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SEAT Leon hatchback (2012 – ) expert review

By Andy Goodwin, 20th November 2012

The verdict

The SEAT Leon offers families a great mix of value and style, and is one of the best in a class of excellent cars. Even basic versions keep you connected to your ‘phone and music while being good to drive.

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Expert rating:

4.2

Pros

  • More athletic stance
  • Low weight gives good economy and performance
  • Represents good value for money

Cons

  • Impressive but pricey LED headlamps
  • We miss the hidden rear door handles
  • No alloy wheels on the S model

Full Review

1. Exterior

The third SEAT Leon is less curvaceous than previous versions, with sharp lines replacing the rounded features and rear window of the old car. Also gone are the hidden rear door handles of the five-door model, because according to SEAT focus groups, too many customers discounted the last Leon for being too impractical, thinking it was only a sporty three-door. Even entry-level Leons have an athletic stance, as well as body-coloured mirrors, tinted windows and a chrome grille, but it’s worth upgrading. You need at least an SE model to get standard alloy wheels, and sporty FR versions look even better, with unique bumpers and twin exhaust pipes; they look even better if you choose bright paintwork and snazzy all-LED headlamps. The latter have a triangular daytime running light which really sets the car apart on the road.

Our rating: 4

2. Interior

This was the area which needed most improvement over previous Leons, and SEAT has succeeded in bringing the interior up to scratch. The infotainment and sat-nav system is now right at the top of the central console, at the same height as the instrument cluster – not buried distractingly in front of the gear lever. The materials all look and feel more expensive and there are crisp and clear white and red displays. Tech-lovers will want the Media System Plus, with a 5.8-inch display featuring a touch screen with pinch-to-zoom and finger-swiping, as well as crisp graphics. While the cabin isn’t quite as plush as the Volkswagen Golf or Audi A3’s, it’s not far off, and certainly beats the Vauxhall Astra and Ford Focus for desirability.

Our rating: 4

3. Practicality

The 380-litre boot is bigger than that in the Focus and Astra (316 and 370 litres, respectively) and overall the Leon is well suited to families: there’s plenty of room for adults in the front and rear seats. All trim levels feature tyre pressure monitoring as standard, to alert you of a puncture, but only FR trim gets front and rear parking sensors. SE trim levels and above feature front fog lights, which illuminate in sharp bends to aid your view into the corner.

Our rating: 4

4. Ride and handling

The Leon is based around the same all-new platform first used in the 2012 A3 and Golf. With it comes greater refinement, comfort and a reduction in weight. Each model in the Leon range has shed an average of 90kg, with the most featherweight version being the 1.2-litre petrol, at just 1,198kg. That’s 120kg lighter than a 1.4-litre Astra, thanks mainly to the use of hardened (and therefore thinner) steel. This diet can be felt at the wheel thanks to a keenness to change direction and a greater sense of the car flowing with the road. Versions with 150PS or less have a more basic rear suspension than more powerful versions, which get a multi-link setup, but S and SE models provide a good blend of ride and handling. FR versions are fitted with SEAT Drive Profile, a system which lets you choose from Eco, Normal, Sport and Individual throttle sensitivity and steering weights. In Sport mode the backlighting turns from red to white and DSG auto models change gear at higher revs, but there’s no getting away from the firmer ride that the FR’s sports suspension brings.

Our rating: 4

5. Performance

There are three petrol engines, with 105, 140 and 180PS, and the same number of diesel motors with 105, 150 and 184PS. SEAT has covered all the bases here, but expects the majority of UK customers to opt for the entry-level 1.6-litre 105PS diesel. Happily, this engine works well here. The small diesel can feel lethargic in some cars we’ve tested, but the Leon’s meagre weight gives it an extra lease of life. The same can be said for the 1.2-litre 105PS petrol, which hits 62mph in ten seconds flat and feels surprisingly keen, meaning that buyers of the lowliest Leon shouldn’t feel too badly off at all. The 150PS diesel feels grown up, with plenty of power for motorway driving and impressive refinement. Sitting at the top of the range, the 184PS diesel has an urgent surge of power between 1,500 and 3,000rpm (0-62mph in 7.5 seconds) which makes overtaking effortless, but it’s not a particularly satisfying engine to rev hard, partly because of its gruff note when using all its power.

Our rating: 4

6. Running costs

The Leon is fitted with a stop/start system and energy recuperation as standard, and every model emits less than 139g/km of CO2. The top-selling 105PS diesel emits 99g/km and averages 74.3mpg, and even the 184PS diesel emits 112g/km while managing 65.7mpg. The 1.2-litre petrol is thrifty, too, with figures of 112g/km and 58.9mpg. Strong residuals have been predicted by CAP, with the 150PS diesel FR model expected to retain of 44 per cent of its value after 36 months/30,000 miles (Focus 40 per cent, Astra 32 per cent).

Our rating: 5

7. Reliability

The outgoing Leon had a good reputation for reliability, and the latest model has undergone serious testing to make sure it will also be up to scratch. It shares much of its technology with the A3 and Golf, for a lower price.

Our rating: 4

8. Safety

The Leon earned the maximum five stars in Euro NCAP crash tests, scoring well in the front and side impact tests, as well as providing good protection against whiplash in a rear-end impact. All versions are fitted with stability control, as well as twin front, side, curtain and driver’s knee airbags. SE and FR models add SEAT’s XDS system, which brakes an inside front wheel if it spins during hard cornering, improving traction.

Our rating: 4

9. Equipment

The Leon range is well-equipped from the off, with even the basic S-trimmed models fitted with air-con, Bluetooth, five-inch touchscreen infotainment system, six speakers and remote audio controls. Step up to SE and you’ll get 16-inch alloys, front fog lights with cornering function, cruise control, rear electric windows, leather steering wheel and gear knob, front armrest and ambient lighting. More sports-orientated folk should opt for the FR, with 17-inch rims, LED taillights, dual-zone air-con, front and rear parking sensors, tinted rear glass, folding door mirrors, eight speakers, sports seats and SEAT Drive Profile. The Leon also boasts the first full-LED headlights fitted in a family hatchback. These arrays of LED bulbs produce a light that more closely represents daylight and a clean, unbroken beam, but will also set you back close to a grand.

Our rating: 4

10. Why buy?

The Leon provides great value and a fun drive, but it also has a real upmarket feel. Its interior and equipment are now reasons to buy a Leon, too, and it’s a serious contender in the fiercely fought hatchback sector.

Our rating: 5

Expert review 4.2stars

  • Exterior4
  • Interior4
  • Practicality4
  • Ride and handling4
  • Performance4
  • Running costs5
  • Reliability4
  • Safety4
  • Equipment4
  • Why buy?5

Our recommendations

Best on a budget:

Leon S 1.2 TSI

The entry-level engine is also one of the best. Air-con and Bluetooth are standard.

Best-seller:

Leon SE 1.6 TDI

Small diesel works well in the Leon and provides excellent economy.

Blow the budget:

Leon FR 2.0 TDI 184PS

A spec list as long as your arm, sporty looks and grown-up performance.

The Leon range has shed an average of 90kg, with the most featherweight version being the 1.2-litre petrol, at just 1,198kg