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Cheaper than the Volkswagen Golf yet essentially the same on the spec sheet. On the road? You may be surprised

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Did you know that, long before the Seat Leon was even a twinkle, Seat’s first model, assembled back in 1953 and at the furious rate of five units a day, was a rear-driven saloon?

Maybe you did – in which case, well done. But if you didn’t, I can understand why. At 67 years old, the company is now associated almost exclusively with front-driven hatchbacks and SUVs such as the Seat Leon, Seat Ibiza, Seat Mii, Seat Arona, Seat Ateca, Seat Tarraco… Neither is it hard for us Brits to incorrectly believe that the marque only came into existence some time after 1986, when Volkswagen took over once Fiat had backed out and the cars were sold here for the first time.

Driving ergonomics are, in the context of everyday use, all but flawless and the thin, firm steering rim that’s a Seat hallmark remains a pleasure to hold

The point is that the modern Leon and its forebear of the 1950s – the chrome-bumpered, 75mph and latterly Pininfarina-styled 1400 – could hardly be more different in their engineering, and yet there’s one obvious similarity. The Seat 1400 was really a Fiat built under licence in Spain and it’s well known that the Leon, still made in Spain, has always been similarly dependent on the Volkswagen Golf.

As cousins, they’ve shared platforms, engines, transmissions, electronics and switchgear, although for people who really care about driving, the hierarchy has never been quite as obvious as VW might have liked. The Leon’s tactic has traditionally been to undercut the Golf on price while over-delivering on simple fun, punchy styling and, at least for quicker derivatives, performance. It’s a brief the Leon has occasionally nailed in recent years, particularly with the quicker Cupra models, which have set Nürburgring lap records.

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That, in a nutshell, is why this latest Leon is worth getting excited about, even if the new car represents business as usual in many ways. The range features transverse engines that mostly drive the front wheels alone, though only variants with more than 148bhp (and so not our 1.5 TSI Evo, which makes exactly that) benefit from independent rear suspension. Less powerful models, including two new three-cylinder derivatives, therefore use a torsion beam, and this is one obvious area where Golf trumps Leon. With the VW, 148bhp gets you the more sophisticated suspension layout.

However, starting at £19,855 for the 108bhp 1.0-litre SE petrol, the Leon still usefully undercuts the Golf (lowest asking price £23,054) and the Ford Focus (£22,210), but when Skoda begins to offer its most basic versions of the new Skoda Octavia, we’d expect that to go lower still.

Platform-wise, the Leon naturally uses the same VW Group MQB Evo hardware as the Golf, and because the wheelbase is 50mm longer than before, rear leg room has improved. In fact, the car is longer overall – by 86mm for the five-door hatchback and 93mm for the estate – although it’s also narrower and lower and so looks less stocky than the previous model, even if Seat insists the new design is now bolder.

You can make up your own mind, but while the sharp incline of the window line as it meets the C-pillar looks smart, as does the long snout and the Porsche -esque rear light bar, you could argue that some Ford Focus-style homogeneity has wafted in. Certainly, in FR trim, which is Seat’s answer to VW’s R-Line, we might have expected the Leon to stand out a touch more. Where has the street fighter vibe gone?

One thing the car isn’t lacking is variety beneath the creased bonnet. Garden versions of the new Leon will be available with downsized TSI petrol and TDI diesel engines along with eTSI mild-hybrid and eHybrid plug-in hybrid powertrains, although of these, only the eHybrid will break the 200bhp mark.

For the sort of giant-slaying performance fast Seats have in the past delivered, you’ll need to wait for the 2.0-litre turbo petrol Cupra derivatives, which will sit 25mm closer to the road and use revised steering and suspension settings along with an electronically controlled front limited-slip differential to help deploy up to 297bhp. An estate version – the ST 4Drive – will turn the dial higher still with 306bhp and four-wheel drive.

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Overall, it’s fair to say most owners should have little difficulty finding the right engine for their needs.

How does the new Leon stand out from its VW Group sibling?

Inside, the Leon has again been led firmly by the Golf, having adopted the same perched central touchscreen and architecture and culling most of the physical switchgear. It’s fantastically uncluttered but at the same time not quite as inviting or reassuring as before, when the central display was integrated neatly into the dashboard and sat on an identical plane to the instrument binnacle. The lack of knobs and dials for volume and climate control is also likely to irk some people, although after only an afternoon in the car, we found the system intuitive enough and brilliantly responsive.

Elsewhere, there are some stylistic flourishes to help assuage the hard plastic trim for the door pulls and lower half of the cabin. The absence of quarter-lights (very Audi) feels sophisticated and the hexagonal vents are straight from the Lamborghini playbook, as is the acute topography of the dashboard. And while we’re on the subject of premium-brand inspiration, the way the window ledges and leading edge of the dashboard together form an unbroken crescent is pure Jaguar. The driving ergonomics are, in the context of everyday use, all but flawless and the thin, firm steering rim that’s a Seat hallmark remains a pleasure to hold. Long journeys ought to be effortless.

As for your passengers, there is indeed more rear leg room than before but it’s still not exactly cavernous, even if head room is excellent and FR trim usefully brings rear climate control.

At 380 litres, boot space is right on the money in this class, although the floor does sink awkwardly low behind the lip. Our test car also has the addition of a ski hatch through the rear seats, which, even if you never visit St Moritz in your new Leon, should at least prove its worth if you do visit the local tip.

For now, that’s probably enough on the new Leon’s practicalities. How does this FR version, on its 15mm-lower suspension, actually drive? Encouragingly well and, yes, with more feel than the Golf, if not with the same level of finesse and precision as the Focus. Even without the help of the 48V mild-hybrid system of the eTSI Leon, this 1.5-litre engine really is exceptionally smooth, although the gearing feels a touch too long for B-roads jaunts.

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Admittedly, it’s not an especially enjoyable engine to exercise, and along with an insipid shift action for the six-speed manual ’box, you’ll discover some turbo lag and pronounced flywheel effect that leaves its response feeling blunt, but perhaps that’s the price you pay for 65mpg on the motorway and whisper-quiet manners.

Still, it’s clear that Seat has put some thought into the driving experience. Unlike so many over-servoed offerings in this class, the brake pedal is soft and progressive and the electromechanical steering, steadily geared but not sleepy, paints a clearer picture of the road beneath you than the class average.

What augurs especially well for upcoming Cupras is how light the car’s nose feels as it changes direction and how easily the chassis settles into mid-corner balance. The Leon resists understeer conspicuously well, and in fact neither is the tail averse to helping alter your line. Despite the firmer FR suspension and the busy low-speed ride it yields (models with the independent rear suspension may do better in this respect), our car’s two axles don’t ever quite respond in harmony when you properly attack a corner – like lightning and thunder, there’s a pause between the front axle turning and the rear responding in kind – but there’s also an overall willingness that suggests fire-breathing Cupra derivatives should be fun and indecently quick.

For more steady souls, the ordinary Leon is easy enough to recommend, even if the Golf remains more refined on the move and lavish inside and the class-leading Ford Focus has opened up something of a margin in terms of enjoyment.

The difference isn’t night and day, though. The Seat Leon has never felt like such a complete and capable package, and neither has it ever felt so indistinct from its VW cousin, for better or worse.


Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017, arriving from Evo magazine, and is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests, performance benchmarking and supercar lap-times, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found on Autocar's YouTube channel

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year, and focuses mainly on the more driver-orientated products, as is tradition at Autocar. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat. 

Away from work, but remaining on the subject of cars, Richard owns an eight-valve Integrale, loves watching sportscar racing, and holds a post-grad in transport engineering. 

Seat Leon First drives