Last month I drove the new Mk8 Volkswagen Golf. Made me feel a bit old because I remember driving a Mk1 when it was new. And all of the subsequent marks, too, for that matter. This latest Golf turned out to be very much how I expected it to be.
Conservative styling, excellent quality, safe handling and a range of efficient powertrains. Nothing to complain about; but nothing to rave about either. But that’s fine because it’s what we’ve come to expect from eight generations of Golfs. Seat has traditionally offered up a little bit more of a sparkle with its cars.
VW’s Spanish arm certainly has this time around. Quite how much I have enjoyed driving this new Leon has come as a bit of a surprise. I’m going to go as far as saying that it is one of the best cars that I have driven this year, certainly one of the most fun. First, let’s have a look at what we’ve got.
The new Leon, like the Golf, is based on the latest version of the Group’s MQB platform. For cost reasons you can only get the Leon in five-door or estate forms with no three-door available. This new Leon is 90mm longer than the previous one and a welcome 16mm narrower. Some of that extra length (5mm to be precise) has been added between the wheels and this additional wheelbase has contributed to slightly more rear-legroom.
The styling I’ll leave to you to judge. It’s certainly a more interesting looking car than the Golf with more obvious lines and more angles. The grille has been inspired by the Tarraco and there’s a full width rear light bar and the word ‘Leon’ written in script. On the whole the car looks very appealing and sharp.
You have a good choice of engines and powertrains with more in the pipeline. In the old days we used to ask ‘When’s the fast one coming?’ but these days there’s another obvious question and that’s ‘When’s the electrified one coming?’. The answer to both is that hot Cupra versions of the Leon are planned and that there is a plug-in hybrid version coming towards the end of this year that features a total power output of 242bhp and an electric-only range of 31 miles. Should be a belter.
Our test car is in FR trim and is fitted with a 1.5-litre TSI petrol engine that produces 130bhp. It’s connected to a six-speed manual gearbox; there’s a 148bhp version of the same engine but that comes only in combination with the 7-speed DSG automatic gearbox. You takes your pick. For me the loss of 18bhp is more than made up for by this slick and very pleasant to use manual gearbox.
FR trim gives you 17in alloy wheels, twin exhausts and a bespoke suspension set up that features a ride height lowered by 15mm. Sounds like this might all add up to a car that’s biased towards sporty driving and will suffer from an uncomfortable ride over rough road surfaces. Actually no, the balance is just right. The engine suffers from a bit of turbo lag low down but since the gearbox is a pleasure to use this is no problem.
I found the power more than adequate and massively enjoyed driving the Leon along fast country roads. To use one of the most frightful motoring cliches: it brought a smile to my face. When you spend a lot of your time behind the wheel of crossovers you forget how pleasant it is to drive a good hatchback. I like sitting low in a car with my bum reasonably close to the ground so that I can feel what the car’s doing. I’d rather have that than the dubious privilige of sitting up high and looking down on my peers. Which doesn’t actually happen because with the popularity of SUVs and crossovers almost everybody else is sitting up high, too.
Seat tends to go to some effort to make its interiors have more Mediterranean sparkle than their German and Czech brothers. The latest Leon’s dashboard looks rather spartan because most of the functions (too many of them) have been incorporated into the touchscreen and infotainment system. This is taken straight from the new Golf and is equally annoying when it comes to adjusting basic settings like temperature. It’s a high quality system though and features effective voice recognition and a host of other functions.
Seat has also been working hard to get interior quality up to Golf levels and with this latest model has pretty much succeeded. There are few hard plastics in view and the stitching on the cloth seats is neat and high quality. You’ll pay around 10 per cent less like-for-like for a Leon than you will for a Golf.
That’s a worthwhile saving. The Seat’s quality is very close to the VW’s but even if you ignore the cost saving, the new Leon’s styling wins it for me and the fact that it is a great car to drive. I’m sure the Cupra badged hot hatch versions will be excellent fun, too, and of course much faster, but for me this £23,515 FR represents a lot of car for the money. The average age of a Seat buyer is substantially lower than most brands and that can be put down to an image that smacks of fun and flair. The new Leon will certainly do its bit to keep the younger buyer interested.
Model tested: Seat Leon FR
Engine: 1.5-litre four cylinder petrol
0-62mph: 9.4 seconds
Max speed: 130mph