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New three-door version of the Leon gets more stylish looks and Golf-rivalling performance

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With the launch of the Leon SC, the Seat Leon range is filling out nicely.

Having started with the five-door hatchback version, the Volkswagen Group’s Spanish arm added the even prettier three-door, followed by the practical Seat Leon ST estate and the Skoda Octavia Scout and Golf Alltrack sibling - the Seat Leon X-Perience. At the same time, it quietly ushered into the UK the engine we’ve been waiting to test.

There's 60mm less rear legroom in the SC, compared to the five-door model

It’s the most powerful motor in the line-up unless you care to cast your eye at the 286bhp 2.0-litre TSI engine under the bonnet of the Seat Leon Cupra 290 models. It’s also a fleet-friendly diesel. The high-output 2.0-litre TDI has landed – and, on paper, it’s by some margin the most alluring version of an already quite alluring-looking car.

Seat has memorable precedent with hot diesel hatchbacks and can claim quite reasonably to have been among the earliest to exploit the concept. 

The original Seat Leon Cupra TDI, introduced in the early noughties, had four-wheel drive and was branded Cupra 4 TDI. That version never made it to the UK, but when the front-drive 148bhp oil-burner arrived in 2003, it found a ready following for warmer diesel-fuelled offerings.

‘Cupra’ became ‘FR TDI’ with the second-generation Leon and power rose to 168bhp, but a little of the original Leon’s dynamic magic went by the wayside. The FR was a stiffer-legged machine and five-door only.

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But just how excited should up-and-coming junior managers be about this frugal and fast Seat? And should private buyers be excited, too, given the status within the Leon range that its positioning suggests?

Have we reached the tipping point where low emissions, high economy and torque-laden performance can outweigh the more vivacious fizz of a petrol performance hatch? Or do Seat's more conventional petrol and diesel options, ranging from 1.2-litre petrols to 2.0-litre diesels, still make more sense?

For the sake of your P11D, if nothing else, read on.

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Seat Leon SC LED headlights

Thanks, in part, to having the straightforward Seat Toledo in the line-up, Seat has allowed itself a little freedom with the design of the Seat Leon SC, particularly in this three-door form. We’d stop shy of calling the SC a coupé, though.

To our eyes, this is a three-door hatchback, even though it’s one that cuts more of a dash than most manufacturers would allow.

The Seat's front-end styling is pleasingly striking

The platform is familiar – it’s the Volkswagen Group’s latest MQB hardware, which also underpins the latest Volkswagen Volkswagen Golf – but this is a dynamic treatment that allows differences between five-door and three-door Leons, to the extent that the SC’s wheelbase (and overall length) is some 35mm shorter than its five-door sibling’s, although there’s almost nothing in the overall height.

Mostly, though, the rest of the hardware remains the same between the three-door and five-door. The engine line-up for the Leon comprises 1.2, 1.4 and 1.8-litre petrols, and 1.6 and 2.0-litre turbodiesels. All are turbocharged and feature direct injection. Currently, the punchiest of the lot is a 182bhp 2.0 TDI, which also powers the rugged Seat Leon X-Perience range.

Any Leon with more than 150bhp has multi-link rear suspension. Lesser models get a torsion beam rear, but all have MacPherson struts up front.

In this FR trim, which comes with firmer suspension than lesser models, you get a degree of adjustability to the steering weight and throttle response, as well as to gearbox operation on cars with a DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission.

The six-speed manual helps to keep the kerb weight to a respectable 1375kg – some way above the 1093kg claimed figure for the lightest model in the range but only 25kg above the claim for the 2.0-litre TDI FR.

Seat's range-topping FR variants are further distinguished from the normal SC models by different front and rear bumpers with FR badging and decals aghast.

INTERIOR

Seat Leon SC dashboard

How many times has this been the scene of Seat’s downfall? The previous Leon was also a congenial car that shared its stablemates’ underpinnings, combining them with interesting looks and a lower price. But inside, it was an upturned bucket of cost-cutting plastic, reminding you every day that you’d opted for steerage on a facsimiled cruise ship.

