A dark shape is cutting its way through the pre-dawn gloom, moving quickly, darting from one corner to the next. If it wasn’t for the piercing glow of a pair of bi-xenon headlights and a set of distinctive LED tail lights it would be almost invisible to the naked eye. What you can’t miss is the wail of a high-revving petrol engine filling the early morning air, accompanied by the bark of a sports exhaust and the gentle whoosh of a turbocharger.
The car behind this dark and foreboding shape is none other than a SEAT Leon FR+ and the only thing it needs to complete the stealth-fighter makeover is a matt finish instead of the metallic of its Phantom Black paintwork. With black 18-inch BBS wheels and tinted rear windows it becomes almost invisible at night. The dark silhouette is only broken by a pair of silver door mirror caps and the glow of its lights.
With the Leon FR+ lurking menacingly on the drive I felt it was time for an early morning run. No particular destination in mind, just a fast blast around the maze of quiet country lanes of Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire. It also happens to be Easter Monday and, judging by the amount of traffic I’ve seen, everyone is still in bed sleeping off their Easter chocolate overdose.
This particular Leon FR+ might look like it’s been designed for sneaky missions behind enemy lines but there’s nothing stealthy about way the Leon FR+ moves. Under the bonnet lies a 208bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged engine, and it’s a feisty thing. The 206lb/ft of torque arrives nice and early but hang on to the revs and there’s plenty more to come, all delivered in a smooth and linear manner. It’s easy to forget that this engine is turbocharged as there’s very little lag and no sudden surge at the top end, just a steady increase in pace thanks to the even spread of torque.
The six-speed manual gearbox has close ratios that make it easy to keep the engine on song, with a light and direct action that allows you to snap the lever neatly up and down the ‘box. The close ratios are great for acceleration and help the Leon achieve 0-62mph in just 6.9 seconds, although the downside is more engine noise at motorway speeds as the engine spins at 2,700rpm at 70mph in sixth.
Those close ratios also mean you’ll be cruising in the higher gears at low speeds. The gear shift indicator in the multi-function display recommends fifth gear at just 30mph and sixth gear by the time the speedo hits 40mph.
The only thing the engine needs is a better exhaust note. From within the cabin there’s a boominess at low revs that quickly disappears but the top end sounds a little strained. Things are improved on the outside with a sporty wuffle but I’d be happier if the driver was treated to a sweeter soundtrack.
The low-down grunt of the Leon’s TSI engine can cause the front tyres a little trouble and it’s easy to spin them up in the first three gears. Fortunately the electronic differential and traction control systems are quite effective at sorting things out, allowing a bit of slip rather than completely killing the power. It all adds to the Leon’s character, a little bit of a rough edge that reminds you that you’re driving a fast hot hatch. If you’re gentle with your right foot you can push the tyres to the point where they’re just starting to spin up without the nannying electronics stepping in to spoil your fun.
The thing is, you won’t want to be careful. The rev happy nature of the TSI engine coupled with the close ratios of the gearbox are a bad influence, encouraging you to make the most of what the Leon’s engine has to offer. Fortunately the chassis rewards you with a fun setup that makes it easy to drive quickly, with sharp steering and bags of grip from the 225/40 Pirelli P-Zero Rossos.
The ride is setup for handling rather than comfort, which can make it feel choppy and unsettled at low speeds. Passengers might not appreciate the firm ride but keen drivers will, as once the pace picks up the Leon starts to flow and you can start to enjoy yourself.
Back to the dawn raid and the Leon and I quickly settle into a fast pace, with bursts of speed interrupted by 30mph limits in sleepy villages. The route takes me on a zig-zag path through blink-and-you’ve-missed-it hamlets, following the western bank of the river Trent before crossing over into Lincolnshire.
The roads around here are an enticing mixture of tight bends and fast open corners, interspersed with hills and tricky cambers. The only things that limit the pace (apart from the speed limits, Officer) are the high hedgerows that restrict visibility, the occasional bit of wandering wildlife and the damp tarmac that’s been given a good soaking overnight.
The Leon really comes alive once you get out onto roads like this. The suspension that felt too stiff around town now starts to make more sense, giving the Leon a balance through the bends that inspires confidence.
It also feels lively, willing to change direction quickly and hang on to your chosen line through a corner. Like most modern hot hatches the steering filters out a lot of the sensations from the front wheels but there’s no arguing with the way in which the nose sniffs out the apex, leans on the P-Zeroes and resists understeer.
After a while I pull up and step out to take a few photos. The Leon sits there in the cool morning air, pinging and ticking to itself as the heat dissipates from engine and brakes. It’s been a fun drive, one to remember, and the best part is I’m twenty miles from home and the roads are still quiet. Pictures snapped, I climb back into the Leon with a smile on my face. Time for some more fun…
More Kit For Less Money. Really?
