Seat Leon FR TDI

Latest diesel aims to transform Spanish brand’s acclaimed warm hatch

Overall Auto Express Rating

4.0 out of 5

Diesel hot hatches are nothing new – Citroen’s ZX Volcane began the trend in the Nineties. But the Leon FR TDI is one of the best yet. As with the basic hatch, it’s practical, good looking and easy to live with. Yet the new common-rail diesel adds storming performance, amazing economy and low emissions to the mix. While the chassis isn’t quite as sharp as that of a Ford Focus or as refined as a Golf, it serves up real thrills. What’s more, with a wide range of colour and wheel choices, owners can make their car really stand out. But the icing on the cake is the bargain price tag.

in the world of sport, there’s no shortage of great all-rounders. Take England cricketers Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff, for instance, or Italian bike racer-cum-rally driver Valentino Rossi. But what about cars? Is there a hatchback that puts a smile on your face, yet won’t cost the earth to buy or run?

Well, SEAT thinks it has the answer, with the latest version of its sporty Leon FR TDI. It’s available in an eye-catching shade of orange, and is powered by parent company Volkswagen’s 2.0-litre common-rail turbodiesel – the same unit as in the Golf GTD.

Video: watch CarBuyer's video review of the SEAT Leon

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Sitting below the hot Cupra in the Leon line-up, the £18,990 FR has been designed to blend punchy performance with 50mpg economy. Does it deliver? We got behind the wheel on UK roads to find out.

The Leon is getting on a bit now – it launched in 2005 – but a facelift has freshened things up, with new bumpers and headlights, plus silver mirrors, a mild bodykit, twin exhausts and front foglamps. Optional black 18-inch alloys and that Lamborghini-style Lumina Orange paint make it stand out more.

Inside, material quality has been improved – gone are the tough plastics of the previous model – while there’s a classy touchscreen centre console display for the optional sat-nav, along with full iPod integration and Bluetooth. Standard equipment also includes firm sports seats, plus cruise and climate control. The driving position is comfortable and widely adjustable, although thick windscreen pillars at the front and rear hamper visibility.

Smoother

Twist the key and it’s clear that the new common-rail engine is much smoother than the outgoing Pumpe Düse unit. There’s none of the usual clatter – just a quiet hum. And on the move, it gets even better. Producing 168bhp and 350Nm of torque from 1,750rpm, the TDI delivers lots of on-boost punch and real flexiblity. That means 0-62mph in only 8.2 seconds, as well as impressive response in third and fourth gears – so much so that you barely need to shift down to overtake on a B-road.

The diesel doesn’t thrive on revs in the same way as the 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol version of the FR, and while the TDI unit is smooth, it’s still gruffer. But short-shifting through the light and precise six-speed manual gearbox is still fun, and rewards you with incredible pace.

A long top ratio adds to the appeal, and while some roar from the 225/45-section tyres detracts from the newcomer’s cruising ability, you won’t have to stop often for fuel on long journeys. SEAT claims 53.3mpg on the combined cycle, and that seems perfectly realistic. On our mixed route of motorways and back roads, we averaged 47mpg – extremely impressive given the performance on offer. Even more remarkable is the 139g/km CO2 output, which means annual road tax of £110 and an affordable 18 per cent company car tax band.

The FR gets the thumbs-up when the road turns twisty, too. While the steering feels a little numb, it’s accurate and well weighted, allowing you to attack corners. Agility is strong and body roll is kept in check by the sporty suspension, which is slightly softer than the outgoing model’s. As a result, the ride is much more comfortable, even if it’s still firm. Factor in a price tag that undercuts a Golf GTD by £4,000, and you’re looking at a great all-rounder.

Rival: VW Golf GTD With the same punchy engine as the Leon, the GTD delivers the pace you expect from a diesel GTI. A well judged chassis gives decent comfort and strong driver appeal. But the Golf is pricey, at £23,035.

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