Did you know that Seat’s first model, assembled back in 1953 and at the furious rate of five units a day, was a rear-driven saloon?
Maybe you did – in which case, well done. But if you didn’t, I can understand why. At 67 years old, the company is now associated almost exclusively with front-driven hatchbacks and SUVs such as the Leon, Ibiza, Mii, Arona, Ateca, Tarraco… Neither is it hard for us Brits to incorrectly believe that the marque only came into existence some time after 1986, when Volkswagen took over once Fiat had backed out and the cars were sold here for the first time.
The point is that the modern Leon and its forebear of the 1950s – the chrome-bumpered, 75mph and latterly Pininfarina-styled 1400 – could hardly be more different in their engineering, and yet there’s one obvious similarity. The Seat 1400 was really a Fiat built under licence in Spain and it’s well known that the Leon, still made in Spain, has always been similarly dependent on the VW Golf.
As cousins, they’ve shared platforms, engines, transmissions, electronics and switchgear, although for people who really care about driving, the hierarchy has never been quite as obvious as VW might have liked. The Leon’s tactic has traditionally been to undercut the Golf on price while over-delivering on simple fun, punchy styling and, at least for quicker derivatives, performance. It’s a brief the Leon has occasionally nailed in recent years, particularly with the quicker Cupra models, which have set Nürburgring lap records.
That, in a nutshell, is why this latest Leon is worth getting excited about, even if the new car represents business as usual in many ways. The range features transverse engines that mostly drive the front wheels alone, though only variants with more than 148bhp (and so not our 1.5 TSI Evo, which makes exactly that) benefit from independent rear suspension. Less powerful models, including two new three-cylinder derivatives, therefore use a torsion beam, and this is one obvious area where Golf trumps Leon. With the VW, 148bhp gets you the more sophisticated suspension layout.
However, starting at £19,855 for the 108bhp 1.0-litre SE petrol, the Leon still usefully undercuts the Golf (lowest asking price £23,054) and the Ford Focus (£22,210), but when Skoda begins to offer its most basic versions of the new Octavia, we’d expect that to go lower still.
Platform-wise, the Leon naturally uses the same VW Group MQB Evo hardware as the Golf, and because the wheelbase is 50mm longer than before, rear leg room has improved. In fact, the car is longer overall – by 86mm for the five-door hatchback and 93mm for the estate – although it’s also narrower and lower and so looks less stocky than the previous model, even if Seat insists the new design is now bolder.