Good: practical, spacious, good looking, good to drive, well-priced.
Not so good: nothing wrong at all with it, but perhaps not the most exciting SEAT ever.
I think we all cheered a little when the new Leon was launched last year. SEAT is a brand that seems to engender a good deal of warm feeling amongst the motoring press corps, but until the third generation Leon arrived, Irish customers had been giving it something of a cold shoulder. The Leon's arrival, coupled with some aggressive marketing and advertising has, thankfully and deservedly, turned all that around and SEAT finished last year as Ireland's fastest growing car brand (according to itself!).
What's remarkable is that it has done so at a time when its whole model image and range is still somewhat confused. SEAT was always supposed to be Volkswagen's sporty-but-affordable arm (the whole Spanish Alfa Romeo thing became so overused as to delve into parody), making fun, cheap cars while Volkswagen got on with being mainstream, Audi got on with being premium and Skoda got on with being practical.
But it never quite worked; aside from some cracking FR and Cupra models, SEAT has never really pushed the sporty button quite hard enough (Alhambra? Toledo?) and its range is really too similar to Skoda's - both are sensible and practical, but with different badges.
This new Leon ST estate (ST is SEAT-speak for estate, and it's no relation to Ford's sporty sub-brand, although SEAT probably doesn't mind people making that mistake...) is emblematic of this. It has the rakish style of the Leon hatch and SC, but really it's a sensible, solid family car.
Nothing wrong with that, of course, and I think SEAT should be applauded for making a compact family estate that looks this good (there's really only one angle where you can spy the colossal rear bumper and overhang) yet is this useful. Under the conservatory extension at the rear there's a very handy, flat-floored 587-litre boot that even manages to stash a full-size spare wheel underneath. That's no small advantage when you consider (a) the state of Irish roads and (b) how much hell the kids will put you through waiting for the AA to come and save you if you didn't have one and you got a puncture.
Up front, it's all standard Leon and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. You could accuse the cabin of being a bit too plain, but it's comfy (helped on our SE-spec test car by the optional addition of lovely Alcantara-swathed seats) and little touches like the handsome instruments and the sweet-to-hold three-spoke steering wheel really help to lift the ambience. Better yet, the build quality seems to be as utterly excellent as SEATs tend to be (my family has variously owned four SEATs and counting since 1999 and one failed alternator is the sum total of bother we've suffered).
The 105hp Volkswagen Group 1.6-litre diesel is as familiar as your fingernails, so it hardly bears repeating that it's smooth, decently refined and very economical. I don't think you'll match SEAT's 74mpg official figure without resorting to some extreme hyper-miling, but mid-sixties seems realistic if you use a slightly light right foot. The five-speed manual gearbox seems a bit old-school these days, but it shifts cleanly and sweetly and fifth doesn't seem too under geared on the motorway. Straight line performance is also fine - it's no GTI (sorry, Cupra) but it's brisk enough.
Better yet is the chassis. We've noted before that even basic Leons seem to have sharper, sweeter steering than other Volkswagen Group products (yes, even the Golf GTI) and that's carried over here - if you'll excuse the phrase, it really does have a terrific rack to go with that shapely bottom. The suspension is up to the task too. It fidgets a bit firmly over poor roads, but big obstacles, especially speed bumps, are washed away in great comfort.
Pity the refinement's not so good. It's not terribly noisy or anything, but it's noticeably less refined than the inside of a Golf (Volkswagen laying down the law to keep some separation between the brands?) and conversations with rear-seat passengers especially have to be conducted at elevated volumes. Pass the Lockets...
That apart though, and aside from a lingering concern that it's still not sporty enough, the Leon ST is a class act. It'll be far cheaper to buy and run than that silly SUV you were thinking of and with that massive boot, tight build quality and excellent reliability prospects, it makes a more or less ideal family car.
Ford Focus Estate: can't match the SEAT for load area or looks, but has a staggeringly good chassis.
Peugeot 308 SW: new 308 is a class act and the SW has an even bigger boot than the SEAT.
Skoda Octavia Combi: SEAT's in-house rival is slightly more spacious and, arguably, looks even better than the Leon as an estate.