SEAT Leon 2003 review

11 Nov, 2003 4:15pm Chris Thorp

A familiar pattern is emerging at SEAT - and it's great news for drivers on a budget.


If you like your hatchbacks fast but frugal, SEAT's created an ideal solution. The Cupra's 1.9 TDI engine may not be the smartest, but it still offers thump-in-the-back performance and low running costs. Add a bargain asking price, and buyers will be hard pushed to pick the petrol version.
A familiar pattern is emerging at SEAT - and it's great news for drivers on a budget. Thanks to an increasingly close relationship with parent company Volkswagen, SEAT is able to get its hands on the German company's best engines and platforms faster than ever before.

The latest proof of this is the new 148bhp diesel-powered Leon Cupra TDI. It's the first ever SEAT Cupra with an oil-burner powerplant, and is launched nearly a year after the introduction of the 148bhp diesel VW Golf GTI tested by Auto Express in Issue 731.

But will we be as impressed with SEAT's version of the hot hatchback? One thing that buyers don't miss out on is the Leon's handsome looks. With the subtle but effective Cupra bodykit and badging, the newcomer appears every bit the high-performance Honda Civic Type R challenger.

Push the accelerator to the floor in any gear and the diesel engine responds, thrusting the front-wheel-drive SEAT forward. If you can put up with the unit's turbo lag, and avoid excessive wheelspin, the sprint from 0-60mph is covered in only 8.9 seconds. Although that's no match for the Civic Type R's 6.6 seconds benchmark, it is impressive for a diesel-engined car. What's more, the mid-range grunt is better still and makes overtaking a breeze.

It's not all good news, though, as the 1.9-litre TDI PD powerplant feels rather uncivilised in traffic. And having been tuned to its limit, there is a distinct lack of refinement under full throttle. Against the new breed of super- smooth oil-burners, such as Alfa Romeo's 147 1.9-litre JTD, the SEAT suffers from noticeable vibration through the gearknob and pedals. There's also too much noise from the engine.

However, you still get the capable Cupra chassis and lower running costs than the car's petrol-engined brother. So most buyers will be happy to turn up the radio and enjoy the SEAT's performance, knowing that they've made a sound financial decision.

Costing £16,000, the Cupra TDI is £500 more expensive than the petrol-powered 1.8 T, but that's £2,385 less than the equivalent outgoing Golf. Company car drivers will benefit from the lower tax bills of the oil-burner, too, as CO2 emissions of 146g/km place it in the 18 per cent bracket.

Key specs

* Standard kit includes climate control and six-CD autochanger
* Three-year warranty package and impressive fuel economy