Good: handsome looks, classy interior, sweet chassis.
Not so good: small petrol engine is a tad gutless.
SEAT's Leon debuted in 2012, with a radically different appearance to its predecessor. Five years on, it has received a facelift that brings some minor visual tweaks inside and out, extra technology and a whole new trim level, entitled XCellence. It's this model that we've been test driving and, fittingly, impressions are that this a rather excellent car.
So, what's changed? The eagle-eyed among you will spot an enlarged front grille, along with gently reshaped lights. Some new colours and alloy wheel designs also find their way onto the options list, but SEAT says it has focused on technology for this update. It's still a very fresh-looking car, the Leon, and as such the Spanish maker has chosen to leave the exterior mostly untouched.
Opening the door (keyless entry and go is standard on this model), you're greeted by an aluminium sill protector emblazoned with the word 'XCellence'. The tinted rear windows add to a slightly sombre ambience, but everything looks and feels quite classy, with good-quality plastics in the right places. The centre console is uncluttered in appearance, with a nice driver-facing shape, and LED mood lights within the doorcards are customisable to your own preference.
A key feature of the tech updates is the eight-inch touchscreen, which features full connectivity to the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto apps, and as part of the Media System Plus upgrade there's also an enhanced sound system. The screen is nice and easy to use, although the layout does take a little getting used to, with certain commands placed in slightly awkward positions. We're nitpicking here, and overall it's a great cabin. Neat touches abound, like the slot aft of the gearlever that's shaped perfectly for the key to fit into. Sports seats are fitted to this trim level, with no discernible loss of space for rear passengers, although the Leon still isn't the absolute roomiest car in its class.
Every model bar the base 'S' can be specified with a handy wireless smartphone charger and signal booster in the centre console, and a rear-view camera is standard fitment on the XCellence and FR trim levels, which incidentally carry identical pricing. The S starts at €19,195, with the SE beginning at €22,105, while the range of engine options spans from the 86hp 1.2 TSI petrol all the way to the 184hp 2.0 TDI unit.
Our car was fitted with the 125hp 1.4-litre TSI petrol engine, coupled with a sweet-shifting six-speed manual gearbox. The DSG automatic transmission is an option on the bigger engine sizes, and the ubiquitous MQB platform (shared with the Audi A3, Skoda Octavia and the Volkswagen Golf, among others) gives the Leon the same qualities as its German and Czech cousins on the twisty stuff. That is to say, the Leon is nimble, responsive and fluid around corners, without feeling choppy or brittle over bumps and undulations. Close your eyes (not that we'd recommend that while moving, of course...) and you could be in any of the aforementioned models. There's agile turn-in with decent steering weighting, followed by a secure and stable feeling with little body lean. Even on the comfort-oriented models like the XCellence, it's quite a fun car to chuck around, although those who don't mind foregoing a little ride comfort for a more sporting drive should head for the FR or Cupra variants.
The 1.4-litre TSI engine does feel a tad over-exerted and is starting to date now, although it goes about its business without too much fuss at normal speeds. It gets quite noisy at the upper reaches of the rev range and seems to take an aeon to drop revs between gearchanges, although that can presumably be partially blamed on the mass of the flywheel. Economy figures seen during our week of mixed motorway, urban and rural commuting were broadly comparable to SEAT's quoted figures, and it's a matter of personal preference whether one chooses a petrol or diesel engine in their Leon. The diesel units are a known quantity at this stage, and are still class-competitive.
Value-wise, the Spanish car slightly undercuts the Golf. It currently doesn't get the same range of brand-new engines as the class leader, but in terms of quality it's right up there, and the intentional gap between rival Volkswagen Group brands seems to be getting smaller by the day. The Leon is still SEAT's key model (although the new Ibiza could step on its toes somewhat), and the effort that the company has put into this car really shines through. It's a comfortable, handsome and well-finished vehicle, and we know that owners of the current generation model rate it highly in terms of reliability and satisfaction. In summary, if you're looking for a slightly left-field alternative to the usual C-segment hatchback contenders that can put a smile on your face, then you could do a whole lot worse than the updated SEAT Leon.