SEAT Leon 1.6 TDI SE

The stylish SEAT Leon finally has the all-round ability to match its looks

It’s a deserved victory for the SEAT, which finally delivers the substance to go with its undoubted style. In terms of quality and driving dynamics, the new Leon is right up there with the Golf, while an attractive price and surprisingly strong residuals make it a compelling ownership proposition.

The SEAT Leon has always been a stylish choice, but it has lacked the substance to reach the top of the compact family hatchback class – until now.

The all-new third-generation Leon finally has access to the latest technology from parent company VW, including its clever MQB chassis architecture and efficient engines. Yet while its underpinnings are no-nonsense German, the SEAT’s exterior still exudes Spanish style.

Even in mid-spec SE guise, the Leon looks sleeker and sportier than its rivals. The bodywork is covered in bold creases, while the sloping roofline gives a coupe-like profile, and it’s the only contender to get 17-inch alloy wheels as standard.

Our test car also benefited from eye-catching LED headlamps and running lights. At £995, they’re not cheap, but the set-up looks great, and the lights are even more powerful than xenons.

Yet it’s inside where the Leon has made the greatest strides. The previous car’s cheap-looking cabin has been banished and is replaced by a slick layout that rivals the Golf for build quality and upmarket ambience.

For example, the distinctive dashboard is packed with robust VW switchgear, including the classy gloss black-finished stalks for the wipers and indicators. The delicate needles for the dials also look great. And while you don’t sit quite as low as in the Golf, it’s still easy to find a comfortable driving position.

However, the SEAT trails the VW for standard kit. You get air-con, cruise control and ambient lighting, but it does without its cousin’s 5.8-inch touchscreen infotainment system, auto-dimming rear view mirror and driver fatigue detection kit.

Still, the good news is that these items can be added for only £435 as part of an options pack. In fact, the only Golf options you can’t specify in the Leon are the adaptive cruise control and city safe system, which automatically applies the brakes if it senses a potential collision.

As you’d expect, there’s very little to separate our trio when it comes to space. The Leon and Golf boast exactly the same amount of legroom for rear passengers – although unlike the Kia, neither benefits from a flat floor – while all three provide a 380-litre boot capacity. Fold down the SEAT’s rear bench and the available space increases to 1,210 litres, which is marginally less than the VW’s 1,270 litres.

There have been very few changes to the SEAT’s tried-and-tested 1.6-litre TDI diesel but, as the new car is around 90kg lighter than its predecessor, it feels more responsive on the move. At the track, it was one-tenth faster than the Cee’d and an exact match for the Golf, completing the 0-60mph sprint in 10.9 seconds. And better sound insulation means the engine is more refined than before – although it remains a fraction noisier than in the VW.

The Leon also has a slightly firmer ride, which means it doesn’t soak up bumps quite as effectively as the Golf or Cee’d. Still, the upshot of this is sharper responses when you’re faced with a series of corners.

Despite missing out on the multi-link rear suspension used on higher-powered FR models, the SE feels composed and agile. The steering is direct and accurate, if a little light, plus there’s plenty of grip. A precise gearshift action for the standard five-speed transmission and effective brakes complete the impressive driving experience.

But it’s the SEAT’s value for money that really impresses – at £18,490, it undercuts the VW by a whopping £2,010. Even if you hit the options list in an effort to match the Golf’s generous spec, you’ll still save £1,575. Combine the low list price with CO2 emissions of only 99g/km, and it’s no real shock to find the Leon is the most cost-effective choice for company car drivers.

But the biggest surprise is the fact that the SEAT has the strongest residuals, with our experts predicting it will retain a healthy 47.9 per cent of its new value after three years. The only financial black mark is reserved for the servicing costs – SEAT really needs to offer a pre-paid maintenance deal. Still, the savings made on the list price are likely to mean the extra cost is easier to swallow.

The new Leon is stylish, good to drive and great value for money, and looks to be closer than ever to stealing the compact family hatchback crown for the first time.

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