Thursday, December 18, 2008



Seat wants to be the VW Group's Alfa Romeo division, with Latin flair and a bit of sporting panache. Take a quick glance at the new Leon and you'd be forgiven for mistaking it for an Alfa, especially with those squinting rear lights and that rear-door release hiding in the C-pillar, a la Alfa 156. With its deeply sculpted character lines running from the nose and through the bodysides to the rear flanks, the Leon really is a great-looking car with a bold four-square stance. It's also bigger and more spacious than the car it replaces.

The Leon's thunder is a bit muted, though, by its own siblings. If the Leon had been launched ahead of the Altea and Toledo, its dramatic, low-slung styling would have made a much bigger impact. As it is, the Leon will forever be confused with its taller, dumpier pseudo-MPV relations, which also use the Leon's design cues and Golf-derived platform.

That relationship also confuses the Leon's role - the previous-generation car couldn't possibly be mistaken for anything other than a five-door hatch with mildly sporting pretensions. But the new one blurs the lines between hatch and MPV. And as the Altea was billed from launch as offering a more sporting drive than conventional rivals, that doesn't leave the Leon much territory of its own to occupy. Especially as there isn't much between them in terms of practicality and space - we can only hope that Seat has trained its salespeople well. For the record, this is the Seat that'll do battle with the Ford Focus, Citroen C4 and Vauxhall Astra. And, ironically, Volkswagen's Golf.

Reliability and Quality

The Leon is based on the same platform as the Volkswagen Golf so the engine line-up is generally well proven, as are the manual five and six-speed gearboxes. Non-geometric forms, though, make it notoriously hard to get manufacturing consistency in terms of panel fit, shutlines and just about anywhere else that surfaces join. And the fact is, the Leon is a conglomeration of curves and organic sweeps inside and out.

As a result, the perception of rock-solid quality isn't as good as with other VW Group marques, an impression not helped by considerable squeaks and rattles from ill-fitting trim in some of the cars we've tested. To be fair, though, the Leon does compare well with competitors from Citroen and Ford.

On the road

The Leon has MacPherson struts at the front and an independent, four-arm multilink set-up at the rear. This is designed to give a better ride and handling compromise, and when riding on smaller wheel-and-tyre combinations, the Leon does indeed deliver a composed, relaxed ride quality. Predictably, opting for bigger wheels does have an impact on the ride, producing more nervousness and bounce over rougher surfaces.

Otherwise, the Leon reveals VW Group handling characteristics, with fluent balance through the corners and good feedback through the electric power steering. The five and six-speed manual gearboxes are also a real joy to use, with mechanical precision and a lovely metal-through-oil feel to the action. The latest-generation DSG automatic is also one of the smoothest and fastest-reacting boxes we've ever sampled, and its sequential shift mode makes press-on driving great fun. That said, the DSG 'box can be worryingly sluggish when you want a swift standing-start getaway when used with the diesel engines.

One of the most amusing features we've ever encountered, though, is the Driver Steering Recommendation system. This clever piece of software detects when the car is going into oversteer - i.e. the tail of the car is sliding out of its cornering line - and actually sends a signal to the steering systems electric motor to turn the wheel in a way that will prevent the impending spin. The system basically suggests, with a gentle nudge, that the driver might want to consider steering into the spin - the driver is always in control, though, and can over-ride the 'suggestion'.

Seven engines are offered in the Leon  four petrol and three diesel. The entry-level Leon is a 102bhp 1.6-litre petrol unit, and while it feels sluggish in higher gears, requiring a fair amount of downshifting to keep momentum up, the claimed performance figures are acceptable enough - that's 0-62mph in 11.7secs and a top speed of 114mph. There are three 2.0-litre petrol engines, a 148bhp normally aspirated version and 197bhp and 237bhp turbos  offered only in the Leon FR and Cupra respectively. The regular 2.0-litre has a 0-62mph time of 8.8secs and a top speed of 128mph, and certainly feels more alive on the road than the 1.6-litre.