This time around, Seat has slashed at the notional distance between its model and the mighty Volkswagen Golf. Its functionality and appearance are Seat Leon Cupra 290 and Cupra 290 Black Edition. In short the tech packs include a 6.5in touchscreen infotainment system complete with DAB radio and sat nav, while also including adaptive LED headlights. 

Front visibility is actually pretty good, despite an average result in the laboratory tests

Those opting for the entry-level S trim will find a sparsely trimmed car with steel wheels, front electric windows, Bluetooth and USB connectivity and air conditioning included in the package. Personally we would move on to the SE trim as a minimum with alloy wheels, hill start assist, cruise control, height adjustable passenger seat and an electronic locking differential system included in the package.

FR models gain tinted rear windows, twin-exhausts, LED rear lights and dual-zone climate control as standard, while opting for the FR Titanium includes 18in alloy wheels and a sporty bodykit, plus numerous FR decals throughout the Leon. The standard Cupra gains dynamic chassis control, red brake calipers, an aggressive bodykit, auto wipers and lights, and a mechanical limited slip diff, while the Black Edition adds numerous extra black exterior details and bucket seats.

Proportionally there is no difference at all between the cars. The Seat Leon SC, like the three-door Audi A3 and Golf, sits on a shorter wheelbase than the five-door variant, so pickings are slimmer for rear passengers.

Adults, having vaulted the front seats, will fit, but unless you’ve fallen unexpectedly in love with the shorter model’s appearance, we’d recommend the bigger five-door FR.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Seat Leon SC front quarter

As with the standard Seat Leon hatchback, Seat offers a wide range of engines and transmissions.

The entry-level engine is a 1.2-litre TSI petrol, coupled to either a six-speed manual transmission or a DSG dual-clutch automatic. It's a smooth and flexible engine, despite what its small displacement might suggest, and it delivers a fairly energetic experience.

As with most MQB-based models, a range of modern petrol and diesel engines are offered

A larger 1.4-litre petrol is also offered. Topping the petrol range is Seat's 1.8-litre TSI petrol, which produces 178bhp and 184lb ft. Coupled to a dual-clutch transmission it'll fire the Seat Leon SC from 0-62mph in a snappy 7.2sec, but while smooth for the most part it can be a little harsh when driven hard.

Diesel options consist of the ever-familiar 1.6-litre and 2.0-litre TDIs, again both offered with manual or DSG gearboxes, but it's the range-topping 181bhp oil-burner that's likely to get most people's attention. It's only available in FR trim, in order to emphasise its sporting intentions.

Make no mistake, it's a quick diesel compact hatch – not the first that we’ve seen and certainly not the last – but it’s no game-changer. It’s a sensible alternative to a hot hatch, yes, but it would be stretching the description (and the imagination) to term the FR a true hot hatch.

Sure, there’s an 8.0sec 0-60mph time. There is 280lb ft of torque – almost 100lb ft more than the 1.4 TSI-engined version manages, and from lower down, too. There’s also a manual six-speed ’box as standard rather than the slightly disenfranchising seven-speed DSG.

But the 2.0 TDI unit still revs like an oil-burner, still hits a revolution wall early, and still massages your guts with mid-range twist rather than yanking at the neck muscles with top-end power.

Thus, it is driven like a diesel: smoothly and with brisk, relaxed satisfaction, yet without any of the excited frenzy that marks out a hatchback as hot. Accept this and there is much to appreciate. Not least the fuel economy, which is one of the primary reasons for choosing this model over a petrol-powered alternative. Seat claims 67.3mpg for a combined run.

We managed just over 53mpg on our touring route, but this is the sort of car that can be driven energetically without ever seeing worse than 40mpg on the trip computer.

Like most burly oil-burners, the Leon’s on-the-move energy comes on strong when you need it, and that translates into real zip from 30-50mph in third (3.4sec) or 20-40mph in second (2.4sec).

