Tuesday 29th September 2020
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First drive: SEAT Leon Mk4. Image by SEAT UK.

First drive: SEAT Leon Mk4
The perceived gap between the SEAT Leon and the Volkswagen Golf is no more. So why pay extra for the German car?

 



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SEAT Leon FR Mk4

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5

We've always liked the SEAT Leon, but with this all-new fourth-generation model, we reckon we're looking at the C-segment market leader. Seriously, why would you want to splash out more on the Volkswagen Golf Mk8, aside from what can now only be described as thoroughly misplaced badge snobbery?

Test Car Specifications

Model tested: SEAT Leon 1.5 TSI Evo 130 FR
Pricing: Leon range from 19,855, Evo 130 FR as tested 23,515
Engine: 1.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol
Transmission: front-wheel drive, six-speed manual
Body style: five-door hatchback
CO2 emissions: 125g/km (VED Band 111-130: 175 first 12 months, then 150 annually thereafter)
Combined economy: 46.3-51.4mpg
Top speed: 130mph
0-62mph: 9.4 seconds
Power: 130hp at 5,000-6,000rpm
Torque: 200Nm at 1,400-4,000rpm
Boot space: 380-1,210 litres

What's this?

SEAT's take on the mid-sized family hatchback formula, in the all-new form of the Leon Mk4. Following on from the aforementioned Golf 8, the newest Audi A3 and the Skoda Octavia Mk4, it's the last of the VW Group's C-segment quartet, premium-badged or otherwise, to arrive on the scene, but that should be no barrier to its success - because, Skoda aside, we think it happens to be the best of the lot, as well.

There's some precedent for this early, perhaps 'shock' summation of the Leon Mk4, as its immediate predecessor was always one of our faves in this class, never more so than when it was in its rapid Cupra guise. However, the one thing we always felt about the Leon Mk3 was that, while it looked great on the outside and drove in a really sparkling fashion, the SEAT's cabin continually felt like parent company Volkswagen was retarding it to enough of a degree that it could never hope to step on the toes of the interior of the Mk7 Golf.

Great news for SEAT fans, then, as we can assure both devotees of the Spanish marque and C-segment hatchback buyers in general that such a situation is not the case when comparing Leon 4 with Golf 8. But, for a moment, we'll just touch on the SEAT's exterior styling. It's good-looking, certainly, and with enough striking features (like the coast-to-coast rear light strip, for example) on it to make the Leon stand out aesthetically in a somewhat conservative class overall. Despite this, though, and despite the fact we are happy to assert that the Leon 4 is definitely a vehicle which is more pleasing on the eye than the Golf 8, we're not waxing lyrical about the SEAT's styling. Somehow, the Mk3 seemed to be a crisper, more cohesive piece of design, as the Mk4's enlarged nose (no doubt due to satisfying Euro NCAP pedestrian safety requirements) seems a bit fussier than it was before. Mainly because the bonnet no longer shuts flush with the headlights and the radiator grille, as it did on the Mk3, but now has a leading shutline running widthways on the front of the Leon. In short, we like the SEAT's looks, but we don't love them.

Step aboard, though, and it's hard not to be bamboozled by the dramatic upswing in quality in here. Thanks to SEAT UK's novel 'almost no cost options' move of a few years ago, this 130hp 1.5-litre TSI Evo FR model - expected to be the clear best-seller on these shores - starts from 23,515 and our test example cost 23,515, with every last thing on it fitted as standard. Yup, that means the 10.25-inch digital driver binnacle, the ten-inch touchscreen infotainment screen, Park Assist all round, wireless smartphone charging, three-zone climate control, a leather multifunction steering wheel and additional USB ports in the rear are bundled in on top of an already generous spec from the next model grade down the line (SE Dynamic)... and, better still, even base SE Leons gain Keyless Go, LED headlights with auto high beam, electric and heated door mirrors, and SEAT Connect technology as standard.

Yet, not only is the Leon stocked to the gunwales with kit for less than 24 grand, its cabin feels excellent - OK, so the climate controls are almost all loaded onto the central touchscreen, but there are physical temperature buttons on the dashboard, while a shortcut graphic at the top of the display means you can access the climate settings easily; unlike on the Golf 8, which is a test-drive report for another day. Indeed, the user experience of the SEAT's digi-cluster and digi-dash is pretty intuitive and all the screens are pin-sharp, crystal-clear affairs which convey a suitably high-tech and prestige air. As does the general dash architecture, which is no longer black-on-black dull and boring like the fascia in the Mk3 Leon, but instead is a lovely, two-tiered expanse riven with neat design details like the squashed hexagons for the air vents, or that midline strip of brushed metal to enliven any possible gloom, or the door cards replete with angular lines and more light-and-shade finishing. Sure, if you want to go scratching some of the plastics that are mounted down near your ankles, you might find some cheaper-feeling surfaces, but in general the Leon's cabin is a masterpiece for this class. And don't, even for a minute, think the Golf has the edge in this regard, because we had a Golf 8 in for evaluation two weeks after the Leon and it most certainly wasn't the case that the Volkswagen's interior was better than the SEAT's; in fact, the Leon's looked nicer, worked better (certainly the layout and operation of its touchscreens did, at any rate), felt every inch as solidly constructed and came with more equipment as standard. Oh dear, VW; you've not thought this through very carefully, have you...?

