SEAT Leon review
The SEAT Leon is one of the best, if not the best, family hatchback blending style, practicality and an excellent drive
The latest SEAT Leon is a real winner. It successfully blends Volkswagen Golf sensibilities with a touch of Spanish design and driving flair, creating the best-ever Leon and one that’s a genuine class front-runner.
It looks stylish, is great to drive, has the latest in Volkswagen Group technology and is very good value for money. Even regular variants have a touch of handling flair that is further enhanced in sporty FR and range-topping Cupra hot hatch variants. SEAT hasn’t forgotten practicality though, while using the same latest-generation MQB platform as the Volkswagen Golf is yet another plus.
The well-received Leon is not only highly rated by our road testers either: Auto Express readers also recommend it, with the latest Leon coming fourth overall in the 2015 Driver Power owner satisfaction survey – high praise indeed for an excellent family hatch all-rounder.
The SEAT Leon is the Spanish firm’s most important model. The range of five-door hatchback, three-door Sports Coupe (SC) and five-door Sports Touring (ST) estate are core models in the UK – and, in their latest guise, have heralded a turnaround in design and sophistication for the Volkswagen Group firm.
The latest Leon line-up is the best ever, successfully drawing upon Volkswagen’s cutting-edge MQB platform to deliver sophistication, engaging driving manners and plenty of family-friendly space, for prices that undercut the Volkswagen Golf that so many aspire to in this sector. With clean-cut styling and SEAT’s most successful interior to date, the current-shape Leon is now a very appealing family car indeed.
The first generation Leon was introduced in 1999 and itself was a breakthrough car for SEAT. It helped establish the brand as a volume manufacturer capable of building cars to challenge established models such as the Ford Focus and Vauxhall Astra; this version was based upon the Volkswagen Golf, setting the trend for all subsequent Leons.
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Particularly popular were the Leon VT and Cupra models, which developed further with the second generation introduced in 2005. Here, there was a Leon Cupra R that produced a thrilling 261bhp, around which an enthusiastic online community thrived. SEAT has built upon this with the current car, which was introduced in 2012.
Today, SEAT offers a comprehensive line-up of Leon in new car showrooms, starting with the sweet 103bhp 1.2-litre TSI and moving up through 1.4-litre TSI, 1.8-litre TSI and high performance 2.0-litre TSI variants. There is also a range of diesels familiar from other Volkswagen Group vehicles – you get the choice of either a 1.6-litre TDI or 2.0-litre TDI producing between 148-181bhp.
Smartly, SEAT has kept the Leon trim line-up straightforward: there’s S and SE for volume buyers, alongside a sporty-look FR. At the top end sits the Cupra 290, boasting subtler styling than previous extreme iterations but having no less appeal because of it. SEAT also sells an ‘allroad-style’ Leon X-Perience model, which it offers in SE and SE Technology guise.
Engines, performance and drive
A familiar range of Volkswagen Group engines is offered in the SEAT Leon; all are turbocharged, either TSI petrol or TDI diesel. The spread of engines is broad to cover all market demands: business users default to diesel, for example, while private buyers are increasingly taking a petrol alternative.
SEAT is right to offer such a wide range of engines because the accomplished drive of the Leon justifies it. Derived from the same MQB platform as the Volkswagen Golf, the Spanish brand has taken a slightly sportier focus in the development and this subtle change of emphasis makes the Leon more interesting and engaging to drive.
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Even lower power versions feel well balanced and nimble, with their lighter engines enhancing the Leon’s agility. Turbo torque means pulling power is always there in support; even the 1.2-litre TSI is a more exciting car to drive than you may expect.
Regular models strike a fine balance between body control and suspension composure. The ride in town is OK, if firmer than a Golf, and they are settled at speed. The FR versions are pleasingly sportier – this is more than just a badged-up sports edition – with a slice of extra purpose that makes them even more fun to drive, although the ride is firmer still.
