SEAT Leon review
The Auto Express Car of the Year 2013 is the all-new SEAT Leon, which offers a similar drive to the Mk7 VW Golf
The SEAT Leon delivers a winning mix of sporty style, useful space, tidy handling and decent performance, which is why we named it Auto Express Car of the Year 2013.
It was the combination of great looks, a practical interior, low running costs and fun that made the 2013 SEAT Leon an award winner, as well as its unmatched ability to leave rivals – the BMW 1 Series, Skoda Octavia and VW Golf – in the shade.
The third-generation SEAT Leon is shorter, wider, lower and has a longer wheelbase than the outgoing model. It’s the third car to be built on the Volkswagen Group’s advanced, lightweight MQB platform that underpins the Mk7 Golf and new Audi A3 but will eventually form the basis for almost 30 cars, ranging from the all-new Polo to the next-generation Passat. It’s by far the best-looking car of the trio, too, and it even undercuts its VW brother by around 10 per cent across the range.
The new SEAT Leon also gets new petrol and diesel engines, a lower kerbweight than before and, although it is smaller than the car it replaces, it still offers more interior space and a bigger boot, too. It’s more comfortable, thanks to a much more supple ride, while quality has also been improved, with much better materials used for the interior and extremely precise bodypanel gaps.
An entry-level three-door SEAT Leon SC is available, priced at just over £15,000 new; although we prefer the added practicality of the five-door car. It rivals cars like the three-door Hyundai i30 and the Vauxhall Astra GTC. It gets a 35mm shorter wheelbase and a more steeply raked rear windscreen for a sportier, more aggressive profile, which does sacrifice a bit of head and legroom in the back.
The value displayed across the range is strikingly obvious in the SEAT Leon FR trim; the improved interior and depth of engineering has made the FR one of the best diesel hot hatches on the market, despite costing £1,300 less than the 1 Series.
There are further changes in the pipeline for the Leon line-up: SEAT has been evaluating the viability of a 300bhp, four-wheel drive Leon Cupra R model that could drop the 0-60mph time to around five seconds. The Cupra R would become the fastest car in the range. Then there’s the new SEAT Leon ST estate, set to be debuted at the 2013 Frankfurt Motor show ahead of it’s 2014 release. The addition of the ST estate will be the first time the Leon is offered in a choice of three body styles.
SEAT has also been busy working on designs for a Leon hybrid that could return an impressive 176.6mpg and emit just 36g/km. Whilst there may be no plans to put the SEAT Leon Verde plug-in on the production line, its electric capabilities highlight the millions SEAT has spent on a four-year research project to facilitate the wider use of electric vehicles.
Our choice: Leon 1.6 TDI SE
SEAT builds the Leon on the same platform as the Volkswagen Golf and Skoda Octavia, but it has an edge over these sister models thanks to its sharper styling. It doesn’t look its best in dark colours but the sharp detailing makes it attractive.
Another enhancement is the optional LED headlight upgrade. SEAT is currently offering the Tech Pack – which adds sat-nav, DAB digital radio and LED lights – for free, and the lamps give the Leon a visual edge over its rivals. The daytime running lights are integrated into the headlamps (the LED running lights on the Renault Megane look like an afterthought in comparison), while the lights themselves cast a beam that’s as bright as xenons without dazzling most oncoming traffic.
Inside, the Leon features plenty of dark grey plastic, while the dash gets a subtle gloss black surround that’s finished off with chrome trim. Overall, it looks rather restrained, but it’s well laid out, with an intuitive touchscreen that’s easier to get along with compared to the multitude of buttons on the Ford Focus. Plus, the quality of the materials is well ahead of the Renault’s.
Three trim levels are available: S, SE and FR. The entry-level Leon S gets a touchscreen to control the audio and sat-nav (if you opt for it), as well as air conditioning and Bluetooth, for hands free phone calls. Mid-spec Leon SE cars get SEAT’s XDS electronic differential lock system, front fog lights and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, while range-topping FR models get 17-inch alloys, a sporty bodykit, sports seats and sports suspension.
SEAT offers two suspension set-ups on the Leon. Cars with more than 178bhp come with multi-link rear suspension, while lesser models like the 1.6 TDI make do with a basic torsion beam set-up. However, you’re unlikely to notice the difference during everyday driving.