It's the diesel engines, once again, that prove the most flexible performers. The 103bhp 1.9-litre TDI has good, solid mid-range punch, making it a lot quicker in the motorway-merge from 50-70mph than the 1.6 petrol. It also makes for more relaxed progress as each gear has a broader effective speed range, meaning fewer downshifts. The 1.9TDI is, though, an unrefined and loud beast, especially under hard throttle.

For us, the pick of the bunch is the 138bhp 2.0-litre TDI. Available with either a six-speed manual or the excellent DSG, the 2.0 TDI is more refined than its 1.9 sibling - though it can still be raucous at start-up and when pushed - and it delivers excellent performance. This engine is particularly well suited to the DSG automatic gearbox, which deals with its prodigious torque while providing literally seamless shifts. The Leon FR is also available with a 168bhp version of the 2.0-litre TDI.

Safety and Security

A four-star adult occupant rating was achieved by the Leon in the EuroNCAP crash test results, with four stars for child protection and three for pedestrian protection. Other cars in the class have scored higher, but it's by no means a poor score.

The Leon can be specified with up to eight airbags. Six are standard on all models, which include driver and passenger's 'bags, side 'bags and curtain 'bags. Side airbags for the rear passengers are optional. Front seat occupants get pretensioning seatbelts, too. The Leon's bodyshell is stronger than before, with 50 percent more high-strength and ultra-high-strength steels used than in the previous car. That means a stronger body and better passive protection for occupants.

And as is now commonplace with VW Group cars, the Leon comes equipped with a whole range of active safety software, including traction and stability programmes as well as the aforementioned Driver Steering Recommendation system.

Running costs

As ever, the diesels are the most frugal and have the lower CO2 emissions, therefore should prove cheaper to run even though the initial purchase price is higher. The Leon compares especially well against the Golf, with the Seat coming out thousands of pounds cheaper than an equivalent Volkswagen  the high end FR and Cupra models in particular. Standard specification levels are high.

Seats have good residual values as the market isn't flooded by models, so you should get a reasonable return on your Leon once you come to sell it. The confusion between the Leon, Altea and Toledo may have a negative effect though.

Insurance groupings are competitive and the Seat warranty's a good one, too, with 3 years, 60,000 mile mechanical, 12 years rust and 5 years breakdown cover.

Comfort and equipment

The Leon, more spacious than ever before, offers enough head and legroom to accommodate four six-foot-plus blokes in complete comfort. Even better, the back seat squabs give good underthigh support, which can often be a shortcoming in cars in this class. The front seats are also brilliantly supportive and comfortable, even on lower level models. Three are also a good number of doorbins, storage cubbies, and (you'd be surprised how useful this is) a flat and level passenger-side dash-top.

The boot, while slightly more capacious than before, is still not hugely spacious. Also, the load lip is high enough to make loading heavy, awkward items a pain. The rear seats are split/folding items, but they don't do anything clever ala the MPV brigade.

The Leon's driving position is one way that it distinguishes itself from its MPV-esque siblings. You sit right down low in the car, with the tops of the doors well above your should if you go for the lowest setting on the height adjustable front seats. And the driving position - aided no end by a rake and reach adjustable wheel - does feel quite sporting, which is a good antidote to the notion that this might be a pseudo MPV.

This is a well-equipped car, too. Even in its most basic form, Leon buyers will get air-con, electric windows, electric and heated wing mirrors, a CD player with six speakers, split folding rear seats, 16-inch wheels and a trip computer.

Price Range: £12,725 to £20,350

Attractive car in what can be a dull sector, very roomy, good to drive.

Ride isn't great on larger wheels, could confuse buyers by being a bit close to the slightly more spacious Altea in concept.

Great looking, very spacious for occupants and very good value makes the Leon a serious contender.

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