The latest Leon Cupra is a real return to form. This high performance hot hatch has a superb engine and the well-developed chassis has the integrity to handle it well. It’s more sophisticated than earlier slightly rough and ready Cupra models, but none the worse for it. Traction is excellent despite only driving the front two wheels – a standard electronic limited-slip differential helps – and, overall, the Cupra ticks all the boxes.
The base 1.2 TSI 110 is a sweet, free-revving engine that produces 108bhp. Thanks to 175Nm of torque, it feels much larger than it actually is with pulling power spread between 1,400 and 4,000rpm – an impressively broad range. 0-62mph takes 9.9 seconds and top speed is 121mph.
Meanwhile, a slightly larger 1.4 TSI 125 doesn’t sound that much more powerful at 123bhp (and peak power is produced higher in the rev range), but 200Nm of torque between 1,400 and 4,000rpm delivers a 9.1-seconds 0-62mph time. Do note, though, this is the only Leon engine not to offer a DSG automatic option.
The 148bhp 1.4 EcoTSI 150 is an interesting engine as this has cylinder deactivation. During light loads, two of the four cylinders automatically and imperceptibly switch off, to save fuel. You can’t feel it and there’s no change in engine note or refinement; when economy is less of a priority, 0-62mph takes 8.0 seconds and 250Nm of pulling power gives easy drive through a 1,500 to 3,500rpm rev range.
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A 178bhp 1.8-litre TSI curiously has the same amount of torque as the 1.4 EcoTSI, although across a broader rev range and its extra power helps it produce 0-62mph in 7.5 seconds. The 1.8 TSI 180 is also beautifully smooth and free from vibration.
The familiar 108bhp 1.6 TDI 110 diesel comes in regular and Ecomotive guise; both versions are smooth, refined and have similar acceleration figures of around 10.5 seconds but the Ecomotive is faster at 124mph thanks to its slipperier bodywork and taller top gear (it has a six-speed gearbox; the regular car only has five and is the only Leon without a six-speed manual). The 2.0-litre TDI comes in 148bhp or 187bhp guise; even the TDI 150 is a step up over the 1.6 TDI with 0-62mph in 8.4 seconds.
The TDI 184 is faster still (reflecting this, it’s only offered in the regular car in FR spec); 0-62mph takes 7.5 seconds and an ample 380Nm of torque is delivered between 1,750 and 3,000rpm. Both 2.0-litre engines are, in their latest form, much smoother and more refined than earlier iterations.
The range-topping 2.0 TSI 290 Cupra engine now produces a fiery 286bhp between 5,900-6,400rpm, supported by an enormous 350Nm spread of torque between 1,700 and 5,800rpm. 0-62mph now takes just 5.8 seconds and an even faster 5.7 seconds (5.6 seconds in the fractionally lighter SC) in DSG guise. This motor sounds enthusiastic too, particularly at high revs (peak power is delivered between 5,900 and 6,400rpm). Note, SEAT has dropped the earlier lower-power iteration of this engine; it’s now 286bhp only.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
All Leon engines are impressively fuel efficient considering their performance. The 1.2 TSI opens the range with economy of 57.6mpg, closely followed by the 1.4 TSI on 54.2mpg. The clever fuel-saving tech of the 1.4 EcoTSI sees it improve again to more than 57mpg, while the 1.8 TSI appears the least efficient on paper with average economy of 48.7mpg. Sure, the Cupra is worse at 42.2mpg, but that has 286bhp compared to the 1.8 TSI’s 177bhp.
The 1.6 TDI 110 averages up to 70.6mpg in regular guise and 78.5mpg in Ecomotive form; this variant cuts CO2 emissions from 102g/km to 94g/km. The 2.0 TDI averages 65.7mpg and a 2.0 TDI 184 will return 62.8mpg – with 110g/km CO2 emissions for the 150 and from 118g/km CO2 for the 184.
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In line with list prices that undercut a Volkswagen Golf, routine servicing should also cost that little bit less than the VW: choose from either 10,000-mile fixed intervals or variable intervals that stretch the time between services up to around 20,000 miles, depending on usage.
SEAT also now offers fixed-price servicing packs through dealers, which help owners budget for, and reduce, the cost of routine maintenance. In practice, real-world running costs seem to be bearing up. Driver Power respondents ranked the Leon 13th in our latest survey, validating the hard work SEAT has done in this area.