With so many bits shared between Volkswagen and SEAT it’s difficult to talk about the Leon without comparing it to the Golf GTI. Since its launch in 2005 the SEAT Leon has become a familiar site on our roads and, other than a mild facelift last year, it has remained largely the same. In that time we have seen the Mk5 Golf come and go, replaced in 2009 by the Mk6 Golf.
The interior is where the Leon lets itself down in comparison to the Golf. You get the feeling that SEAT are kept away from the best materials so as not to threaten Volkswagen and Audi’s perceived levels of quality. There is a lot of plastic on show in the cabin and some rough edges here and there, but everything feels durable and there are no squeaks or rattles to be heard. There are some nice touches too, such as the red instrument lighting and the ambient lighting from a pair of red LEDs mounted in the roof (very GTI-esque).
What I didn’t like was the steering wheel. Most of the wheel is wrapped in nice leather with red stitching but it’s ruined by a hard piece of plastic at the bottom that feels really cheap. Not only does it not feel good, it also makes it easy to lose grip of the wheel if you’re rapidly twirling it while parking. How did that not get picked up in testing?
The SEAT Leon FR+ scores a lot of points thanks to its standard kit and the value for money it represents. The manual TSI starts at a smidge under £22k and comes with dual-zone climate control, DAB radio with SEAT’s Media System v2.2, bi-xenon headlights, front and rear parking sensors, 18-inch wheels and cruise control, all as standard.
The SEAT Media System will be appreciated by technology fans as it includes DAB, AM and FM radio tuners, CD player, satellite navigation, Bluetooth connectivity for phone and audio, as well as interfaces for SD cards, USB devices and an ‘AUX’ input. The touch-screen interface makes it very simple and intuitive to use, and in next to no time you’ll be streaming MP3 tracks from your phone straight into the Leon’s stereo.
The Leon is only available as a five-door but it continues to play that neat trick with the rear door handles, hiding them in the door frame to confuse unaware passengers. Lift the SEAT badge on the boot lid and you’re greeted by a good boot space, only let down by a high lip that could make unloading a little difficult. Apart from that the Leon is a very practical car.
Sharing the same engine as the Golf GTI, the Leon offers the same performance but with more equipment and for less money. So what if the Leon’s design isn’t fresh out of the box or the interior materials don’t feel quite as plush? You’re saving over £6,000 on a similarly specced GTI and that goes a heck of a long way towards your fuel bills! Just don’t expect to see much of that saving come trade-in time as the Leon’s residuals can’t match that of the Golf.
Talking of fuel bills, we’re not looking at the most economical of cars here. Officially the 2.0 TSI in this FR+ is capable of 38.7mpg on the combined cycle, but I only managed 32.0mpg over the long weekend I spent with it. That included a high of 36mpg on a gentle run and a low of 22mpg on the same route when giving it some beans.
An average of 32mpg isn’t bad considering the performance that can be called on when the mood takes you. The CO2 emissions of 170g/km place the Leon in band H and that means that the tax disc costs £190 per year (£265 in the first year).
If you want the generous specification of the FR+ package but in a more wallet-friendly form you can sacrifice some performance in return for better economy by opting for the 168bhp 2.0-litre diesel at £21,785. With 55mpg and strong performance it makes a tempting alternative but really, would you rather have a diesel than a high-revving petrol engine?
The Final Reckoning
The SEAT Leon FR+ is a plus by name and a plus by nature. The performance is up there with the best of the mid-range hot hatches while the price is low enough to beat most of them, and you benefit from a very generous specification that leaves you with very little to add from the options list.
OK, so the Leon’s design is getting a bit long in the tooth and yes, the interior isn’t great compared to the best in class. What you can’t fault are the mechanical bits, which come together nicely to produce a hot hatch that is quick enough in the real-world and also entertaining to drive.
The SEAT Leon FR+ is bloomin’ good fun and brilliant value for money. You can’t really argue with that, can you?
One last thing to consider – there is a new Leon on the horizon, built on the latest Volkswagen platform and expected in 2013. That could mean we start to see some cracking offers on the current model and if you play your cards right you could bag yourself a Leon FR+ with a substantial discount.
SEAT Leon FR+ Scores
|PERFORMANCE||Smooth and willing engine, just needs better exhaust note||8|
|HANDLING||Firm ride pays off on twisty bits but watch out for wheel spin||8|
|AFFORDABILITY||Good specification for a good price||8|
|DESIRABILITY||A handsome car but age reduces its appeal||7|
|DRIVING SPIRIT||Playful character emerges on the right roads||7|
SEAT Leon FR+ Specifications
|Engine:||1,984cc 4-cyl Turbo|
|Kerb Weight:||1,395 kg|
|Top Speed:||145 mph|
|CO2 Emissions:||170 g/km (Band H)|
|Official MPG:||38.7 mpg|
|Actual MPG:||32.0 mpg|
|Price (as tested):||£25,150*|
*Prices taken from SEAT website, April 2012