New car review

SEAT Leon test drive

In the hard-fought family hatchback market, the SEAT Leon has long been an appealing prospect. How does the all-new version stack up?

If you’re looking for a sensible family car, two models have long stood out – the Ford Focus and the Volkswagen Golf. However, the SEAT Leon has long been an appealing alternative, sharing much of its underpinnings with the Golf but with more interesting styling and a more playful driving experience.

That’s still true of the latest model, which is a similar size to its German cousin but with sharper looks and the same excellent build quality – yet like for like it costs less. It all seems a bit too good to be true, so let’s delve a little deeper.

What’s new about the SEAT Leon?

SEAT has given the Leon a pretty comprehensive makeover for the fourth generation, as part of a 1.1 billion euro investment in its model range. It gets that smart new exterior look, updated interior design and technology, and the latest generation of Volkswagen Group engines – with a plug-in hybrid on the way.

Being based on the latest MQB Evo platform has allowed SEAT to add more connected services, advanced driving assistance systems and more safety technology, while also being bigger and more practical than before.

How does it look?

Although we were testing an FR model – meaning it had sporty-looking bumpers and smart 17-inch alloy wheels – the dull grey paint made it more subdued than we would have liked. You don’t need to go mad, but a bolder colour such as the metallic red (a no-cost extra) would be preferable.

A particular highlight of the new Leon is the full-width rear light, which gives off a futuristic look when driving at night while adding a splash of colour to the rear during the day. SEAT’s penchant for sharp creases in its cars’ styling continues to serve it well, taking a similar silhouette to the Golf but injecting a little more character.

What’s the spec like?

Prices for the SE Dynamic start at £20,995, with equipment including 17-inch alloy wheels, rear privacy glass, LED headlights and tail lights, front and rear fog lights, digital cockpit, ten-inch infotainment screen with sat nav, cloth upholstery, air conditioning and cruise control.

However, upgrade to the FR, and prices start from £23,185. For the extra cash, you get a different 17-inch alloy wheel design with an optional upgrade to 18-inch wheels, dynamic indicators, rain-sensing wipers and a wireless phone charger. On top of that, there’s the lower, stiffer suspension and sporty body kit.

As yet, the SEAT Leon has not been put through its crash-testing paces by Euro NCAP, thanks to our old friend Covid-19. Euro NCAP has now resumed testing, but there will be a bit of a backlog of cars to work through so we may not have results for the Leon for some months.

What’s the SEAT Leon like inside?

Sorry to keep going on about the Golf, but with the new one recently released and the Leon sharing so much with it, it’s tough to not make comparisons. Again, inside, the Leon borrows heavily from the new Volkswagen, having the same minimalist interior.

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The dashboard has a large central screen for the infotainment and a digital instrument binnacle ahead of the driver, with minimal physical buttons. It looks fantastic, with SEAT doing a great job of elevating the premium feel of the cabin while keeping it cool and modern with lots of sharp angles in the design.

However, the downside is that navigating menus while on the move to change simple settings like the climate controls becomes annoying quickly. The sooner manufacturers move away from fitting everything behind a screen the better.

What’s under the bonnet?

There are currently three petrol engines and one diesel available, with the trim level dictating which are available. Opt for the standard SE Dynamic trim, and the petrols are a 110hp 1.0-litre and 130hp 1.5-litre, while the diesel is a 115hp 2.0-litre unit, each with a six-speed manual gearbox.

However, upgrade to the sporty-looking FR trim and you have the choice of the two petrols, as well as a 1.5-litre unit making 150hp, which is available with both the manual or a seven-speed automatic.

For everyday driving the 130hp unit is more than enough, but if you’re looking for something with a bit more pizazz for family duties, an FR model with 150hp could be your best bet. Should you do many motorway miles the diesel will be ideal, though it does limit you to the SE Dynamic trim.

What’s the SEAT Leon like to drive?

We got behind the wheel of the FR trim, which has traditionally been the sportier of SEAT’s specifications. However, the latest generation does appear to have lost some of that light-footed sparkle that was evident in its predecessor – it’s closer to a Golf in mannerisms than ever before.

However, that’s not necessarily a criticism, because it’s immediately obvious that this is one of the most pleasant, fuss-free driving experiences in the segment. The ride is comfortable despite the FR’s slightly stiffer suspension, and the steering light enough that city driving is a breeze while still being stable at motorway speeds. A great all-rounder, then.

Verdict

There’s no two ways about it – the new SEAT Leon is a brilliant car. It looks great, it’s practical, it’s quiet and comfortable to drive, and comes packed full of kit. The down side? The Golf does all of those things, and the extra cash won’t be too offensive when divided across the monthly payments of a finance deal.

The thing is, its greatest negative is the existence of the Golf, but it’s also a positive. It has all the great things the VW does but without forcing you to accept the dull, predictable choice – and if you can get dependability and character in one hit, why wouldn’t you? That minor saving could allow you to tick a couple of option boxes to make it even better value for money, too.

Similar cars

Alfa Romeo Giulietta | Citroën C4 Cactus | Fiat Tipo | Ford Focus | Honda Civic | Hyundai i30 | Kia Ceed | Mazda 3 | Mini Countryman | Peugeot 308 | Renault Megane | Skoda Scala | Skoda Octavia | Toyota Corolla | Vauxhall Astra | Volkswagen Golf

Key specifications

Model as tested: SEAT Leon FR
Price: £23,185
Engine: 1.5-litre petrol
Gearbox: Six-speed manual

Power: 130 hp
Torque: 200 Nm
Max speed: 130 mph
0-60mph: 9.4 secs

Fuel economy (combined): 46.3-51.4 mpg
CO2 emissions: 125 g/km
Euro NCAP safety rating: Not yet tested
TCE Expert Rating: Not yet rated

Darren Cassey
Darren Cassey
Articles by Darren Cassey are provided for The Car Expert by PA Media (formerly the Press Association). They include test drives of the latest new cars and features on various aspects of automotive life.

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