By Mark Nichol
It’s the laziest of clichés to do the ‘re-skinned Volkswagen Golf’ thing, but whereas the first couple of Leons were roundly inferior versions of Volkswagen’s venerated hatchback, the third one in 2012 truly closed the gap. This particular Leon, the fourth, has settled into that niche more comfortably than ever.
The 2012 Leon Mk3 was a transformative car for SEAT, the beginning of a new chapter that would see the company finally figure out who it is. Before that, SEAT’s slogan was “auto emicion” but its product range included dull MPVs and saloons that had all the emotional appeal of a stack of printer paper; as recently as 2013 SEAT was selling the Exeo, a rebadged 2007 model Audi A4. Today’s SEAT wouldn’t sign off an Exeo for all the chorizo in Madrid.
But since 2012 SEAT has seen its market share gradually increase because its range of hatchbacks and SUVs make sense now: high quality Volkswagen Group products with their own distinct style. Products like the latest Leon here. It’s very, very good.
What’s Good About It?
With this Leon, SEAT has pretty much perfected the formula that it figured out with 2012’s Mk3. Yes, it’s obviously a re-clothed Golf, and one that’s pared back in a few ways, but it’s better than the Golf in a couple of significant areas too. It looks better, for start. Subjective, obviously, but some of the Leon’s exterior detailing is genuinely striking, like the deep concave curve of the tailgate, which looks like it was costly to develop and manufacture. All the creases are sharp, and in general it has that elusive ‘coupe-like’ feel that lots of hatchbacks shoot for but few attain.
The main objective advantage that the Leon has over the Golf is a longer wheelbase, exactly 67mm more and all of it given to rear knee room. The Leon isn’t as spacious as the Skoda Octavia – which also uses the same VWG platform, parts and drivetrains – but it has a more accommodating rear than the Golf and the Audi A3, and it feels more spacious than a Ford Focus.
The cabin, too, is a lovely example of minimalistic Volkswagen Group design. There are a couple of issues with the infotainment (which we’ll come to) but on a basic level the Leon’s interior is ergonomically outstanding, the material use is generally excellent and there’s a hint…and it is just a hint…of Lamborghini design in details like the air vents and door handles. That’s something to bore your friends with.
All the engines are extremely refined, the best example being, believe it or not, the basic 2.0-litre diesel with 115 horsepower. You’d expect this to be coarser than Gordon Ramsay dealing with a cold caller, but pound-for-pound and in context it’s amazing. It’s not amazing out of context – it’s a low powered diesel, after all – but considering what it is, it’s remarkably quiet and smooth. It just feels light and relaxed, and it doesn’t invoke the usual diesel platitudes about noise and weight and vibration. As usual, the petrol stuff is nicer though.
What Could Be Better?
As ashamed as we are to invoke this particular viewpoint, the Leon still feels like a Golf minus 10% in every way. It’s that little bit less refined, there’s a little more unwanted body movement, a little more road noise, and in general a feeling that SEAT’s engineers were given a Golf and told not to get too close. Still, 90% of a Golf makes for a remarkably well-rounded car.
Our main gripe is with the infotainment, which appears to have been designed more for visual appeal than intuitiveness. It’s very bright and colourful and dazzling, but SEAThas compacted too much information into the screen, as well as ditching all physical shortcut buttons, meaning it’s often quite cumbersome working out how to do simple things like changing the radio station. It’s baffling because it’s the same basic system that you find in the Golf, Octavia and Audi A3, but in those cars the software is just better.
You’ll also find that the Leon’s boot is a little less flexible than you might want. Base model cars come without a twin loading floor and a ski hatch.
What’s It Like To Drive?
The Leon is not the most polished or engaging hatchback on the market – it’s not as refined as the Octavia nor as fun as a Ford Focus – but it’s all just lovely and light, while always feeling well-engineered. The steering and pedals and gearbox all have a sense of deftness, of ease-of-use, and it makes for a very relaxing and fuss-free driving experience.
You might expect more from a Leon, with all its youthy pretence, but for the majority of buyers, for the day-to-day stuff, the fact that this is better on an A road than it is on a B road is an advantage.
Choose the 2.0-litre diesel for 60mpg real world fuel economy with, again, surprising refinement, but the most fun is had with the petrol stuff, including the 1.0-litre three-cylinder base model TSI petrol. It too has more poke than its lowly 110hp output suggests it will, most of it in the midrange and making for flexible progress. Go for the 150hp 1.5-litre TSI Evo engine with an automatic gearbox is you really want the easiest, smoothest experience in your Leon. Any of the petrols will give you 40-50mpg around the doors, too.
There is a slight issue with the gearing in the manual diesel though, which for reasons of efficiency has widely spaced ratios. It’s fine on the motorway but at 28mph you’ll feel like you want to be somewhere between third and fourth gears, and end up shuffling between them regularly. It can grate.
How Much Will It Cost Me?
Here’s the thing about the Leon: it’s a very well priced car. For a start it’ll cost you a good few quid less per month (and by extension up front) on a lease deal compared to a Golf or an Octavia, owing to its lower starting price and strong residuals. On top of that it’s very fuel-efficient, including the availability of a couple of plug-in hybrids. Both link a 1.4-litre TSI petrol engine with an electric motor and a 13kWh battery pack for a few miles of electric-only range (about 20 in reality, probably) and an extremely alluring official mpg rating.
The ‘base’ hybrid has 201hp and the high-performance Cupra model 245hp, but both post 217mpg…yep, that’s right…and around 30g/km CO2, making them remarkably tax efficient as well as good on fuel. You will, of course, get nowhere near that mpg number in real life, but you might hit three figures.
All Leons come with a load of kit as standard, such that you won’t really need to go above the SE Tech trim, which comes with a digital instrument panel, climate control, alloys, touchscreen infotainment and smartphone mirroring. FR cars add lowered suspension, a nice body kit including a full width rear light bar, triple-zone climate and nicer trim. All Leons are five-star safe according to Euro NCAP.
Anything Else I Should Know?
SEAT won’t do a three-door SC version of the Leon this time around, which is a shame because it was always the best looking one. There is still an estate version though, which bumps the boot space up to a whopping 600-plus litres and adds a twin-level floor. It’s arguably one of the best looking estate cars on sale today.
What Alternatives Should I Look At?
Volkswagen Golf Leasing
Obviously. Nicer cabin with more refinement, but the VW Golf less space, more money.
Ford Focus Leasing
The Focus drives the way you probably want the Leon to, but the Leon has a much classier cabin and nicer looks.
Peugeot 308 Leasing
Here’s how you make a family hatchback with personality. The tiny steering wheel isn’t for everyone but the 308 is brilliant.
Vanarama Verdict: 9/10
"The Leon is not the most polished or engaging hatchback on the market, but it’s all just lovely and light, while always feeling well-engineered. The steering and pedals and gearbox all have a sense of deftness, of ease-of-use, and it makes for a very relaxing and fuss-free driving experience."
3 Things To Remember About The SEAT Leon:
It’s slightly bigger than the Golf on which it’s based, and slightly less good.
It’s very well priced and has plenty of kit as standard.
The infotainment is a frustrating fly in an otherwise very tasty paella.