Price: £19,385. Range spans £15,670-£22,635. On sale March
Engine: 1,395cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 140bhp
Transmission: Six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 131mph, 0-62 in 8.2sec, 54.3mpg, CO2 119g/km
What is a Seat? As the Volkswagen Group's Spanish brand, it is supposed to have a Latin flavour and a sporting edge – but that sporting flavour has been a little forced at times.
In no Seat has this enforced sportiness been more evident than in the previous-model Leon, in which any version with the "Sp" word in its tag had a ride so unyielding that any conversation over bumps became punctuated with vocal wobbles and involuntary exhalations.
This was "sportiness" as a marketer would see it rather than an engineer, a shallow notion that stiff suspension had to be better. On such beliefs was one of Seat's fragile brand values built.
There were two others: a clean, crisp, racy style, and a lot of car for not much money. As the brand has matured, it has placed more trust in these two. And so we meet the latest Leon, the third car to be built on VW's weight-saving (by up to 90kg), made-from-modules MQB platform (the latest Audi A3 and Volkswagen Golf being the first two).
At first glance it looks an Identikit modern hatchback, with a trapezoidal lower air intake, reverse-slope rear side windows and angled, horizontal tail lamps like too many new cars. Look harder, though, and a new take on the Seat crispness of line becomes evident. You see this novel angularity around the headlights, edged with LEDs and powered entirely by these neat little light sources in the top models.
Crisp lines and angles are the theme inside, too, a studied asymmetry resulting in each of the four dashboard vents being a different shape. A slightly longer wheelbase than the old car's helps towards more interior room despite a welcome reduction in overall length; this is a roomy car with generous boot space.
The quality of the plastics, graphics and fittings is below those of the Golf and A3 – there's a corporate hierarchy to maintain here – and the display screens' graphics look cheaper, but it's all entirely acceptable once you get past the plasticky ambience of the base model. As expected in a new car, there are various levels of electronic interface with phones, music players and so on, plus built-in satnav systems.
The Volkswagen Group used to hold back its best new engines for the grander brands, but with low CO2 emissions such an imperative, the new Leon gets broadly the same units as a Golf or an A3. All the engines are turbocharged, from the 1.2-litre, 105bhp petrol unit to the two most powerful options (available from spring), a 180bhp, 1.8-litre fuelled by petrol and 2.0-litre, 184bhp turbodiesel. I drove none of these, but did try the cheapest turbodiesel – a 105bhp 1.6.
The good news: it rides remarkably smoothly and quietly over bumps, even those in the "sporty" FR trim level with lower, stiffer suspension and wider tyres. That instantly makes it a better, more credible car than the old Leon, especially given how tidily it takes corners. That lowish-power diesel – likely to be the most popular engine option – is smooth, willing and gives adequate pace.
My favourite sampled Seat, however, had the 1.4 TSI petrol engine with 140bhp and a lively, zingy feel to its motion helped by weighing less than its diesel relatives. This Leon, especially in FR guise, looks good, is fun to drive, has ample equipment and encapsulates neatly what a Seat should be. Which, in this case, is an entirely acceptable alternative to an Audi A3 Sportback for around £3,000 less.