You’re certainly not stuck for choice if you’re after a fresh-faced family hatchback these days. This year has already brought us the eighth generation of the Volkswagen Golf, and we were impressed recently by the latest incarnations of its sister cars, the Skoda Octavia and Audi A3.
This generational shift within the VW Group means there’s one more model that has to be renewed, and here it is: the Mk4 SEAT Leon.
On paper at least, the premise of the Leon hasn’t changed too much. Within the ‘mainstream’ trio of models (so ignoring the A3), the Golf is premium-centre, the Octavia is focused a little more on practicality, and the Leon is supposed to embody some Latin styling flair, a slightly more focused drive and a little more technology inside. In other words, it’s the car you turn to when everyone in your street has a Golf and you want to stand out with something a little more sporty.
Of course, the underpinnings for all of these cars are essentially the same, and that remains unchanged with the new Leon. It sits on the VW Group’s MQB evo platform, so the range of powertrains will seem curiously familiar after the refreshed Golf, Octavia and A3.
The line-up starts with a 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbocharged petrol with 109bhp. Then there’s a 1.5-litre unit with either 128bhp or, as tested here, 148bhp, and a 2.0 TSI that has 187bhp – as potent as a petrol Leon can get, before the Cupra Leon hot hatch arrives.
There are also a couple of 2.0-litre diesels, incidentally, with 113bhp or 148bhp, and a plug-in hybrid –a first for the Leon – that features a 1.4-litre petrol engine and can travel up to 38 miles on electric power alone.
All cars get a six-speed manual gearbox as standard but if you choose the automatic on the 1.0 or the 148bhp 1.5, you can add 48-volt mild-hybrid assistance. It’s little more than a belt-driven starter-generator that uses recouped braking energy to assist the engine under acceleration – but it’s also sophisticated enough to allow the car to cut out completely when you’re cruising along.
The 148bhp 1.5 TSI certainly feels punchy enough. With 250Nm of torque, it gets the Leon from 0-62mph in 8.4 seconds, and if you find somewhere suitable, you can reach 137mph. It’s very comfortable in a car of this size, in other words – although we’d be interested to see whether the 1.0 TSI gets even more benefit from the mild-hybrid system.
Is the Leon sportier than a Golf? Perhaps. There is something about the Leon that makes you adjust the seat back so it’s a little more upright and grab the steering wheel a little more tightly as you pick the sportiest driving modes. On twisty mountain roads, the connection between the car and the tarmac is closer than you’ll find in many other family hatchbacks; the steering set-up is quick to react, while the brakes have good initial bite and progression.
Ten minutes of involved driving might have you reaching for the climate control but here, the Leon – as with the Golf – lets you down. The temperature is controlled via a touch bar below the infotainment display, but it’s a step too far in the fight against button clutter; it’s a bit fiddly to use during the day, and even less intuitive in the dark.
This is a curious oversight in what is clearly a more cohesive approach to the ownership proposition from SEAT – which realised long ago that rakish looks alone can’t guarantee happiness over a three-year period. The general level of in-car tech is impressive, with a 10-inch infotainment screen, Alexa functionality and always-on connectivity so the system can be updated overnight.
However, there is one key area where this Leon really is better prepared to turn up the heat on the Golf, and that is practicality. The boot capacity remains unchanged, at a decent (if not stellar) 380 litres, but the car grows in overall length by 86mm, with 50mm added to the wheelbase. All of that gain has been put into trying to cater better for rear-seat occupants, and SEAT has succeeded. Grown-ups will feel comfortable there, and wider rear-door openings mean they’ll find it easier to get in and out, too.
The key, as always, will be pricing. We have yet to see if SEAT still sees itself as a slightly more affordable alternative to VW, and if so, whether the Leon’s residuals will be strong enough to make it good value when it comes to monthly repayments.
The new Leon’s front end isn’t quite as sharp-looking as its predecessor’s, but this is still another hugely convincing product from SEAT. We’ll have to wait until full UK pricing before delivering a definitive verdict, but where the previous car felt like a cheaper, slightly smaller Golf, this Leon is assured as a proper alternative to the VW. And that is quite an achievement in itself.
- Price from £19,855
- Fuel economy 44.8mpg-51.4mpg
- CO2 from 125g/km-143g/km
Source: ADI News
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