What is it?
There seems little doubt that the Seat annals will mark 2016 as the year of the Ateca, the thoroughly appealing and well-rounded small SUV that (if there’s any justice) ought to significantly fatten the slender profit reported by the Spanish manufacturer recently. Nevertheless, an update to its family-sized Leon should not be understated: the Ateca might be the tree branch with all the blossom on it, but it is only there by the grace of the hatchback trunk.
That is possibly truer in this year than any before it, because the current Leon has been such a conspicuous hit. There are several good reasons for this, although it’s probably fair to conclude that primary among them is the model’s cleverly creased appearance. The manufacturer has acknowledged this by being even less proactive with the styling makeover than normal: the Leon’s grille is a little larger, the bumpers slyly altered and the lights changed – but that’s about it.
The changes are no more dramatic underneath. The platform and chassis are essentially unchanged, and there are only minor alterations to the engine line-up. Chief among them is the timely introduction of the VW Group’s 1.0-litre three-cylinder in 113bhp guise – a unit previously available in Europe, but available in the UK for the first time, as an entry-level option. The updated 1.6-litre TDI, with very slightly more power, is also ushered in.
There are now five trim levels: S, SE Dynamic, SE Technology and FR are joined by the new range-topping Xcellence. The launch of a specifically upmarket option is indicative of the Leon’s broad success – as is the likely popularity of the pricier 1.4-litre EcoTSI engine. To ensure that no competitor beats it on the additional feature front, the Leon also gets the raft of driver assistance tech that made its debut on the Ateca, including Traffic Jam Assist, Pedestrian Protection, Traffic Sign Recognition, Blind Spot Detection and an uprated Park Assist system.
What's it like?
Predictably, the interior’s transformation is no less subtle than elsewhere. Most notable is the latest generation of infotainment tech, available with 5.0in or 8.0in touchscreen displays, depending on trim level. We tested it in its larger format, which comes as standard from SE Dynamic and above. The system sensibly replaces its unsightly physical buttons with one ‘home’ function one that brings up an onscreen menu. This is much tidier, but it loses its rotary dial controller, too, which makes zooming in and out of the sat-nav map a little more tedious.
The centre console has also been reordered. Its forward cubbyhole has been enlarged and incorporates a Connectivity Box with a wireless smartphone charging pad. There’s also a new start-stop button, and better organised storage around the electric handbrake switch. Aesthetically, Seat has introduced some more trim surrounds in the dashboard to lift its slightly dour, downmarket look. Minor alterations all – and plainly not meant to propel the Leon’s perceived quality beyond the point where a new mid-range Volkswagen Golf will be - but astute enough in their own right to mildly enhance the car in the eyes of a repeat customer.
None of that comes as a particular surprise – and nor does the experience behind the wheel. The Leon, with either new engine aboard, remains a first-rate modern hatchback to drive; business-like, polished, meticulously comfortable and hugely undemanding – yet precise and prompt enough not to be thought of as boring, either. Like the Ateca, it’s now possible to get the Leon with adaptive dampers, but the cars we drove on smaller wheels and passive suspension hardly needed any help burnishing the Spanish road surface.
The 1.6-litre TDI is familiar, and defies any palpable difference in its gravelly, generally quite giving attitude. A gentle rise in horsepower hardly eradicates the need to work the three-cylinder unit quite hard, but previous experience confirms its advantages when ploughing a furrow up and down a motorway. The 1.0-litre turbocharged petrol motor is predictably more interesting – in part for its throaty twang, but also by the distinction of being obviously punchier. Mated to a six-speed manual ‘box it feels long in the gears, yet its forward enthusiasm ought to satisfy most buyers, and it's near-silent at 70mph.
Should I buy one?
The three-cylinder engine's main limitation is not of its own making. It’s because you can’t have it in a trim level any higher than SE Technology, which means it’ll stand a good chance of being overlooked by UK buyers preoccupied with the bigger wheels and better spec list of the FR models. That’s a shame, because with 148lb ft of torque, 64.2mpg combined and 102g/km CO2 emissions, the three-cylinder is quicker and more efficient than the 1.2-litre TSI that sits above it in the new range pecking order.
Seat certainly expects most UK customers to ignore its smallest engines and opt for either the unchanged 148bhp 1.4 EcoTSI or the aforementioned 1.6-litre TDI. Both make for fine choices, although this facelift isn’t significant enough to make a trade-in particularly enticing. Yet as a sub-£20k, cheap-to-run, nice-to-drive family hatchback, the new five-door 1.0-litre TSI, even without all the higher trim levels' bells and whistles, is probably one of the market's most rounded options - and certainly its best looker.
Seat Leon 1.0 TSI Ecomotive SE Technology
Location Barcelona, Spain; On sale Now; Price £18,995; Engine 3cyl, 999cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 113bhp at 5000-5500rpm; Torque 148lb ft at 2000-3500rpm; Gearbox Six-speed manual; Kerb weight 1236kg; Top speed 126mph; 0-62mph 9.6sec; Economy (official) 64.2mpg; CO2/BIK tax band 102g/km, 17% Rivals Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra