Racy looks, German engineering and a 1.6 TDI engine that offers sub-100g/km CO2 and 3.8 litres/100km: the new SEAT Leon seems to have it all, but it is missing that something that separates good family hatchbacks from great ones.
In the Metal:
While its siblings from Wolfsburg and Ingolstadt have been criticised for looking too similar to their predecessors, this is not something you can say of the new Leon. Where the last car had a quasi-coupé/hatchback/MPV look the new car is a racier, more distinctive proposition. Smaller than the model it replaces (but with a longer wheelbase for more interior space), the Leon is arguably the best looking car of the trio, especially in FR trim.
Inside, the cabin is of a simple, functional design with few of the design flourishes that set the Golf apart from the pack. There are some nice touches such as the trim around the (standard) colour touchscreen and some of the door detailing, but these are let down by hard scratchy plastics lower down in the cabin - SEAT seemingly going for the 'out of sight out of mind' approach, but not quite pulling it off.
All Leons available from launch - from the 86hp 1.2-litre TSI to the 150hp 2.0-litre TDI - qualify for the lowest tax band, but with its sub-100g/km emissions the 1.6-litre TDI version with stop-start is likely to be the engine of choice, especially if the Government (as expected) splits tax Band A in four.
On paper the 105hp engine's figures do not encourage much 'enjoyneering', but thanks to the lower weight of the new MQB platform and peak torque of 250Nm (at 1,500rpm) it is actually surprisingly sprightly. Quiet too; we had the opportunity to drive the 150hp TDI as well and while enjoying the extra oomph it did not seem as cultured as the smaller unit. The torque band in the 1.6 TDI engine is quite narrow - it runs out of steam at 2,750rpm - so if quick progress is your priority you will find yourself working the five-speed gearbox hard. However, drive it like an eco-model and you can just ride the torque wave to cruising speed.
Higher powered cars such as those with the 2.0-litre TDI engine, are equipped with stiffer suspension to go with their sportier character, which suited the smooth Spanish roads. However, over the few bumps we could find the damping levels were found wanting, with heavy jolts into the cabin. Irish buyers will have to weigh up the pros and cons of more power versus a potentially uncomfortable ride.
On the move, the steering, while ultimately lacking much in the way of feel, is quick and accurate - but only if you get the right version of the Leon. Unlike in the Volkswagen Golf, where the XDS electronic differential is standard across the range, in the Leon it is absent from entry-level models.
What you get for your Money:
Prices have yet to be confirmed for the Leon as SEAT Ireland is waiting to see what changes are implemented in the Budget, but the range will likely start at €18,860 for an 86hp 1.2-litre TSI in Reference specification. These cars will come equipped with air conditioning, Bluetooth and a five-inch colour touchscreen, but have to make do with steel wheels and no XDS system. Mid-spec Style cars (expected to account for the majority of sales) do get XDS along with 16-inch alloys, a hill hold function, cruise control, a leather steering wheel and a few other bits and bobs for a not inconsiderable €1,500 premium.
Top spec FR final details and prices are still under negotiation but all clues point to this range-topper wearing unique body styling, 17-inch alloys, LED lights throughout, an upgraded media system, tinted windows, climate control and niceties such as auto lights and wipers.
Rather than being a one-trick pony like the last car the new SEAT Leon aims to be all cars to all men (or women) with the range set to expand in 2013. First up will be the racy three-door 'SC' (Sport Coupé) that will debut in March. This will be followed by the ST (Sport Tourer) estate, which will arrive later in the year to take on the Kia cee'd SW and Ford Focus wagon. Hot Cupra models (the Iberian GTI) are already in development and could make an appearance before the end of 2013.
SEAT will never admit it but the Leon has always been thought of as a better value, slightly racier Golf. But therein lies its problem; the Leon has to offer more equipment and driving thrills than a comparable Golf and it just doesn't this time around. The good looks and German underpinnings should see it do well against mainstream opposition like the Kia cee'd and Opel Astra but it is unlikely to pinch sales from the Golf and Focus - something it needs to do if SEAT Ireland is to hit a 3.4 per cent market share.