Seat takes the alternative approach with its Leon ST FR 2.0 TDI. At £23,815, it undercuts the Peugeot by more than £3000 yet, on paper at least, offers convincingly better performance. Based on the VW Group’s all-conquering MQB platform and, crucially, equipped with the sophisticated multi-link rear suspension denied to cheaper Leons in the range, it fights on a front stiffened by VW-derived engineering integrity at a conspicuously attractive price. More for less, in other words.
Into the disputed territory between the two wades the new Ford Focus ST TDCi. It’s a significant moment because, while it’s not Ford’s first fast diesel, never before has one been accorded an ST badge, nor been marketed as an overtly sporting product. In most popular ST-2 guise, the Focus is priced between its rivals, with claimed performance and fuel consumption also apparently occupying the centre ground.
However, we’ve come to expect more from a Ford ST than the figures suggest, although time alone will tell whether even Ford can sprinkle its usual stardust on underpinnings as apparently prosaic as a diesel estate’s.
The first surprise is that the Peugeot makes the early running. The Leon looks clean and the Focus quite cool in a perhaps rather obvious way, but the 308 alone seems to have a visual class and quality that does more than justify its price. While the inside of the Leon is constructed and arranged with typical VW fluency and order, there’s neither surprise nor delight in here. It’s functional and effective but austere, too.
The Focus suffers for different reasons. The driving environment is now more cohesive than in the past, but the way information is presented is both the least attractive and intuitive of the three. In contrast, the 308’s cabin looks like it could be a concept for a new interior language from Audi. It combines minimalist design with the most expertly chosen materials to visit this kind of car. I do not and will not ever like the valueless idea of locating the dials higher than the steering wheel, but the 308’s cabin is a great place in which to sit and soak up the miles.
These cars represent so much more than mere transport, however – or at least they are meant to. The Seat is statistically fastest, although it doesn’t feel that way. Like its rivals, power comes from a 2.0-litre diesel engine, but while particular care seems to have been taken with the Ford and Peugeot joint-venture engine to distance it from its diesel roots, the VW-designed motor in the Seat seems proud to celebrate it.
That distinct diesel rattle never entirely disappears, even on part-throttle at a gentle cruise. It has the broadest power range of the trio, with torque building strongly from just 1500rpm, but it’ll never convince you that it’s more than a device for doing a job to a respectable standard, even if it does have marginally the more pleasurable gearbox of the two manual cars.
The Ford and Peugeot are different. Their engine notes are far more synthesised, the Peugeot hilariously so in Sport mode, where its noise becomes so artificial as to descend into deep self-parody. However, at least neither is grating to listen to. Indeed, the Ford’s sound is engaging in a way you’d not expect of a four-cylinder diesel, however much its voice was trained in a semi-anechoic chamber.
Of the two, the Ford feels faster, even though it probably isn’t. Its throttle map is sharper than the 308’s even when the latter is in Sport, while the Peugeot’s six-speed automatic gearbox inevitably introduces some slack into the driveline.However, perhaps the bigger point here is that all three do just about enough to stand up to their sporting credentials. None is going to set your world alight, but all operate close to the bounds of expectation.