The Seat model range is gathering momentum in New Zealand. Volkswagen Group’s Spanish arm launched here with the focus on the Ateca medium-SUV, but now the brand is adding to the lineup with some hatchbacks. We’ve already tested the Ibiza supermini, but now it’s the turn of the larger Leon.
So who is this Leon bloke?
Seat’s small car might be new to NZ, but it’s been around since 1998 – this latest version is in fact the third-generation of the Leon. It’s always existed within VW Group’s ownership of the brand, so as you might surmise it’s always been based around VW platform and powertrain architecture.
It’s still a model with some history – the incredibly cool second-gen version was actually designed by Walter de Silva, he of the Alfa Romeo 156, Audi A5 coupe and Lamborghini Miura concept.
The Leon was toned down a tad for the 2012 third-generation version – which is the model we now have in NZ. No, de Silva didn’t draw this one, although he did style the Golf 7 – the model that lends its MQB platform to the Leon. So it’s all still in the family.
The Seat does carry over a few design cues from previous versions, including those distinctive swage lines running from the front and rear of the car that don’t quite line up. It’s a Leon thing.
It’s a Leon FR, so is this the sporty version?
It is and it isn’t.
The “FR” designation does denote sportiness in the Seat world; the top Ateca SUV is called the FR, for example. So the Leon FR is indeed a driver-focused model, but it’s also the entry-level model in NZ because there are actually only two versions in the local lineup.
And the other one happens to be the slightly unhinged 221kW Cupra (meaning “Cup racer”).
The good news is that the FR is $20k cheaper than the Cupra and still looks pretty cool. It has a modest 1.4-litre turbo-petrol engine, but it’s quite hi-tech with cylinder deactivation (it runs on just two when it can) and drives through a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox.
The FR also gets the Drive Profile system with choice of Eco, Comfort, Sport and Individual, sports front seats with height and lumbar adjustment, a flat-bottomed steering wheel with “FR” logo, and traction control with the XDS system that mimicks a differential lock.
It rides on humble-looking 17-inch wheels, but you can always snazz it up a bit with 18 or 19-in options ($1550-$3300), including some that have “CUPRacer” styling.
Okay, it’s mildly sporty. Is it more fun than Volkswagen Golf?
Yes because that’s the way the VW Group does things.
VW is the parent brand and Seat is the slightly cheaper, much more cheerful take on things. There’s a really good feel to the Leon: substantial steering, a taut chassis that definitely feels firmer ride-wise but not to the point of distraction, and good body control if you’re pressing on along on a country road.
It’s still very much a family hatchback, but definitely one that can put a smile on your face.
With just 110kW it’s no ball of fire, but you could reasonably describe it as brisk (0100-kmh in 8.0sec) and the dual-clutch gearbox is a snappy shifter. Our test car’s clutches were a tad slippy in slow town driving, but it’s possible the car’s newness was a factor there: it had just 20km on the clock when we drove it away.
Cruise control is standard, but there’s an excellent adaptive cruise system (including pedestrian detection) with stop-and-go functionality available as a factory option for $900. Highly recommended.
Hatchbacks are still a bit five-years-ago. Should I just get an Ateca SUV?
You can if you want, although Leon FR money is still not enough to get you into the entry-level Ateca Style at $38,900.
If you like being a bit lower to the ground, the Leon still provides decent accommodation for four (five at a pinch) and plenty of comfort/convenience features: the FR comes with the eight-inch Media System Plus touch screen (including phone projection), dual-zone climate control, special black “FR” cloth upholstery and load-securing rings in the boot.
The rear seat is split 60/40.
Any other cars I should consider?
Hate to shock you, but the obvious one is the VW Golf. It proves the point about the Leon being a cheaper, sportier alternative by being $1600 more expensive than the Leon FR in Comfortline form, yet having a tad less grunt with 92kW/200Nm.
Although there is still a manual option for the Golf if you’re that way inclined, which undercuts the Seat by $900.
What else? Assuming you want a small hatch with Euro flavour, take a look at the much more powerful Holden Astra RS (147kW/280) at $33,990.
Or the Ford Focus, which is due for replacement this year but still a model we rate highly for the driving experience: you can buy the Trend (Ecoboost 132kW/240Nm) for $35,340.
Other standouts in this segment are the Japanese Mazda3 and Korean Hyundai i30, both of which offer plenty of choice in this price range.
SEAT LEON FR
Base price: $35,900.
Powertrain and performance: 1.4-litre turbo-petrol four, 110kW/250Nm, 7-speed automated dual-clutch transmission, FWD, Combined economy 4.9 litres per 100km, 0-100kmh 8.0 seconds.
Vital statistics: 4263mm long, 1459mm high, 2636mm wheelbase, luggage capacity 380-1210 litres (seats up/down), 17-inch alloy wheels with 225/45 tyres.
We like: It’s not an SUV, faster/cheaper/more interesting than a VW Golf, well-equipped.
We don’t like: Only one mainstream model on offer, interior styling doesn’t excite.