SEAT Leon Hatchback (2012 - 2016) MK3 review
The Seat Leon is a good looking, affordable family car that also happens to be well equipped, fun to drive and easy to live with, with a wide range of engines to suit all tastes.
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The third SEAT Leon is less curvaceous than previous versions, with sharp lines replacing the rounded features and rear window of the old car. It looks great though, and will stand out when compared with more conservatively styled rivals from Volkswagen, Ford and Vauxhall. 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 to the FR version if you can afford it. You need at least an SE model to get standard alloy wheels, and sporty FR models look even better, with unique bumpers and twin exhausts; they look sharper still if you choose one of the brighter paintwork options and snazzy all-LED headlamps. The latter have triangular daytime running lights which really set the car apart on the road. Splash out on the sportiest Leon - the Cupra - and you'll get these dazzling headlights as standard, plus larger 19-inch alloys, a roof mounted spoiler, honeycomb grilled design and a sporty body kit. It's pleasingly aggressive, but also subtle enough to sit on the driveway without attracting too much unwanted attention from every boy racer who goes past.
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, so it is much easier to reach (and read) while you're on the move. The materials all look and feel decent, with plenty of soft-touch plastic, and there are crisp and clear white and red displays. It's not as well built as a VW Golf, and the dark colours used do make it seem a tad dull, but the simple dash layout and clean design mean that it's really easy to use. 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. The standard system is ok, but can take a while to respond to you inputs, and it not as sharp as the latest systems. 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.
Despite its good looks, the Leon does well in this area. The 380-litre boot is bigger than that what you'll find in the Ford Focus and Vauxhall Astra (316 and 370 litres, respectively) and overall the Leon is well suited to families: there’s plenty of room for adults in both the front and rear seats. There is a transmission tunnel down the middle of the car though, so anyone sitting in the middle seat will have to straddle their feet either side. If you want a more versatile family car then the Skoda Octavia and Peugeot 308 can both squeeze more luggage into the back, though. The Leon also has quite a high loading lip too. 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.
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. This lightweight diet can be felt at the wheel, thanks to a keenness to change direction and a greater sense of agility than you get in some of its porkier rivals. Versions with 148bhp or less have a simpler suspension setup than the more powerful versions, but S and SE models provide a good blend of ride and handling. FR models 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 white to red, and in DSG auto models the gear changes happen at higher revs, but there’s no getting away from the firmer ride that the FR’s sports suspension brings - it's firm but controlled. The Cupra version is terrific though, with wider tyres and a differential, which allows you to put all of its impressive power down without spinning the front wheels. It corners very sharply indeed, and is brilliant fun on the road - without ever feeling as stiff or uncompromising as some of its similarly powerful rivals, such as the Honda Civic Type R. Ultimately, four-wheel drive hot hatches feel a little more stable and composed on wet or slippery roads, but the Cupra is surprisingly grippy to drive even in the toughest conditions.
There are four petrol engines, with 108, 123, 148 and 178bhp, and three diesel motors with 103, 148 and 181bhp. SEAT has covered all the bases here, but the 1.6-litre diesel is the big seller in the UK. 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 108bhp petrol, which hits 62mph in ten seconds flat and feels surprisingly keen, meaning that buyers of the lowliest Leon shouldn’t feel shortchanged. The 148bhp diesel feels grown up, with plenty of power for motorway driving and reasonably good refinement. The strongest mixture of performance and efficiency comes from the 181bhp diesel, which has an urgent surge of power between 1,500 and 3,000rpm (0-62mph in 7.5 seconds) and makes overtaking effortless. It’s not a particularly satisfying engine to rev hard, partly because of its gruff note when using all its power. At the pinnacle of the range sits the Leon Cupra, with a special 2.0-litre petrol turbo engine. It comes with a seriously rapid 286bhp, and feels extremely fast - whether you choose the precise six-speed manual gearbox or the dual-clutch automatic. Its engine is incredibly flexible too, so it feels as punchy as a big diesel in the mid-range, but frantic and exciting at higher revs when you want to have fun.
The Leon is fitted with a stop/start system and energy recuperation as standard, and every model apart from the hot hatch Cupra emits less than 139g/km of CO2. The top-selling 1.6-litre diesel emits 99g/km and averages 74.3mpg, and even the 181bhp diesel emits 112g/km while managing 65.7mpg. The 1.2-litre petrol is thrifty, too, with figures of 114g/km and close to 60mpg, at least according to the official government tests. The Volkswagen Golf and latest Vauxhall Astra are both slightly cleaner, but the difference in running costs for private buyers will be fairly minimal. Strong residuals have been predicted, with the 148bhp 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). It's 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 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 mechanical technology with the A3 and Golf, for a lower price. These engines 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, however the standard warranty is only three years - rather than the five, or even seven year cover offered by some of its family car 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 its newer rivals, it also comes with the option to add plenty of expensive active safety equipment including lane departure warning, a driver fatigue monitor for those long road trips, and even adaptive cruise control but unlike in some 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, 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 tail lights, 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; although Seat has been offering them as part of an excellent value tech pack for some time. Other options include sat-nav, leather upholstery, heated seats, adaptive cruise control and additional safety kit. As the flagship, the Cupra comes with all the toys you could need, with the top-spec infotainment screen, full navigation, auto lights and wipers, and leather and Alcantara trimmed sports seats.
The Leon provides great value and a fun drive, but it also has a fairly 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. If you like the styling, then we'd say it was well worth checking out ahead of its sister cars from VW, Skoda and Audi - and the fastest Cupra model is great value, and every bit as fun as the slower, and similarly priced VW Golf GTI.