As soon as you drive off in the Leon, it feels like high-quality product. The wind and road noise is muted, and the suspension does a great job of ironing out lumps and bumps in the road. It’s also relaxing to drive.
The handling is good, too. The steering is direct, and while the Leon can’t match the Focus for sharp reactions, it’s more entertaining to drive than the Renault Megane. SE models and above get the firm’s XDS electronic diff, which delivers sharper turn-in and improved traction. As with its rivals, the stability control can’t be turned off, but as the Leon has more composed handling, it barely cuts in.
There are three petrol and two diesel engines to choose from, with highlights including a 104bhp 1.6-litre diesel Leon Ecomotive that is expected to be the biggest seller, plus the smooth and punchy 104bhp 1.2-litre TSI petrol. The top-spec 181bhp 2.0 TDI FR is a fantastic driver’s car, with a punchy diesel engine that's matched with great brakes, precise steering and impressive traction that helps it complete the 0-62mph sprint in just 7.5 seconds.
A faster SEAT Leon Cupra with close to 280bhp is also available for performance fans.
As the Leon is a relatively new car, it’s still too early to judge how reliable it is. However, the 1.2 TSI we’re running on our fleet has performed faultlessly, and the Leon’s MQB platform has been developed to last, as it’s used throughout the VW Group range.
While SEAT’s cars do well in tests, their reputation has taken a bit of a beating as ownership propositions. The brand came 27th in our Driver Power 2013 satisfaction survey, but hopefully it’ll improve on this with the introduction of newer models such as the Leon, Mii and Toledo.
One area that’s ripe for improvement is SEAT’s dealers. The network came dead last in our dealer poll, with owners criticising the level of customer service and the poor attitude of staff.
The Leon achieved a five-star Euro NCAP crash test rating, and got higher percentage scores than the Ford Focus for adult and child occupant protection. There are seven airbags as standard and tyre pressure monitors, while optional safety kit includes tiredness alert (£115) and a Driver Assist pack (£295), which comprises high-beam assist and lane-keeping technology.
Although it’s actually 52mm shorter than the car it replaces, the new Leon is more spacious. That’s because it has a more traditional hatchback shape this time, with its wheels pushed out further towards the four corners of the car, and a 58mm longer wheelbase. This ensures more space on the inside, with wide-opening rear doors and plenty of leg and headroom for tall passengers. There’s also lots of space for front seat passengers, and lots of adjustability for the seat and wheel, giving a comfortable driving position.
The 380-litre boot is 25 litres smaller than the Renault Megane’s, but this rises to 1,210 litres with the seats folded, which puts the SEAT 48 litres ahead of the Renault. There’s a step in the floor when the seats a folded down, although overall the Leon is a touch more practical, thanks to its wider tailgate aperture, twin bag hooks and lower load lip.
Back seat passenger space is decent, with plenty of head and legroom in all three rear seat positions, while the lighter colour of the seat fabric means it doesn’t feel claustrophobic inside.
Cabin storage is good, too, with a deep-lidded cubby ahead of the gearlever on the centre console, a large glovebox and decent door bins.
Every engine in the Leon range is now turbocharged and features direct injection, with some units up to 22 per cent more efficient than the engines they replace. The MQB platform has also cut weight by 90kg from the previous car, and it’s also 10 per cent more aerodynamic than before.
The 1.6 TDI Ecomotive returns average fuel consumption of 74.3 mpg and emits just 99g/km of CO2, which makes it very cheap to run. The entry-level 1.2 TSI engine manages 57.6mpg and emits 114/gm, while the 1.4 TSI can do 54.3mpg and 119g/km. But even the top-spec FR TDI diesel still returns more than 65mpg and emits 112g/km, despite being capable of a going from 0-62mph in 7.5 seconds.
An even more frugal Ecomotive model, which emits 89g/km, will join the range later in 2013. Lastly, the Leon’s real trump card is a price tag that’s around 10 per cent cheaper than an equivalent Golf, plus predicted residuals that are every bit as strong.
SEAT offers a wide overall range of options, including leather seats, front and rear parking sensors and a variety of packs – which add heated seats, automatic lights and wipers, plus driver assistance technology.