What are you driving?
Pictures can tell a thousand words, but those words can sometimes be lies. Or at least, misapprehensions. Or maybe just sometimes the wrong words. Take, as a case in point, the SEAT Leon. For this, the fourth generation of Leon, SEAT wanted to create a handsome new look, something that drew on the larger Tarraco SUV and which would stand out in the hatchback segment. From the first photos, though, it looked like nothing of the sort. In fact, it looked like a total mishmash, almost a Photoshop of other cars. A little Hyundai i30, a hefty dollop of Ford Focus and a sprinkling of Kia Sportage around the rear lights.
Well, file those original, early, photos under 'Fake News', along with alternative facts and presidential promises. The new SEAT Leon is actually a really handsome car, but you have to see it in the flesh, so to speak. With actual ambient light playing across what are actually rather finely chiselled surfaces, this is a seriously good-looking car, and more distinctive than we first thought. It's definitely, definitively more handsome than its cousin, the (droopy nosed) Volkswagen Golf 8, and arguably less patrician than the new Skoda Octavia. It may even be better looking than the new Audi A3, all of which share the same, updated, MQB-Evo mechanical underpinnings.
In fact, the new Leon gives lie to the idea that motor shows are, inherently, a bad idea - it's all very well perusing images and videos online, but you really need to see a car for reals. Motoring is still, for all the efforts to make it not so, a tactile affair.
Actually, tactility is something uppermost on your mind as you slide behind the wheel of the new Leon. While it has been traditional, hitherto, for a SEAT to display plastics that are slightly more gauche in their quality than those essayed by the cousins at Volkswagen, the new Leon kind of turns that on its head. It's not that the Leon's cabin is significantly better than that of the new Golf, nor does it feel any more expensive, but the layout is nicer, the surfaces all look and feel good, and crucially SEAT (unlike Volkswagen) hasn't plonked an appallingly cheap-looking plastic surround around it's central touchscreen.
You could accuse it of looking a bit plain, but the cabin of our Xcellence-spec test car was livened up a little by a big slab of wood trim laid across the dash. That can seem a touch incongruous in a relatively humble family hatchback, but actually it kind of works OK here, and seems rather refreshing in place of the usual fake carbon-fibre and piano-black finishes.
Standard equipment on an Xcellence includes three-zone climate control, 17-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights, a rear-view camera, adaptive cruise control and 8.25-inch touchscreen. Our test car came with €5,000 worth of extras, including 18-inch alloys, dynamic chassis control, a Beats Audio sound system, the biggest ten-inch touchscreen and parking assistance.
Name its best bits
Now, earlier this year I tried out a new Leon in sporty FR spec, with 15mm lower suspension, and the DSG dual-clutch automatic gearbox. And I felt it was just the wrong spec - the stiffer, lower suspension meant that there was just too much bump-thump, and the gearbox didn't seem to hook up quite as seamlessly as you'd like with the 1.5 TSI engine.
So, here's a chance to drive the slightly less sporty Xcellence model and the news is largely good. The taller springs and less aggressive suspension rates do indeed soften out the ride quality, even on 18-inch wheels (which, really, are a bit excessive for what's supposed to be a family car). It's still quite firm, but not so uncomfortably so as I found the FR to be.
The six-speed manual (which feels every inch the traditional Volkswagen Group gearbox, with a tight, short, slightly notchy, but ultimately satisfying shift quality) also seems, to me, to work better with that 1.5 TSI engine. In forgoing the DSG auto, you're also forgoing the engine's mild-hybrid fuel-saving tech, but in day-to-day use there's not a world of difference. I managed a creditable 6.3 litres per 100km average consumption, pretty much bang on the WLTP official figure.
It's a sweet engine, too, willing and happy to rev, with plenty of mid-range poke, and it comes with cylinder deactivation tech to help eke out a little more fuel mileage. Hard not to recommend, really, and hard too to suggest that you'd get much better daily economy from a diesel.
The Leon is also lovely to drive, and I reckon it has the sweetest steering of any of the current Volkswagen Group hatchback quartet. Because it has the 150hp engine it comes with the more basic, non-independent rear suspension. So it's surprising just how much fun the Leon is on a twisty road, with a lovely weight and sense of response from the steering, and a front end that's eager to stick its nose deep into an apex. The Leon has often been a more outright entertaining drive than an equivalent Golf, and I'd say that's the same story here.
It's roomy, too, with more than adequate space for teenagers in the back, and a boot that by being deep and wide, makes the most of what looks, on paper, like an underwhelming 380-litre volume.
Oh, one especially nice touch is the ambient lighting strip that sweeps around from the tops of the front doors, and across the base of the windscreen. You can customise the colour, or let that change according to the car's driving mode, and it also incorporates the blind-spot warning light, which is much more effective than putting it in the mirror itself. An option box well worth ticking.
Anything that bugs you?
The touchscreen is, just slightly, something of a mixed blessing. It's big, and the home-grown SEAT software seems slick and interesting, but the menu layout puts too many presses and swipes between you and your desired function. The graphics also look a little more video-gamey than those of the previous version, and the screen in our car was rather glitchy when using Apple CarPlay, skipping and stuttering when sliding between menu screens. The main instrument display, also digital (standard on Xcellence models and above) does suffer a touch from those PlayStation-like graphics, but the ability to flick between several screen layouts is nice, and keeps you entertained in traffic.
The 'slider' controls that allow you to adjust the heating temperature, and the stereo volume, are also far too fiddly and difficult to use consistently, not least because they aren't backlit at night.
And why have you given it this rating?
OK, there's definitely a faint sense that the Leon, although still good looking, isn't quite as drop-dead gorgeous in Xcellence spec as it is in FR spec, but it's definitely more comfortable and, with a manual gearbox, just as rewarding to drive. Perhaps the best balance of Leon spec would be FR styling with Xcellence chassis settings? Either way, this is a hugely accomplished hatchback, one that easily equals the mighty Golf, and arguably actually out-strips it.