The third-generation Seat Leon has greater strategic importance for Seat than either of its older namesakes. Not so long ago, Volkswagen’s Spanish outpost made plenty of larger and more expensive models than its conventional Golf-sized family hatchback, such as Alteas, Altea XLs, bustle-back Toledos and the like.
Now, after the introduction of the Mii city car and the new Toledo in particular, the company’s portfolio is both simpler and cheaper. A stronger portfolio means a change in customer relationships, too, and Seat expects the Leon to overtake the Ibiza as its best-selling model over the next few years to become a flagship car for the brand.
The Leon's increased significance to Seat has wrought extra distinctiveness and obvious new qualities from the car. Compared with the previous Leon hatchback, the current one is appealingly sharp-suited, richer and more practical, more technologically sophisticated, lighter, more powerful and more efficient.
Such a transformation is a major undertaking and a major success for a car company affected more than most by the Eurozone’s financial meltdown. This is also the first Leon to be available in a range of bodystyles: as a regular five-door hatch, a three-door ‘SC’ coupé or a longer five-door ‘ST’ estate.
Part of the Leon’s advancement is attributable to the platform that underpins it. This is the first Seat to benefit from the Volkswagen Group’s ‘Modularer Querbaukasten’ or MQB platform, the pioneering mechanical component set that makes for unprecedented cost-saving commonality between this car and the Audi A3, VW Golf and Skoda Octavia.
It will also be used to form the basis of the VW Group’s next generation of superminis, compact 4x4s and saloons. That’s how the MQB underpinnings have made the Leon’s business case stronger, but it has also had an influence on the new car’s kerb weight and its major dimensions. Weight ranges from 1198kg to 1345kg in the standard hatchback, depending on engine and specification, and from 1189kg to 1350kg in the SC.
A more space-efficient under-bonnet layout has allowed 58mm to be added to the wheelbase at the same time as 52mm being taken out of overall length. The three-door SC shrinks by a further 32mm. In theory, those space-saving measures make for more passenger room as well as better ride and handling. Sure enough, there are competitive levels of space inside this car, but they’re not outstanding. Practicality is certainly much less likely to sell a Leon than the car’s crisp styling or appealing value for money.
Five engines are offered, ranging upwards from a 104bhp, 1.2-litre TSI turbocharged petrol, via 120bhp and 178bhp four-cylinder turbo petrols, to a pair of four-cylinder diesels consisting of a 104bhp, sub-100g/km 1.6-litre unit and a 148bhp 2.0. All drive the front wheels, via a choice of five or six-speed manual, or seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearboxes.
The smaller diesel is expected to account for the majority of UK sales, which is a pity because while it’s a workmanlike unit it lacks the punch and flexibility of the market’s best low-emissions diesels. As an entry-level powertrain, the 1.2-litre petrol manual – with its extra intermediate gear ratio – makes a more rounded option.
More credit is due higher up in the engine range. Seat’s 148bhp 2.0-litre TDI makes a strong case, being refined, economical and relatively free-revving. But again, it fails to put much in the way of clear water between it and the equivalent petrol – this time, the 138bhp 1.4-litre TSI. The latter model is cheaper, more responsive, more refined, more flexible and offers marginally better on-paper performance than the diesel, along with fuel economy that’s broadly comparable in everyday use.
The range-topping petrol 1.8-litre TSI with 178bhp is a satisfying unit which is both quick off the line and offers impressive in-gear acceleration. Beware of high-rev rumbles, however, where the engine can sound strained. That said, at cruising speeds it is both refined and quiet. The 181bhp high-output turbodiesel is also impressive. Its 280lb ft of torque feels like a generous slug at medium revs, and the engine is also reasonably happy to rev for one of its type.
Despite Volkswagen’s youthful brand aiming to thrill and entertain drivers all in one, the Leon does suffer in its ride. Eager handling was always more likely to be its forte, and it is, to a point, as long as you go for the right model.
Ordinary S and SE-spec cars come on a standard suspension set-up which, for the majority of models, is fine. It’s got a slightly springier than average balance of compliance and control, but nothing you’d call seriously compromised.
The low-emission 1.6-litre TDI doesn’t quite grip as hard or steer as well as the rest of the range, while Seat's FR-trim sports suspension – an item of equipment to be avoided at all costs in the last Leon – is much more effective this time around. The sports set-up has more fluent and effective damper control to match its slightly firmer springs, and seems much more coherent as a result.
In general, the Leon steers quite well and even with a modicum of feel in some cases, but it could be more positive and incisive. The car benefits from its relatively modest size by feeling agile and wieldy on the road. It isn’t quite as engaging as a well specced Ford Focus or as overtly sporting as an Alfa Giulietta, but it’s in the same ballpark – and even that is testament to the effort Seat has put into this new generation of Leon.
Overall, we’d class the Leon as belonging in the chasing pack of family hatchbacks amid the likes of the Hyundai i30, Honda Civic and Kia Cee’d rather than as a challenger to the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus at the head of the field. It’s certainly breaking free, though, and especially in the case of three-door SC models offers more driving enjoyment than in previous generations.
It’s a creditable effort from Seat and a notable improvement in form, with plenty of niche appeal for those who like a dose of style and spirit about their everyday driver but who don’t want to pay a premium.