How does it drive?

We mentioned that Golf 8 (and there's a full review on the Volkswagen coming soon) at the end of the section above, because it was a 130hp TSI Life model. Which cost nearly 27,000. And it had exactly the same engine as the Leon. Plus less interesting exterior styling. And a cabin which, as we've already said, is no longer comfortably ahead of that found on the SEAT, in terms of fit and finish. So then you're wondering if the Leon doesn't drive that nicely, perhaps to justify Volkswagen Group's decision to price up a vehicle that - on the face of it - looks to be superior to a Golf, only for nearly four grand less.

And it's another big 'whoops, Wolfsburg' moment here, because the Leon is a smashing thing to interact with when you're behind the wheel. All of the SEAT's launch models in the UK might have relatively simple torsion-beam rear suspension, and this 130hp/200Nm TSI petrol engine is never going to win any awards for rip-snorting performance, but you still drive the Leon with a grin on your face. Chief weapon here is the steering, which is accurate, well-weighted and a pleasure to use, even though it's not replete with feel. This set-up is coupled to a front axle that will gamely resist understeer even at provocative corner-entry speeds, while the supple damping on the Leon FR and 45-profile tyres give both excellent body control and a comfortable ride in equal measure.

Yes, comfortable. We've heard it said that these Mk4 FRs, which come with 17-inch wheels and 15mm-lower suspension with a firmer state of tune than their SE counterparts, still have that tough-riding feeling that you used to get on the Leon Mk3 FR, a vehicle so unforgiving over lumps and imperfections that it felt like it was trying to forcefully remove all your teeth when you were traversing a bumpy road. But we never experienced that; in fact, with its ultra-smooth, cultured drivetrain, a six-speed manual with a throw so slick and glassy that it felt as if the lever wasn't connected to anything so unseemly as cogs in a 'box, and first-rate noise suppression in the passenger compartment, the Leon was an utter delight to travel in. And frugal, too - its clever TSI Evo engine managing to switch to running on two cylinders more often than not, in turn allowing for a best economy figure of 56.7mpg gleaned not from a motorway run, but instead a two-hour, 80-mile loop on two-lane A-roads in the midlands. That's a positively diesel-like return.

All in all, the Leon's dynamic experience was fantastic. Sure, it's not the most out-and-out thrilling machine on your favourite road, but it's good enough that a 300hp model from SEAT's spin-off Cupra can't be too far away, while it performed almost flawlessly in its principal dynamic regard as a serene, everyday conveyance. Granted, we'd probably stump up for the extra hit of the 150hp TSI motor, or even the also-150hp eTSI mild-hybrid derivative, but otherwise the Leon FR was quite, quite brilliant across the board. Which brings us back to our original musing: why oh why would you want a Volkswagen Golf instead of this little Spanish gem?

Verdict

Of course, it's not just the 'in-house' fight the Leon must win with its Golf and Octavia cousins, as there's also a whole host of talented rivals in this sector that the SEAT has to overcome - such as the all-round impressive Ford Focus, the often-unfairly-overlooked Vauxhall Astra, the attractive Renault Megane, and then two significantly improved, technologically intriguing challengers from the far east, in the form of the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla.

But, frankly, the Leon feels like it has all of the machines above easily covered. It has the twin, traditional SEAT hallmarks of sharp exterior styling overlaying a fluid, engaging chassis, only now it also has a show-stopping interior that doesn't let the rest of the package down - an interior that's spacious, ergonomic, packed with toys and furnished with a beautiful digital array up front. If the Leon was the same price as a Golf 8, it would still be our preferred choice of the two, but the fact it's considerably cheaper than its German counterpart leaves us in no doubt that, Octavia Mk4 notwithstanding (and we're due to test one of these Czech motors soon, too), this is the Volkswagen Group C-segment car you need to be looking at, first and foremost. Actually, drop the phrase 'Volkswagen Group' from that last sentence.

4 4 4 4 4 Exterior Design

5 5 5 5 5 Interior Ambience

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Passenger Space

4 4 4 4 4 Luggage Space

5 5 5 5 5 Safety

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Comfort

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Driving Dynamics

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Powertrain


Matt Robinson - 8 Jul 2020









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2020 SEAT Leon 130 TSI Evo FR UK test. Image by SEAT UK.2020 SEAT Leon 130 TSI Evo FR UK test. Image by SEAT UK.2020 SEAT Leon 130 TSI Evo FR UK test. Image by SEAT UK.2020 SEAT Leon 130 TSI Evo FR UK test. Image by SEAT UK.2020 SEAT Leon 130 TSI Evo FR UK test. Image by SEAT UK.

2020 SEAT Leon 130 TSI Evo FR UK test. Image by SEAT UK.2020 SEAT Leon 130 TSI Evo FR UK test. Image by SEAT UK.2020 SEAT Leon 130 TSI Evo FR UK test. Image by SEAT UK.2020 SEAT Leon 130 TSI Evo FR UK test. Image by SEAT UK.2020 SEAT Leon 130 TSI Evo FR UK test. Image by SEAT UK.








 

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