SEAT Leon hatchback (2016 - ) review
The Leon is cheaper to buy than the Volkswagen Golf it is based on, but it shares almost all of its cousin’s virtues, including a fun-to-drive character and a wide range of potent, refined engines
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The Leon certainly looks the part, and it really stands out when compared with its more conservatively styled Volkswagen Golf and Audi A3 cousins. Even the basic Leons look pretty sexy, but the FR version is the real pretty boy of the range. Featuring large 17-inch alloy wheels, deep front and rear bumpers, twin exhausts, snazzy LED headlamps, triangular daytime running lights and smoked rear windows, it looks every inch the junior hot hatch.
This is the one area that really marks the Leon out as a cheaper alternative to the Golf. Although most of the materials look and feel of decent quality and there are sufficient soft-touch plastics to give you a feeling of well-being, the cheaper materials and harder plastics (particularly on the door trims and in the lower recesses of the cabin) don’t feel as robust or of the same high quality as those in the Golf. The seats are quite a snug fit, too, so if you're thinking of buying a Leon, we recommend a lengthy test drive to check that none of your bits go numb. Thanks to the simple dash layout and clean design, it's all easy to use, but tech-savvy buyers will no doubt want to upgrade to the Media System Plus, which comes with an 8.0 inch display – base models make do with a basic 5.0-inch item – featuring a touch-screen with pinch-to-zoom and finger-swiping, as well as crisp graphics. This set-up also includes Seat’s Easy Connect system and the ConnectApp with voice recognition and gesture control. Despite its complexity, it’s a simple enough system to come to terms with, if not as quick to react as Ford’s Sync 3 system found in the latest Focus.
With perhaps the exception of the Skoda Octavia, you’d be hard pushed to find a car of this ilk that strays too far from the unifying dimensions of the class; and the Leon is no exception. With a decent amount of head-, leg- and shoulder room for four and a boot that has 60/40 split rear seats and is identical in size to a Volkswagen Golf's, the Leon matches the vast majority of its rivals for space and practicality. Those with a bit of an iffy back should take a close look at the rear, as the boot does have quite a high lip. There’s a fair drop to the boot floor, too, and if you flip the rear seats down, they create a pronounced step that you’ll need to overcome when loading longer items. At least there are enough cubbyholes up front to store all your bits and bobs, including an armrest with a storage compartment on all but the entry-level editions, plus a pair of cupholders between the front seats. All but the entry cars also benefit from a neat electronic (rather than a mechanical) handbrake, which frees up enough space for an additional cubbyhole. In common with nearly every car in this class, there is also a transmission tunnel running down the middle of the car, so anyone sitting in the middle rear seat will be left with the thorny problem of where to place their feet.
Ride and handling
You’ll need to be a wee bit careful when choosing your Leon, as it’s trickier than you might imagine. While lower powered cars make do with a cheap and cheerful basic rear axle, more powerful cars get a multi-link arrangement that improves the ride and handling. We love the most sophisticated FR models, which are also fitted with SEAT Drive Profile - a system which lets you choose from Eco, Normal, Sport and Individual modes, adjusting the throttle sensitivity and steering weights. Granted, there’s no getting away from the firmer ride that the FR’s standard sports suspension brings, but in our opinion it’s worth it, as you gain more control, and with it, greater confidence when cornering. Another approach is to plump for the 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine that comes with the basic suspension set-up. As you’d expect on relatively small wheels, the ride is pretty compliant, but the added bonus comes in the handling and steering. With less weight over the front axle, the 1.0-litre car's steering responses, front-end grip and reduced body roll make it far more engaging to drive than the heftier 1.6 diesel-powered versions on similar chassis settings.
In total, there are four petrol engines and three diesel units to choose from. The 1.6-litre diesel is the big-seller, and although it’s fairly gutsy, it is quite buzzy at lower revs and also emits a strong boom at motorway speeds. To our minds, the 1.0-litre petrol engine is a far better bet. For the most part, it’s eager and reasonably refined, but it does require a considered approach to get the best out of it. Unlike modern diesel engines, which pull away with the merest whiff of encouragement, three-cylinder engines are pretty stall-able devices. As a result, you need to be nifty with your footwork, blipping the throttle repeatedly and releasing the clutch in smart fashion to elicit a smooth pull-away. Once you get your head around this, you can quickly rise to the challenge, revving the motor hard and fast, and quickly shifting through the sweet six-speed manual box in proper hot-hatch fashion. The 148bhp 2.0-litre diesel is a decent choice, too, as it delivers plenty of power and reasonable refinement. Mated to a six-speed gearbox, it’s infinitely quieter at motorway speeds than the vocal five-speed 1.6 diesel. The strongest mixture of performance and efficiency comes from the 181bhp diesel, which has an urgent surge of power between 1500 and 3000rpm. It’s not a particularly satisfying engine to rev hard, though, because of its gruff note when using full power. Of all the engines, the punchy, sweet-revving 148bhp 1.4-litre petrol motor is our favourite, because of its intoxicating combination of impressive economy, excellent refinement and strong performance.
The top-selling 1.6-litre diesel emits 105g/km and averages 70.6mpg, while the 181bhp diesel puffs out 118g/km of CO2, which means it manages 62.8mpg on the combined cycle. All well and good, but if you’re considering a Leon as your next company car, you might want to run the case for a 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol engine past your fleet manager. With figures of 102g/km and 64.2mpg, as well as avoiding the 3% tax loading that’s applied to diesel cars, it may well work better for you. Running costs for private buyers will be fairly affordable, too, and the strong residuals – especially for the 148bhp diesel FR model, which should retain 44 per cent of its value after 36 months/30,000 miles – are certainly encouraging. The Leon is also excellent value when compared to its closest rivals, offering similar engines and technology to the VW Golf and Audi A3 for a lot less money.
The Leon has a good reputation for reliability, which is hardly surprising. Despite its lower price, it shares much with the Audi A3 and Volkswagen Golf. The engines and running gear have all been blooded in a wide range of cars, so should be free from any hidden faults. Seat offers fixed price servicing to keep the cost of replacing parts reasonable, but the standard warranty is only three years, rather than the five-, or even seven-year cover given by some of its rivals.
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. As with the Leon's newer rivals, it also comes with the option to add plenty of expensive safety equipment including lane departure warning, a driver fatigue monitor for those long road trips, and even adaptive cruise control. However, unlike in some of the Leon's rivals, if you don't want to spend money on these systems, then you simply don't have to.
The Leon range is well-equipped from the off, with even the basic S-trimmed models fitted with air-con, Bluetooth, a 5.0-inch touch-screen 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 fans will no doubt be drawn to the FR, with 17-inch rims, LED tail lights, dual-zone air-con, front and rear parking sensors, tinted rear glass, folding door mirrors, eight speakers, sports seats, and a flat-bottomed sports steering wheel.
The Leon provides great value for money and a fun drive, while its rakish styling delivers genuine wow factor. Although its interior finish and overall refinement fall short of its Golf stablemate's, it is a good deal cheaper, so it’s probably fairer to compare it to cars such as the Ford Focus and Vauxhall Astra. Against these excellent motors, the Leon is as good, if not better, in every respect.