It's always best to end on a high. And that’s what I’ve done with the Leon SC. After six months at Auto Express, it’s leaving our fleet – and as a send-off I took it on a track day.
To be honest, when the Spanish hatchback first arrived, I was rather indifferent. Generally I like to run cars which are a tad on the unusual side – it’s going to be replaced, for example, by BMW’s i3 electric trailblazer. The SEAT seemed a little too ‘normal’, but its charms soon won me over.
Spend any length of time with the Leon and it’s obvious why it won Auto Express Car of the Year in 2013. It’s stylish, comfortable, affordable, economical, reliable, practical (well, the five-door is) and enjoyable.
This last point rings true whether you’re doing the daily commute, driving down a B-road or on a track day, as I found out last week, when I took the SC along to Bedford Autodrome.
The event was organised by Circuit Days (circuit-days.co.uk), and its open pitlane policy meant that I could do as many laps as I wanted. Admittedly, next to the assembled Caterhams and tuned Japanese coupes, the Leon did look a little bit out of place...
But it still gave a good account of itself against less hardcore machines thanks to that punchy 1.4-litre turbo engine and impressive chassis. Thrashing the little Leon round a circuit, you can appreciate what a very well balanced and responsive machine it is. Obviously it’s no sports car, but you can still feel what’s happening through the precise controls and supportive sports seats which come as standard with the FR model.
This lets you explore the car’s limits with confidence, while the stability control never feels like it’s holding you back, which is handy as you can’t turn it off. Speaking of which, I had more fun driving the Leon to the limit on the track day than I would have spending similar money to do a very limited number of tentative and heavily marshalled laps in a supercar on some ‘driving experience’ day.
The only real problem is what it did to the Leon’s average fuel economy. Normally a tank of fuel would last a fortnight rather than just a day. Looks like the Leon will be going back empty, and with slightly less tread on its tyres…
Mileage: 8,125 miles Real world fuel economy: 41.4mpg
A lot has happened in the past 12 years. Facebook was invented, the world went into economic meltdown, then bounced back, and the MkIII SEAT Leon won Auto Express Car of the Year.
I was a fan of the original Leon way back in 2002, and that’s why I recommended my mother buy one – and that’s the black car you see here. “It’s basically a VW Golf underneath, but looks better and is cheaper,” I told her, so she bought one nearly new for £12,000.
The Golf comparison still applies today, but by lining up old and new back-to-back, you can feel how much the Leon has improved in the past 12 years. The differences, quite frankly, are huge.
For starters, you can now get a three-door-only version of the Leon, like our white SC, while the car’s body panels are far more sculpted. Metal pressing has definitely come a long way since the early noughties. So, too, has headlight tech. The simple rectangular items on the MkI are bland compared to the LED-bejeweled units of the modern car.
Inside, the improvements are even more obvious. With a similar dash to the Audi A3, the MkI Leon never felt shabby. But material quality has made a huge leap forward. So have seat comfort and in-car gadgets: the MkI’s cassette player is rather antiquated next to the MkIII’s touchscreen with iPod connectivity, DAB radio and satellite navigation.
Yet it’s how the two cars drive which is the biggest difference. At tickover, the old 1.9-litre diesel in my mother’s car is so gruff it sounds like it’s running on gravel, whereas the 1.4-litre TSI in our SC is barely audible. And despite being a whole lot faster, the claimed economy of 54.3mpg betters the 50mpg my mother gets from her Leon (although in my hands the SC is only doing around 35mpg).
Still, it’s a lot more comfortable. Our SC is in FR trim, so has slightly firmer suspension, but the way it rides is light years rather than just 12 years ahead of the old car. Still, my mother says her MkI has been pleasant to own and generally reliable, although a few years ago it needed new carpets and door seals due to leaks, while just recently both the front driver’s side electric window and air-con have packed up.
Would she buy another Leon? Well, she likes the new car, but now wants something with a higher driving position, so has a Nissan Qashqai in her sights – a model that didn’t even exist 12 years ago. I’ll be sticking with our SEAT, though.
Mileage: 6,266 miles Real world fuel economy: 35.1mpg
I need two extra inches. Or maybe even just one. That’s what I thought when we parked our recently arrived SEAT Leon SC 1.4 TSI next to the new Cupra. I am, of course, talking about alloy wheels. If I hadn’t seen the Cupra’s 19-inch rims, then I’d have been happy with the FR’s 17-inchers. But now I’ve clocked them, I feel a bit under-endowed.
However, apart from the smallish wheels, the rest of the design is rather pleasing. I especially like the headlamps. Audi may have LED (geddit?) the way with daytime running lights, but in the case of the new Leon, I think SEAT has outdone it. The thing is, though, I don’t think the Leon SC is sufficiently better looking than the five-door to warrant the loss in practicality.
I’m currently renovating my flat and not having a car with rear doors has made loading items a pain. I’d pay the extra £300 for the five-door – especially as if you want a stylish coupe, I think a Vauxhall Astra GTC is sexier than the Leon SC, particularly from the side and back.
I’d still rather have the SEAT, though, as its talents run much deeper than the Vauxhall’s. It’s comfortable to travel in thanks to well judged sports suspension, which is firm but fair, a quiet cabin and an ideal driving position. And FR trim means I’ve got plenty of kit to enjoy, including sports seats, a leather multifunction steering wheel, a colour touchscreen, dual zone climate control and parking sensors.
You also get Bluetooth, which I have to admit I have never used – an iPhone with headphones is far better for calls when driving in my opinion, as no car manufacturer has mastered voice commands as well as Apple.
The FR also gets SEAT Drive Profile, which lets you alter the throttle response and steering weight. So I go for the former in sport mode, and the latter in comfort. Our car also has the sat-nav upgrade, but I’ve found it to be nowhere near as good as the system in the BMW 3 Series GT, which I was running previously. Granted, at £745 it costs less than half the price of BMW’s Professional system, but it lacks the latter’s useful traffic updates.
On the move, our Leon SC reminds me of an old-school hot hatch in the way that you can really wring its neck and have some fun, without suddenly finding yourself doing silly speeds.
In fact, the performance delivered by our car’s 138bhp 1.4-litre turbo petrol engine is similar to that of an eighties Ford Escort RS Turbo, as they both claim 8.2 seconds to get from 0-62mph.
Of course, the new Leon handles loads better than an old Escort, but it does have some of the boy racer additions like side skirts and a roof spoiler. And I guess back in the day of the RS Turbo, 17-inch alloys were considered quite large.
*Our model is no longer available. The price is now £19,700 for FR with 148bhp 1.4 TSI ACT which emits 109g/km.
Insurance quote (below) provided by AA (0800 107 0680) for a 42-year-old living in Banbury, Oxon, with three points.