Where it really counts, though, is in lean and leggy high-gear overtaking; 50-70mph in fifth takes just 6.8sec, almost two seconds quicker than the 148bhp 2.0 TDI Audi A3 we tried previously. It’s that effortless motorway flexibility that best characterises the Seat Leon FR’s performance and earns it so many points in the real world.

RIDE & HANDLING

Seat Leon SC rear cornering

Practically every new compact car produced by the Volkswagen Group seems to be bestowed with the same basic handling traits at the moment.

A recipe for stimulating individuality this isn’t, but it’s hard to quibble with the clean, tidy dynamics that come as part and parcel of every MQB-based car. Those dynamics make the cars accessible and easy to drive for the novice and capable enough to satisfy in more experienced hands.

Turn-in is well mannered, if not quite as sharp as you might expect

In that respect, the Seat Leon SC has fallen close to the tree. From start-up, every control surface that you’re going to need to interact with – steering, gearbox, pedals – feels light and precise and, once on the move, the car’s easy-going demeanour chimes instantly with their delicately judged tune.

Sports suspension comes as part of FR trim, and despite knocking 15mm off the ride height, it doesn’t particularly corrupt the Leon’s ability to manage deteriorating road surfaces. The emphasis remains on an even-tempered compromise between comfort and control, and with this Leon’s rolling refinement helped along by the more sophisticated multi-link suspension at the rear end, that compromise never feels less than cleverly managed.

Keen drivers, implicitly targeted by the FR’s power and premium, are catered for, too, if not outright rewarded. There’s plenty of benign grip to lean into, and if the steering can’t manage much feedback, it at least proves credibly weighted and suitably quick.

Despite the heavy engine over the nose in diesel versions – and the surfeit of torque often emanating from it – the front end makes a decent fist of tucking in true, and thereafter the Leon continues the MQB’s established theme of servile and competent agility.

However, for those expecting cut-price hot hatch thrills, the FR doesn’t quite step up. It’s short on revelations, then, but big on proficiency and relaxed usability, much like the conventional models.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Seat Leon SC

The Seat Leon SC has plenty of appeal. It's a smart, stylish and well equipped car that's got a little more character and interest to it than rivals such as the Volkswagen Golf or Ford Focus.

Competitive prediction from our sources suggests that secondhand Leons will be quite sought after as well, helping maintain their residual values.

Secondhand Leon SCs should be quite sought after

Couple that with a high standard of reliability, good build quality, sensible servicing costs and a standard three-year warranty, and surprises should be few and far between.

Seat's range of frugal engines should also allow you to find something that suits your annual mileage or requirements without having to overly compromise on performance.

If it's the range-topping FR diesel that's got your attention, however, the figures are even more straightforward: at around £22k, the Leon is cheaper than the equivalent, less-powerful Renault Mégane and Vauxhall Astra models and will retain more of its value after three years/36,000 miles.

Compared with a Volkswagen Golf GTD, the FR’s residuals seem less impressive, but the Seat’s lower list price should outweigh that disadvantage for a great many. All the while, the Leon will be using not a great deal of fuel.

We never matched the combined cycle figure, but over a week of testing that included a figuring session, we returned 47.2mpg, making 50mpg well within the reach of most owners.

VERDICT

4 star Seat Leon SC

Of all its Volkswagen Group siblings, the new Seat Leon SC is comfortably the most stylish on the outside.

It also has a cabin that meets the standards you expect at the sharp end of the hatchback class on quality, equipment and space.

Seat's freshly-styled Leon SC will leave you wanting for little

Performance is excellent, considering how cheaply it’s bought and how efficiently it’s served up. Meanwhile, the Seat handles with quiet, unobtrusive deftness, and just enough verve to keep you interested.

With respect to the range-topping FR model, in years gone by it would have come with a rough, plasticky cabin and nagging, ill-judged suspension. It would have asked some significant compromises of its owner.

None of that applies any longer, and you can now additionally enjoy the benefits of an efficient yet flexible and potent diesel engine as well.

All things considered and for different reasons, both the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus are still better hatchbacks, but they can’t match the Leon SC's fresh-faced, real-world bang for your buck.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Seat Leon SC 2013-2018 First drives