The Leon has reasonable insurance groups; they’re not the lowest in this sector but do fairly reflect the extra turbo verve of the engine line-up. The 1.2 TSI 110 will be the cheapest to insure with a group 13E rating, which rises to 16E for the 1.4 TSI 125. The 1.4 EcoTSI 150 is in group 20E.
The 1.8 TSI is in group 25E and, predictably, the Cupra 290 sits at the top of the table with a group 35E rating reflecting the potency of its 286bhp 2.0 TSI engine.
Diesel engines sit in between the petrol ones: the 1.6 TDI 110 is in group 15E, the 2.0 TDI 150 is group 19E and the range-topping 2.0 TDI 184 is group 26E. Note, the 2.0 TDI 150 will also jump a group, from 19E to 20E, when moving from SE to FR spec.
Leon retained values are decent – it’s not the best model in its class for depreciation, but nearly every model still easily holds on to more than 40% of the list price after three years.
Five-door hatchbacks seem to retain marginally more than the SC three-door, and used Leon buyers reward the higher-tech and more mainstream engines. A 1.2 TSI 110 SE commands a 43% retained value, for example, compared to 42% for the 1.4 TSI 125 and over 45% for the 1.4 EcoTSI. The 1.6 TDI retains around 45% too, but do note DSG models hold onto around 1% less of their already-higher list price.
The higher-performance 2.0 TDI 184 is the standout star of the range. A 2.0 TDI 184 FR five-door will retain 51% after three years, compared to a still-decent 47% for the 2.0 TDI 150 version. The TDI 184 engines even better the Cupra variants, which retain around 44%.
Interior, design and technology
The interior of the SEAT Leon may look a little plain at first glance but in practice it proves a very satisfying, good to use cabin that carries all the hallmarks of solid Volkswagen Golf design but is a little bit more adventurous at the same time.
Quality of materials is high. The main dash structure is soft-touch and has a quality appearance, with big Audi-like dials set into the instrument binnacle and a Volkswagen-standard infotainment touchscreen high up in the middle of the dash.
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Controls are simple and purposefully minimised: indeed, it almost appears too minimal, with a blank space left ahead of the gearlever. A choice of trim materials means it doesn’t look too glaring though. FR models and above have standard climate control (it’s optional on SE) whose rotary knobs and buttons mimic a Golf.
In the use of colours, the look of some minor details and the car’s general ambience, the Leon really does feel a bit like a more mainstream Audi inside, particularly if you choose darker colour schemes. This family resemblance is, we’re sure, no coincidence – but it’s a convincing one.
Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
Even the basic Leon S has a 5.0-inch colour touchscreen ‘SEAT Media System’ infotainment unit, with standard Bluetooth, USB and SD card slots, voice control and steering wheel controls. This six-speaker system features on SE and FR variants; the Cupra has SEAT’s Media System Plus, with a bigger touchscreen including hand-sensing proximity sensor, DAB, two SD cards and standard 3D sat nav.
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SEAT offers a great value technology pack on SE and FR Leons, which includes full LED headlights, SEAT Media System Plus and DAB radio. The LED lights alone are worth it, because of their brilliant night-time clarity and distinctive LED running light profile, but the comprehensive navigation system also works as well here as in other VW Group models.
SEAT’s great-value infotainment packages and comprehensive functionality have certainly impressed Auto Express Driver power respondents: the Leon was voted the best car of all in this category in 2015.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
The Leon is at its most practical in five-door hatchback and ST estate guise: the three-door Leon SC trades a bit of ultimate usability for stylish lines. Although it’s not quite as practical as a Golf, the volume five-door is still flexible, with an easy to use interior that’s accommodating for families, with a reasonably easy-access rear and good visibility.
Seat comfort is OK too – the seats aren’t as soft as they are in a Golf, reflecting the Leon’s sportier nature, but the reasonably firm pews are supportive and the FR’s side bolstering works well. A grumble of early Cupra models was that their seats weren’t sporty enough but SEAT has rectified that with latest cars: optional Alcantara bucket seats up the sportiness quotient accordingly.
