BY ANDY ENRIGHT
Although the British public hasn't warmed to this version of the SEAT Leon in quite the way they did its predecessor, there's little doubt that it's a very competent car and one that's well worth tracking down on the used market. Reluctant take up from new often spells used bargains and this Leon is an excellent example of these market forces at work.
It's no exaggeration to say that the MK1 SEAT Leon, especially in Cupra guise, developed into a cult car in the UK. I can remember that this car was my pat answer for a good few years for any of my colleagues looking to spend around £15k on a new car. Unfortunately, I've never come close to that stage with the Leon's second generation iteration, launched in this country in late 2005. Although there is very little wrong with the car in an objective sense, the styling didn't cut the mustard for many and the value proposition no longer seemed quite so special with Skoda having upped its game. Cars like the Renaultsport Megane and the Ford Focus ST arrived to rule the hot hatch roost and standard Focus models as well as increasingly aggressively priced Golfs make big numbers among the family hatches at the Leon's expense. Competition even came from within SEAT with quick and capable Altea models more than justifying their existence.
SEAT took their eye off the ball rather by failing to launch a sporty FR model until July 2006 and delaying the launch of the red hot Cupra variant until December 2006. Quite why it took them so long to bring these key models to market (the old Cupra accounted for over half of all UK Leon sales) is down to VW Group internal politics but it robbed the model of crucial momentum and both the FR and Cupra were unfairly overlooked when they did arrive.
In the Spring of 2008, SEAT introduced the 122bhp 1.4-litre TSI turbocharged petrol engine in to the range. Then a facelift was introduced the summer of 2009 which involved a redesign of the lights and front bumper, improved trim materials and an enlarged rear windscreen to improve visibility. The 2.0-litre TDI 170 FR model got a common-rail diesel engine in place of the old direct injection unit.
What You Get
It's worth reminding ourselves what a SEAT Leon actually is. We've become very taken with hotter Cupra versions of the Leon over the years, but Britain is a special case, and in mainland Europe, it's the more prosaic models that plump up SEAT's profit margins. Therefore, there's a slight disconnect between how we perceive the Leon and how our European neighbours do. To us, a Leon is a snorting hot hatch that offers terrific value for money and Germanic build quality all wrapped up with a strong sporting pedigree. Think Jason Plato doorhandling Yvan Muller out of the way in his SEAT touring car. That's only a small segment of what the Leon represents to SEAT. In reality, it must go head to head with some of the class best in the shape of the Ford Focus, the Vauxhall Astra, the Renault Megane and the Honda Civic.
Therefore it was with some disappointment that the first pictures of the 'cooking' Leon models dropped across my desk sometime in 2005. There had already been quite some controversy at how similar looking the Altea and Toledo models were, and now here was another model that would require serious scrutiny to establish exactly what SEAT we were dealing with. To make things worse, it wasn't clear exactly what advantage a Leon had over an Altea. All three cars were born from the same Salsa concept car under the aegis of SEAT design chief Steve Lewis and all three, rather unsurprisingly, run on the same platform. Although the tape measure shows that the new Leon is only around an inch taller than its predecessor, the base models have a definite MPV look and feel to them. It's only with the sportier FR and Cupra models that the Leon begins to look convincingly racy. Perhaps that was the point.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
Tried and tested engines, the VW-standard quality auditing and an inherent feeling of solidity all bode well for the Leon's reliability. Having been on sale for such a short duration, it's perhaps inevitable that no major faults have emerged, but watch out for neglected ex-hire cars. The Leon is a car where the price differences between good and bad examples aren't too great, so be fussy. Look for a fully stamped up service history and reject anything that looks in any way tatty, grubby or vaguely dog-eared. Give FR and Cupra models a particularly detailed inspection and ensure that they've been run in quality synthetic oil.
(approx based on an Leon 2.0 TDI DSG ex VAT) SEAT spares are reasonably priced, with a replacement Leon headlamp costing £111. A replacement alternator unit retails at around £185 with an exchange starter motor setting you back just under £120. Opt for a new alternator and starter motor and the prices stack up at £370 and £226 respectively, so even if the old one is a steaming basket case, you'll save by getting an exchange unit. Front brake pads are £50 with rears a tad under £30 per pair. Many parts are a little cheaper for the 1.6-litre petrol models.
On the Road
Underscoring SEAT's broad targeting of the Leon, the range includes a number of engine choices. Diesel buyers will get to choose between a 103bhp 1.9-litre unit that's a little old fashioned and a 138bhp 2.0-litre that most certainly isn't. The petrol powerplants open with a 101bhp 1.6-litre and a 148bhp 2.0-litre direct injection FSI but, to be frank, if you're going to opt for these engines, the Altea makes a smarter purchase. Move up the power table and the Leon starts to make all sorts of sense and SEAT wisely earmarked three engines to cope for us British bhp junkies.
First up is the 168bhp TDI diesel, while those looking for a seriously sporting drive will opt for the 200bhp FR model with its turbocharged 2.0-litre FSI engine or the 240bhp Cupra which used a tweaked version of that unit. SEAT worked hard at improving the chassis dynamics and benchmarked the best handling cars in the class. Given that the basic underpinnings are shared with the MkV Volkswagen Golf, it's made of stern stuff. Factor in an additional aluminium subframe for added rigidity and stiffer suspension and you've got a package that's significantly more able in the twisties than the previous generation car with its rather rudimentary torsion beam rear suspension.
The SEAT Leon is an extremely competent vehicle hobbled by rather unusual styling and SEAT's decision to delay the launch of the much-vaunted hot models. It's still worth taking a long, hard look at on the used market and the 2.0-litre TDI Sport model remains the pick of the bunch. If you can get along with the looks, a late plate Cupra makes a very smart piece of business in the face of new rivals.