SEAT Leon

It's the Leon that roars! SEAT's stunning concept made its debut at the Geneva Motor Show last month, and now Auto Express has secured an exclusive first drive. With its sporty looks and powerful engine, the car gives a clear indication of how the production version will shape up as it takes on some tough competition in the crowded premium hatchback market.

If SEAT can produce a showroom Leon as cool as this prototype, it'll be a serious contender in the premium hatch sector. A strong petrol and diesel range, plus the option of the superb DSG gearbox, will give the performance to match its looks, while the high-quality design instills a strong character. All it needs is a keen price tag in order to tempt buyers away from more mainstream rivals.

It's the Leon that roars! SEAT's stunning concept made its debut at the Geneva Motor Show last month, and now Auto Express has secured an exclusive first drive. With its sporty looks and powerful engine, the car gives a clear indication of how the production version will shape up as it takes on some tough competition in the crowded premium hatchback market.

Its dramatic stance was a hit with the public at Geneva, and those stylish lines are no less impressive on the road. The design combines elements of the original Leon with SEAT family cues already seen in the Toledo and Altea.

From the front, the car has great impact, thanks to the prominent grille and deep air intakes. The large headlights flow smoothly into the wings, giving the Leon a well defined waistline and solid feel. The flanks are heavily curved, and a feature line runs from beneath the headlights to the rear arches.

With a taut back end completing the look, the overall shape is very distinctive. It also manages to seem more compact than the original car. There are a number of clever exterior details as well - a high-level brake light is mounted in the roof spoiler, and contains a tiny camera to aid reversing. In addition, the rear door handles are hidden behind the C-pillar, which helps the coup�-like appearance.

Inside, the cabin matches the outside for style. Individual leather seats front and rear, plus similar trim on the doors, give a luxury feel. Meanwhile, the dashboard has a satin red finish, with sporty instruments set into the binnacle. The view from the driver's chair is excellent thanks to the deep windscreen, while the simple but attractive interior layout is of a high quality. Even the boot boasts some innovative ideas: the jack doubles up as the securing arm for the spare wheel, and the seatbacks unclip to reveal a tool kit and first aid equipment.

Powering the Leon prototype is the 2.0-litre turbocharged FSI engine first seen in the Volkswagen Golf GTI, which drives through a sequential DSG transmission. With 200bhp, it provides excellent performance. There is good torque at low revs, with a powerful punch when the turbo is at full strength.

The gearbox is a superb match for the engine - on automatic setting it shifts seamlessly, and in full manual mode the paddles behind the steering wheel allow fast and smooth changes up and down the ratios. The 0-62mph sprint takes only 6.9 seconds, while the top speed is 146mph. Massive 19-inch alloys and a wide track mean high levels of stability and superb grip - although the production version of the Leon is likely to wear narrower rubber.

Yet despite the extreme wheel and tyre combination, the ride is surprisingly relaxing, although the emphasis is on handling and grip rather than ultimate comfort. Traction is also impressive, with only full power in first gear threatening to spin the front wheels.

As a successor to the original car, the Leon prototype shows SEAT is heading in the right direction. It has the same blend of sportiness and practicality that made the first-generation machine so popular, but adds higher quality and more attractive styling to the mix. With the prospect of the production model being very similar to this show-stopper, it could be the king of the urban jungle.

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