The Leon scores very good marks for ease of driving in the Driver Power survey, thanks to a skilful blend of talents across all areas, including driving position, visibility, the simplicity of its interior and the integrity of its controls. Last year’s survey respondents ranked it the it 13th overall for ease of driving.
Leon SC and five-door are similar in size, with the SC being the smaller of the two; it’s 4,228mm long, 1,810mm wide and 1,446mm tall. The hatch is 4,263mm long, 6mm wider and 13mm taller. The big dimensional difference comes with the ST estate – this is 4,535mm long, although curiously it’s a little shorter than the hatch.
The Leon SC actually sits on a shorter wheelbase than the five-door and ST, which has an impact on rear passenger space (but not, as we’ll see, boot space). Despite its extra length, the ST shares the five-door wheelbase, with all the extra length coming behind the rear wheels.
Leg room, head room & passenger space
The Leon benefits from the sheer well-planned flexibility of the MQB platform with a near-faultless driving position. The range of seats and steering wheel adjustment is enormous and it’s easy to find a comfortable driving position.
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It’s good in the rear too, with a fairly supportive bench seats and decent headroom. Again, this is better in the five-door and ST than in the SC – and it’s naturally a lot easier to get in and out the back of the former two than the three-door Sports Coupe…
Both Leon SC and five-door have a commodious 380-litre boot, one that’s deep and well planned. The size is a match for the Volkswagen Golf and seatbacks fold 60:40 in all trims to extend it further – to 1,150 litres in the SC and 1,210 litres in the five-door.
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The ST estate has a much larger 587-litre boot with the seats up, and the shape is again very well laid out to take big, awkward loads. With the seats down, it extends to 1,470 litres, which isn’t far shy of some cars from the class above. All models share the same braked towing limits, with slight differences in maximum permissible load for unbraked loads.
There are a couple of practicality black marks here, though. When folded, the seats don’t lie fully flat, and the load sill itself is rather high in the hatchback models, particularly the SC.
Reliability and Safety
The Leon has an excellent reliability record, according to Driver Power respondents. They rated it the 10th best car in the UK in 2015; clearly, using the Volkswagen Group parts bin and VW Golf architecture is paying dividends.
This is despite readers reporting build quality isn’t perhaps what it could be. The Leon scores a mid-table 87th place here, with the little niggles and detail oversights clearly proving even more irritating in a car otherwise so talented.
In 2012, Euro NCAP awarded the Leon a five-star crash test safety rating, something it’s revalidated and confirmed every year since. The Leon performed very well in individual categories, with a superb 94% for Adult protection and 92% for Child protection. Pedestrian protection came in at 70% with Safety Assist marked at 71%.
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SEAT offers two optional safety packs, according to trim line: some models feature more standard safety kit than others. Key features are a driver tiredness recognition system, high beam assist, lane assist, rear seatbelt reminder and auto lights and wipers. It’s an affordable option - £500 on volume SE and FR models – and has appealing features such as auto-dip rear view mirror, LED interior lights and footwell lights to hopefully encourage people it’s worth choosing.
All new UK SEATS have a three-year, 60,000-mile warranty. It’s made up of a two-year manufacturer warranty, with unlimited mileage, plus a third year dealer warranty that’s capped to 60,000 miles. You can choose to extend it up to five years and 90,000 miles with the SEAT Extended Warranty but you must select this before the car is registered.
SEAT also offers a three-year paint warranty and a 12-year body protection warranty. What’s more, official SEAT accessories are covered by a three-year warranty if purchased new with the vehicle, while OE parts have a two-year warranty.
The Leon offers a choice either of fixed 10,000-mile or annual service intervals or variable intervals that can stretch up to 20,000 miles or two years. SEAT advises high-intensity users to take the fixed intervals, with those less heavy on the car – long-distance motorway users, for example, picking variable intervals.
Servicing packs are also now offered, to fix the cost of routine maintenance, but you have to choose them when the vehicle is new.