Seat Leon ST estate (2016 - ) review
There are some cracking choices in the compact estate class these days, but the Leon ST happens to be one of the best. Practical, civilised, comfortable and good to drive, it’s a great all-rounder.
Interested in buying a SEAT Leon?
How good does it look?
Small estate cars aren’t usually held up as examples of styling excellence, due to their rather boxy dimensions, but the Leon ST manages to stand out from its more rectangular rivals. Even the basic Leons look pretty sexy, but the FR version is worthy of a special mention. 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.
Those looking for the ultimate in-your-face sportiness need look no further than the Cupra version, and if you’re looking for something a little more rugged, there’s the X-Perience version that comes with all sort of 4X4-flavour styling bits such as roof rails, beefier bumpers and a raised ride height.
What's the interior like?
This is the one area that really marks the Leon out as a cheaper alternative to the VW Golf. Although most of the materials look and feel of decent quality, and there’s a sufficient amount of soft-touch plastic 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 you’ll be happy.
Thanks to the simple dashboard 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. Despite its complexity, it’s a simple enough system to come to terms with, even if it’s not as quick to react as Ford’s Sync 3 system found in the latest Focus.
How practical is it?
In any estate car, the boot is the bit that really matters, and the Leon does a decent job here. The space isn’t quite as massive as you’ll find in a Skoda Octavia Estate, Peugeot 308 SW or Hyundai i30 Tourer, but it has the measure of most other cars in the class. It’s a nice square shape, and unlike the Leon Hatchback, there’s not much of a load lip to lift heavy items over. The 60/40 split folding rear seats drop pretty easily, but the backrests lie at a slight angle, leaving you with a sloped loadbay. That can get annoying when you’re trying to cram a lot in.
The passenger compartment is the same size as the Leon Hatchback’s, so expect adequate amount of head-, leg- and shoulder-room for four, and five if those in the back don’t mind getting a bit friendly. Whoever sits in the middle seat will also have to sit with one leg either side of a rather bulky transmission tunnel, which limits the space you have for your feet.
What's it like to drive?
You’ll need to be careful when choosing which version of the Leon you go for, because it’ll affect the way your car drives quite a lot. Lower powered cars make do with a cheap and cheerful basic rear suspension, while more powerful cars get a more sophisticated multi-link arrangement that improves the ride and handling. In truth, all versions ride and handle pretty well, but the more sophisticated ones do have a fair bit more polish.
We love the FR models, which have a sports suspension as standard and are also fitted with Seat Drive Profile, a system that lets you choose from Eco, Normal, Sport and Individual modes, adjusting the throttle sensitivity and steering weight. There’s no getting away from the firmer ride, 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. The ride is pretty compliant thanks to the small wheels, but the added bonus comes in the handling and steering. With less weight over the front wheels, the 1.0-litre car's steering responses, front-end grip, and reduced body roll make it far more engaging to drive than the heavier 1.6 diesel-powered versions on the same suspension.
If you want maximum engagement from your Leon, the Cupra’s bespoke adaptive suspension makes it feels wonderfully crisp in the bends, while additional clever electronic traction aids help maximise grip and stability. It’s great fun to fling around on any sort of road. And, while the ride does have the edge you expect from a hot hatch, the Cupra is quite a bit comfier than many of its hardcore rivals.
The X-Perience 4x4 model has a raised ride height that gives it a softer, floatier ride than other Leons, which makes it a shade more comfortable at low urban speeds and on the motorway, but you will feel the body leaning over a bit more in the corners.
How powerful is it?
Like with most cars of this type, you have a wide range of petrol and diesel engines to choose from in the Leon. The 1.6-litre diesel is the big-seller, and although it’s fairly gutsy, it is quite noisy. The 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol engine is a far better bet. It does feels a little bit stuttery at the very bottom of the rev range, but keep the dial upwards of 1500rpm and it feels perky and responsive. It’s also impressively smooth and quiet unless you really extend it to its limits, but it’s so eager lower down, you’ll barely ever have to. The slickness of the six-speed manual gearbox helps towards a rewarding driving experience, too.
The 150PS 2.0-litre diesel is another decent choice, as it delivers plenty of power, and 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 184PS 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 150PS 1.4-litre petrol is our favourite, because of its combination of impressive economy, excellent refinement and strong performance.
We’ve also had a go in the 300PS Cupra hot hatch version, which was fitted with four-wheel drive and a six-speed twin-clutch automatic gearbox. It's a bit of a schizophrenic experience, but in a good way. Select the Normal mode, and the car feels undeniably brisk, but pretty docile in the way it delivers its power, while the gearbox stays smooth and relaxed. Things get progressively more intense as you get sportier with the driving modes. If you select Cupra – the most hardcore of the lot – it turns into an raging lunatic. The gearbox keeps the engine working to its limits at all times, and because the turbocharged 2.0-litre engine thrives on revs, this delivers truly electrifying pace. Not quite as much pace as the very hottest of hot hatches, perhaps, but it’s not far off.
How much will it cost me?
The top-selling 1.6-litre diesel averages almost 70mpg according to official figures, while the 184PS diesel manages around 60mpg 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. It only manages 64mpg, but it has even lower CO2 emissions than its diesel counterparts, and it also dodges the 3% surcharge you pay for running a diesel company car. That makes your monthly Benefit-in-Kind bills a good slice lower. Running costs for private buyers will be fairly affordable, too, and the strong residuals – especially for the 150PS diesel FR model – are certainly encouraging. The Leon is also excellent value when compared to its closest rivals, offering similar engines and technology to the VW Golf Estate for a lot less money.
How reliable is it?
The Leon has a good reputation for reliability, which is hardly surprising. Despite its lower price, it shares much of its mechanical makeup with the Audi A3 and Volkswagen Golf. The engines and running gear have all been used 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.
How safe is it?
The Leon hatchback 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. We don’t see any reason why the estate version shouldn’t match that performance. All versions are fitted with electronic 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 the 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, you simply don't have to.
How much equipment do I get?
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 Technology 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, while SE Dynamic adds bigger wheels rear privacy glass and rear parking sensors.
More sports-orientated fans will no doubt be drawn to the FR Technology trim, with 17-inch wheels, full LED lighting, dual-zone air-con, folding door mirrors, sports seats and a flat-bottomed sports steering wheel. Xcellence trim replaces some of the sporty kit with more luxurious stuff like front and rear parking sensors, keyless entry, heated front seats and automatic lights and wipers. Cupra versions get even more sporty styling goodies, along with other technological bits to enhance the driving experience, while X-Perience versions have their own interior and exterior finishes and similar luxury kit to the Xcellence cars.
The Leon ST is practical enough to cut it in the small estate car class, and it’s also great value for money and fun to drive, while its styling delivers genuine wow-factor. Although its interior finish and noise suppression standards fall short of its Golf stablemate, it is a good deal cheaper, so it’s probably fairer to compare it to cars such as the Vauxhall Astra Sports Tourer, Peugeot 308 SW and Hyundai i30 Tourer. It doesn’t change the game in any one area, but it’s a cracking all-rounder.