BY ANDY ENRIGHT
The second generation SEAT Leon was a car that started off slow and got a lot better as it developed throughout its lifespan. There are a number of cars that you could say that about - think Jaguar S Type and BMW X3 as examples - and the one thing they have in common is that they're usually ignored by used car buyers who only remember the first, rather sniffy press reports. Go for a late model year and you get a cracking used car bargain. The Leon is a perfect example.
The original MK1 SEAT Leon was a huge success, becoming for a short while the go-to sporty hatch for British buyers. The second generation car never enjoyed the same success and it's largely down to a rare instance of Volkswagen Group clumsy brand management rather than any inherent fault of the car. When the second generation Leon was launched in 2005, there were no sporty FR or Cupra models available. Without these flagship models and with less aggressive styling, the Leon instantly lost its mojo. SEAT introduced the sportier cars later but momentum had been lost and the damage was done.
The Leon subsequently worked twice as hard to impress and the vehicles we look at here are the facelifted models that were unveiled at the 2009 Geneva Show. You'll recognise these cars by the revised grille with a smaller SEAT logo and more stylised chrome surround as well as bigger headlights. We'll cover models right up to when this Leon was replaced by a third-generation model unveiled at the Paris Motor Show in autumn of 2012. Here's how to get ahead of the game when buying used.
What You Get
This remains a very good looking car. British designer Steve Lewis has created a shape of sporting simplicity that's all about shapes and curves: the swooping flankline, the almond-shaped headlamps. Then there are lovely touches like the concealed rear door handles that you access via scoops in the polycarbonate rear quarterlights. Tweaks to this revised model are tiny, limited to reshaped light clusters, revised bumpers and a different grille with a smaller SEAT badge at its centre.
Inside, perceived quality has been ratcheted up a good few notches over the original MK2 model, with a nicer steering wheel, a redesign for the centre console and instruments and fewer of the cheap plastics that in the very first version of this car, reminded you just why it was so much cheaper than a Golf. Both the front seat and the steering wheel are multi-adjustable, which is just as well since the sloping nose curves so rapidly away out of your view that shorter drivers may want to specify parking sensors. Another practical drawback to beautiful design is found in the chunkiness of the front screen pillars, caused due to the way the wipers park themselves vertically rather than at the bottom of the screen. At least rear visibility is better than it was originally, thanks to a slightly larger rear screen.
Back seat passengers will find this Leon slightly bigger than the Focus or Golf family hatchback norm. There still isn't really proper room for three large adults here but two six footers will be quite comfortable, even over very long journeys. The rear tailgate opens wide to reveal a 341-litre load bay that's a little awkwardly shaped for bulky items but is otherwise perfectly adequate for this class of car, particularly if you extend it via the split-folding rear seats.
What to Look For
With some very reliable and high-tech engines, strong build integrity and a decent reliability record honed through the pre-facelift cars, this SEAT is a decent reliability proposition. 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 are high, stacking up at £370 and £226 respectively. 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
As you might expect given this car's heritage, it's pretty much like a Golf to drive but with a slightly sportier suspension set-up that on original versions of this car erred on the side of harshness, particularly when it came to the sporty derivatives. This revised model however, offers a much better ride and handling compromise, with the FR variant for example, featuring softer springs and more compliant anti-roll bars. The result, combined with the Golf's already impressive multi-link rear axle, is a car that works with the road surface rather than skittering over it. It's a much nicer drive.
In an attempt to differentiate the Leon from its visually quite similar Altea MPV stablemate, SEAT have created a driving position that sees you sit right down low in the car. This is one of the reasons why the whole on-road experience feels quite sporting, a feeling aided by the slickness of the 5 and 6-speed manual gearboxes, with the smoothly responsive DSG semi-automatic transmission still available as an option. Even the electric power steering offers good feedback and features a clever 'Driving Steering Recommendation' system that in harsh cornering on slippery surfaces, can help to stop the tail of the car sliding out and sending you into a spin.
As with any VW Golf, the engine range here is mainly about knowing which units to avoid. If you can feel the passion and sportiness that this car is supposed to be about in the entry-level 85PS 1.4-litre petrol or 90PS 1.9-litre TDI diesel models, then you're doing better than us. The mainstream 102PS 1.6-litre petrol or 105PS 1.9-litre TDI diesel variants are more acceptable but we'd shake the piggy bank a little further to stretch to either the impressive 125PS 1.4-litre petrol TSI or the 140PS 2.0 TDI diesel. Only customers for top of the range variants get anything actually very hi-tech under the bonnet however, the fastest 170PS diesel featuring up-to-the-minute common rail technology, whilst the flagship Cupra R gets a 265PS powerplant borrowed from the super-quick Golf R.
The second generation SEAT Leon really did come good later in its life. Perhaps the biggest testament to that fact is that the third generation model didn't seek to distance itself - from a styling perspective at least - very much from its predecessor. UK buyers were a little slow to catch on to how good this facelifted MK2 model was back in its production 2009-2012 production period, which means that on the used market, there are plenty of bargains available. Unlike most other family hatchback designs, it's the really sporty cars where the best buys are to be had. The FR+, Cupra and Cupra R versions look really good purchases and if you can find one that hasn't been flogged to death, it should stand you in very good stead for years to come.