The SEAT Leon would usually be the Spanish chorizo stuck between two thick slices of Czech Octavia and German Golf. Squeezed on one side by Skoda’s reputation for value and on the other by Volkswagen’s unshakeable image.
For a while now that’s left the Leon in a bit of a no man’s land. Not as desirable as the Golf but more expensive than the Octavia, it started to suffer in the showrooms.
So when the VAG group were planning the future of the next Octavia, Leon and Golf, someone from SEAT must have been up to mischief. Maybe they slipped something into the flasks of coffee or sprinkled mind-altering substances onto the pastries before the meeting. Maybe they’d got hold of some compromising photos of one of the accounting team. Or maybe they were just very, very persuasive.
Why? Because this third generation of Leon suddenly looks like the pick of the bunch. From top to bottom, inside and out, and on the road it’s the equal of all and beats them where it matters.
It starts off underneath, where the group’s latest MQB platform is shared across each of the brands. That gives SEAT access to the same chassis, engines and advanced technology that underpins the new seventh generation Golf.
Then they wrapped that up in a body that instantly makes the old Leon look rather frumpy. The sharp creases give the Leon better proportions and turn it into a very handsome hatchback, especially in 3-door SC form.
At the front and rear are distinctive lights whose design must have been acquired during a clandestine operation into Audi territory by SEAT’s stealth ninjas. A bold strip of light surrounds both sets of clusters, making the Leon easy to spot at night and also fooling many into thinking it’s an A3. A very neat trick.
The headlights are new technology that SEAT were able to launch first and use LEDs to power the main and full beams. They are incredibly effective, beating xenons for brightness and offering a noticeably whiter light, and at the time of writing they’re available as part of the Tech Pack upgrade (which includes sat-nav and DAB) – for free!
Step inside and you’ll immediately feel at home. The layout of the main controls is almost exactly the same as the ergonomic Golf, and the buttons and control stalks are identical to those you’d find in the Leon’s more expensive siblings. It’s a big step up from the previous model, and the premium feel is reinforced by the optional black leather upholstery with red stitching. It all feels very classy.
The 5.8-inch colour touch-screen is a bit smaller than some rivals but it is very easy to use, with each group of functions colour-coded (trip computer, car info, sat-nav, phone and media). Those colours are reflected in the trip computer sat between the speedometer and rev counter. It’s clever, intuitive and gives you loads of information, and it’s all standard in this FR model.
There’s even more technology to enjoy if you don’t mind spending a little extra. Options fitted here include adaptive cruise control, self-dipping headlights, blind-spot detection, lane-assist and driver fatigue detection (although paying for the car to tell you you’re in need of caffeine seems a bit over the top).
Then there’s the driver profile selection (standard on the FR) that allows you to customise steering weight, throttle response and even the sound from the engine. Pop it into Sport mode and a device near the engine bulkhead amplifies noise from the engine to make it sound sportier.
Talking of engines, this is currently the fastest Leon you can buy after the brilliant Cupra. It’s the 184PS 2.0-litre diesel and is good for 62mph in 7.5 seconds and an official 67mpg. That’s quite a combination and for everyday driving it offers a perfect blend of accessible performance and economy. It’s also the exact same mechanical package as the Golf GTD, but for over £3,000 less. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
Once you’re on the move you start to see how much the Leon has grown up. With so much in common with its German counterparts there’s little surprise when you discover that the Leon drives very much the same as the Golf and A3. It’s very composed and sticks doggedly to your chosen line, but it can feel a little remote thanks to the uninspiring steering. That doesn’t stop you from carrying big speeds through corners, which makes rapid progress seem quite effortless when you combine it with the TDI’s grunt.
It’s worth noting that the optional FR Dynamic Pack adds the same progressive steering rack as fitted to the Golf GTI and GTD, which will certainly help to liven up the steering.
It’s Got The Look
This particular FR is fitted with optional 18-inch machined alloy wheels that are part of the £700 Titanium pack, which adds grey door mirrors too. Surprisingly the 225/40 tyres they come with don’t make a mess of the ride quality and credit for that goes to the Leon’s excellent dampers.
The wheels and mirrors aren’t the only cosmetic upgrade. The delightful Alor Blue paint is part of SEAT’s ‘Custom Palette’ range and adds £700 to the price tag. Yes, it’s more than metallic paint (£530) but it’s a bold colour that suits the Leon.
Last, but by no means least, is the optional Sport body kit. Now available as a factory-fit option, the body kit is made up of front and rear bumpers, side sill extensions, roof spoiler, twin exhaust and black alloys (not fitted here). At £4,000 for the lot you may well have to think twice before committing but it certainly makes the Leon stand out in a crowd, and gives it a sporty demeanour that’s strangely lacking in the more powerful but surprisingly discrete Cupra.
The Final Reckoning
The new Leon is a huge improvement on the last model in every possible way. In fact it’s such a big step forward that it leaves the mechanically identical Golf and A3 with some very awkward questions to answer. Such as why the hell do they cost so much more?
The FR model gives you plenty of kit and a more focussed ride than lesser models, and the 184PS TDI engine matches the FR’s visual appeal with an enticing combination of power and economy. It’s a fantastic all-rounder.
Unsurprisingly the most tempting bits of technology are kept to the options list. If you’re not careful you can very quickly find yourself with a diesel FR that costs over £28k, eclipsing even the Cupra 280’s asking price. Just make sure you add that Technology Pack for the LED lights, sat-nav and DAB.
The body kit is more difficult to recommend simply because it costs so much. If you really want to modify your Leon you could go to an aftermarket tuner and spend less for similar results, but at least here you have the comfort of knowing it’s been fitted by SEAT themselves, painted to their high standards and won’t affect your warranty. I’ll let you decide if you think it’s worth £4k, but for me there’ll always be a nagging suspicion that in a year or two we’ll see this same body kit being offered on a limited edition Leon at no extra cost.
Whatever tactics the SEAT team used when designing the new Leon, they worked. This FR TDI is cheaper than the equivalent Octavia vRS but beats it for feel-good factor and, while it lags behind the Golf GTD in perceived quality, it’s not by enough of a margin to justify the German’s considerably higher price. The Leon FR is the smart choice.
Let’s hope SEAT can use the same devious plans again when the rest of the range comes up for renewal, before their German counterparts realise what’s happened and get over-protective of their technology again.
SEAT Leon FR TDI 184PS Rating
|Easily the best generation of Leon|
New tech, especially LED headlights
Good blend of performance & economy
|Many desirable features are on options list|
Styling kit's crazy price
SEAT Leon FR TDI 184PS Specs
|Performance & Economy|
|Engine||1,968cc 4-cylinder turbocharged diesel|
|Transmission||6-speed manual, font-engined, front-wheel drive|
|Power (PS / bhp)||184 / 181 at 3,500rpm|
|Torque (Nm / lb.ft)||350 / 280 at 1,750rpm|
|0 – 62 mph (seconds)||7.5|
|Top Speed (mph)||142|
|CO2 Emissions (g/km)||109|
|Combined Economy (mpg)||67.3|
|Kerb Weight (kg)||1,345|