to detail, a decisive, sharply drawn shape with a clean, crisp, racy look that's especially eye-catching when dressed to kill.
The clever creasing didn't need changing much, so it wasn't significantly altered as part of this mid-term facelift. If you were familiar with the original version of this car, you might notice this improved version's lower, wider bonnet and the bigger, more prominent front grille. The bumper was re-styled too, which meant the addition of a sleeker set of front fog lights that sit just above angular lower corner air intakes.
Take a seat up front and you'll find that the changes are as subtle as those made to the exterior. Even so, long-time Leon users won't take long to spot the two main ones - the addition of an electronic handbrake and a larger 8-inch centre-dash infotainment touchscreen. Both these things come as standard provided you avoid entry-level spec. The trim and cabin finishing was improved too, with smarter upholstery and extra touches like a standard ambient lighting set-up personalisable through eight different colours. True, against a Golf, this interior may lose out a little in terms of chromed highlights and soft-touch plastic, but by the same token, it is in many respects a more interesting place to be with unusual trapezoidal shapes for things like the door handles and the air vents.
And in the rear seat? Well the longer wheelbase of this third generation model made things a little more spacious back here, though it's still isn't quite in a rival Skoda Octavia's league when it comes to space for knees and legs. If you're planning to take three adults in the back, the people concerned will need to be on pretty friendly terms, but at least the centre transmission tunnel isn't too high. There are centre air vents above a small storage tray and Isofix childseat fastenings for the outer two seats, plus you get door pockets roomy enough to hold a 1.0-litre drinks bottle.
And the boot? Well in both the five-door hatch and the three-door 'SC' coupe, it's 380-litres in size. That's the same capacity as you'd get in a Golf - and about averagely-shaped by segment standards, so if you've a push chair or a baby buggy, you might want to make sure it will fit. There's quite a high loading lip too, though compensation comes in the depth of the trunk area, something made possible by the fact that SEAT always declined to offer any kind if space-saver spare wheel as standard. The usual bag hooks and tie-down points are also in evidence. It's annoying that the height-adjustable boot floor was originally optional on most trim levels but it's probably worth finding a car fitted with it because when in place, it creates a separate lower storage area.
Push forward the 60:40 split-folding rear seat back and another advantage of the adjustable floor is that it smoothes out the step in the floor you'd otherwise get with everything flat. In this configuration, 1,210-litres if fresh air is freed up.
What to Look For
Most Leon owners we came across were pretty happy, but inevitably, there were a few issues. We came across a few reports of problems with DSG auto gearbox models - which could be expensive, so check the auto's functionality if you want a self-shifter. There was a report of a clutch and dual mass flywheel failure on a Leon FR that also went on to grind to a halt with clutch failure after being stuck in second gear. One owner had difficult selecting 1st and 4th in the manual gearbox. One Leon 1.5TSI 130PS model had cold start kangarooing and hesitation problems.
Corrosion is simply not an issue with SEATs and another reason why resale values are quite high. Check that the electronic systems work as advertised as there have been a few minor owner grumbles about warning lights spuriously appearing and then disappearing. Also, check that the air con system still throws out cold air, otherwise it may have to be re-gassed. Otherwise, just look out for kerbed alloy wheels, check for signs of interior child damage and of course insist on a fully stamped-up service history.
(approx based on a 2017 Leon 1.6 TDI) A set of front brake pads are between £24-£68 (rears are between £17-£70). Front brake discs cost around £65-£83 (rears £24-£77). Air filters are in the £11 to £20 bracket. Oil filters cost around £6-£11 and fuel filters between £11 and £21. You'll pay around £200 for a headlight and around £157 for a tail lamp. A water pump is around £102-£190 and a radiator will be in the £126-£161 bracket. A starter motor is around £107-£111.
On the Road
On the move, the Leon has a sportier feel than you'd find in the other VW Group products that share its stiff, sophisticated MQB platform. With earlier generation models, that used to put off some potential customers but with this MK3 design, the Spanish engineers managed to blend this car's firm responses with an acceptably-compliant standard of ride. Most versions also get an XDS electronic differential lock that helps you get the power down more quickly out of tight corners. Only the most powerful variants get multi-link rear suspension.
Engine-wise, there's a wide choice, with most options available with an extra cost DSG auto gearbox if you want it. We'd recommend the newer three cylinder 1.0-litre TSI petrol unit that puts out 115PS and when carefully driven, is capable of returning diesel-like running costs. It can't match the returns of the volume TDI variant of course, the 1.6-litre diesel powerplant uprated to 115PS as part of the facelift. We're less enamoured with the other mainstream TSI petrol engines, a 110PS 1.2, a 125PS 1.4, a 150PS EcoTSI unit and a 180PS 1.8. Most will want the popular 2.0 TDI 150PS model, which offers a decent combination of performance and economy; expect 64.2mpg on the combined cycle and 112g/km of CO2. This 2.0 TDI engine can also be found in uprated 184PS guise. At the top of the range sits the 4WD 'X-PERIENCE' soft roading estate. Or, if your priority is performance, the 'Cupra 300' variants should appeal, models that use a 300PS 2.0-litre petrol TSI turbo engine, a set-up mated to 4WD if you go for the DSG ST estate version. The top rare Cupra R variant had a firmer set-up and 310PS version of the same 2.0 TSI engine.
So, plenty changed with this third generation Leon following the 2017 update. But much more remained exactly as it was. Which in many ways, was no bad thing. This has always been the most characterful of the Volkswagen Group family hatchback models, yet it comes with nearly all the same engineering and design integrity you'd probably end up paying a lot more for in a comparable Volkswagen Golf. True, this Leon could be more exciting in its more affordable forms - and it's no longer one of the cheapest options you could choose in this segment. Still, SEAT's argument in response is that this is these days one of the most technologically advanced cars of its kind. There's some truth in that.
Overall, there's plenty to like here. SEAT did just enough with this 2017 model year package of changes to keep its key contender current. When new, these updates weren't quite enough to win over the unconverted, but if you're attracted to a used Leon, then this one might well satisfy you very much indeed.