Latest Leon has the look

IS SEAT's latest Leon more than just a pretty face? Steve Walker takes a look.

Car design can be a thankless task. Having undergone extensive training in the art of concocting beautiful and futuristic motor vehicles while wearing polo necked jumpers and adopting assorted quizzical expressions, our designers are released into the real world. Here, they immediately see their stunning, if somewhat fanciful, creations watered down by the corporate machine that employs them. No matter how revolutionary the original sketch, how beguiling the concept car, the end result somehow ends up looking like every other car its size. Against this background, SEAT must be commended for its efforts with the Leon. Even in its basic form, it’s undeniably different and probably one of the prettiest hatchbacks around and the latest facelifted models do nothing to hamper that.

The family hatchback has all sorts of constraints placed upon it by the customers it’s targeting. It needs to be roomy, practical, comfortable, economical, good to drive and quite a few other things besides. A supercar, by contrast, just needs to be fast and jaw-droppingly handsome. It’s hardly surprising then, that family hatchbacks tend to look similar. The SEAT Leon isn’t a massive departure from this established hatchback look but it’s enough of one to stand out from the crowd. Based on the same underpinnings as the MK5 Volkswagen Golf, it’s a far sleeker and curvier proposition. Crucially, it also looks good whether you get one in entry-level form or as a range-topping Cupra derivative.

At entry-level, SEAT Leon diesel buyers get to choose a 103bhp 1.9-litre unit (which you can also order in eco-friendly ECOmotive guise where it puts out just 119g/km of CO2). A more appealing option is the 138bhp 2.0 TDI but it still doesn’t have the latest common rail technology now being used by Audi and Volkswagen. For that, you have to spend a bit more for the 168bhp 2.0-litre TDI diesel fitted to the sporting FR version. The petrol powerplants open with a 101bhp 1.6-litre and a 125bhp 1.4-litre TSI, with the FR performance model getting a 209bhp 2.0 TSI unit. The flagship Cupra and Cupra R respectively offer 237bhp and 261bhp versions of that engine.

As you might expect given this car’s heritage, it’s pretty much like a Golf to drive with a firmer suspension set-up that offers a ride and handling compromise aimed at SEAT’s supposedly more sports-orientated clientele. The standard cars are comfortable on most surfaces but the sporty FR and Cupra derivatives really let you know you’re in a hot hatch with their hard ride. There’s good feel through the electric power steering and the manual gearboxes are a joy to use, with mechanical precision and a lovely slick feel to the action.

On plusher models, there’s the option of the Volkswagen Group’s latest-generation DSG automatic gearbox - one of the smoothest and fastest-reacting ‘boxes we've ever tried. It can be left in automatic mode or prompted manually by flicking the gear lever or wheel-mounted paddle shifters. In an attempt to differentiate the Leon from its MPV siblings, SEAT has created a driving position that sees you sit low down in the car. This is one of the reasons why the driving feels quite sporting, far more so than in the Spanish maker’s Altea or Toledo models.

The Leon is a good deal bigger than you might expect for this class of car and this extra space is particularly noticeable in the rear where there’s plenty of knee-room, even if you’re transporting six-footers. Although there’s no armrest in the back and the bench is a little flat but you wouldn’t feel hard done by undertaking a longer journey here. The rear tailgate opens wide to reveal a load bay that’s a little awkwardly shaped for bulky items but is otherwise perfectly adequate for this class of car. The latest facelifted models are tough to spot with SEAT apparently reluctant to mess too much with the Leon’s cohesive curves but look closely and there’s are reshaped light clusters, revised bumpers and a different grille with a smaller SEAT badge at its centre. The Leon’s interior design has never been as fresh as the outside of the car and it even gave the impression that the SEAT had been deliberately dumbed down to preserve the quality gap to its Volkswagen Golf sister vehicle. Improvements in trim materials on the latest models help, as do the re-designed centre console and instruments.

Both the front seat and the steering wheel are multi-adjustable and there’s plenty of headroom up front even for taller drivers. The nose curves rapidly out of view and shorter drivers may want to specify parking sensors. The windscreen pillars are annoyingly chunky which means that you’ll probably be doing a fair bit of see-sawing in your seat as you negotiate roundabouts. One can almost excuse this feature due to the fact that the windscreen wipers park vertically into the pillars – a rather neat trick that helps with the vital showroom wow factor. Visibility out the back isn’t great either, but the latest models improve the situation with an expanded rear screen.

Leon prices sit mainly in the 13,000 to 20,000 bracket common to this class of car, which, if you’re interested, is about 500 less, model for model, than you’d pay for a comparable VW Golf. The basic trim levels run from S and SE to Sport but SEAT also offers FR and Cupra models for performance fans and ECOmotive derivatives for those looking to keep running costs low. Value-added Emocion versions are also worth considering.

This is a well-equipped car, too. Even in its most basic form, Leon buyers will get air-con, electric windows, electric and heated wing mirrors, a CD player with six speakers, split folding rear seats, 16-inch wheels and a trip computer. Interesting options include the Hill Hold Control function that stops the car rolling backward on hill starts and the XDS electronic differential that mimics the action of a mechanical limited slip differential to help drivers get the most out of the car’s performance.

As you’d expect, there are no nasty surprises when it comes to cost of ownership. Insurance groups range between 5 and 9 for the standard models and between 12 and 18 for the more sporting FR and Cupra variants. Residuals won’t be quite as good as those of a Golf but they’re not too far off. And running costs? Well, opt for, say the 2.0 TDI 138bhp diesel and you should average about 47mpg while putting out no more than around 161g/km of CO2.

There’s a lot to like about the SEAT Leon. It’s good looking, spacious and very good value. SEAT’s only problem is that all those comments also apply to the comparably priced, more MPV-orientated Altea. As a result, it’s easy to see family buyers moving over to the more practical car but everyone else should be more than happy with the Leon.

To choose the Leon, you’ve got to like its swoopy lines and sporty persona. Those prioritising practicality will prefer the Altea and the family hatch sector is crammed with alternative models that are less extrovert in appearance. If you fall in love with the car’s vibrant good looks, as many people will, there’s little to criticise. The engines, with the possible exception of the 1.9-litre diesel, are strong, the build quality is solid and the drive is certainly enjoyable. It’s definitely one of the best SEATs in the house.

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