Seat Leon FR 2.0 TDI (184 PS) (2013) - First Drive

Will the new Leon give Seat the big boost it needs?

Engine: 2.0-litre turbo-charged four-cylinder diesel
Transmission: six-speed manual
Power: 184 PS between 1,750 and 3,000 rpm
Torque: 380 Nm at 4,000 rpm
Fuel consumption (combined cycle): 65.7 mpg
CO2 emissions: 112 g/km
Top speed: N/A
Acceleration (0-62 mph): 7.5 seconds
Price: £22,375 (Leon prices from £15,670)

Here’s an idea for a terrific car. First, take the well-engineered, super-reliable components that Volkswagen and Audi put into their biggest-selling models. Then, instead of clothing them in the staid, sensible sort of bodywork preferred by the German brands, marry them with a much bolder look designed to appeal on an emotional level, something with a bit more zing and sporty southern European flair. Finally, just for good measure, pitch the price of the resulting product well below that of the equivalent Volkswagen and wait for the orders to roll in.

If only it were that simple. What I have just described, of course, isn’t a mere flight of fancy – it’s what Volkswagen’s Spanish arm, Seat, is supposed to be all about, and the problem lies not in the concept, which is sound, but in the execution. The first difficulty is that Seat doesn’t always get the freedom to do its own thing, especially when volumes are small, so some of its cars look and feel very similar to their equivalents from other Volkswagen group brands. That means Seat’s core models, where it has a freer rein, have to do all the work when it comes defining what the brand is all about, and sometimes that freedom hasn’t always been exercised successfully – the unusually designed Altea and last-generation Toledo, for example, were certainly brave efforts but didn’t really hit the mark. One reason – in this context, there can be such a thing as too much freedom. Seat’s origins as a maker under licence of Fiat models means that there hasn’t traditionally been such a thing as a Seat “look” that can constrain or inspire the designers of later cars, something that has probably made their job a lot harder.

Sometimes, though, Seat has executed well on individual models but struggled to produce a solid run of success. The first-generation Leon was a handsome, popular design but it was a bit of a one-off that didn’t really help build that elusive Seat look. The second-generation Leon met with a certain amount of resistance because of its similarity to the Altea and then-current Toledo – but it finally showed what Seat’s designers had been trying to do with those larger cars, and it turned out to be a bit of a “grower” that still looked fresh and original late in its life.

But now, I think, Seat’s struggles to define itself should largely be over. Hard work on the current Ibiza, as well as the IBL, IBE and IBX concept cars has finally got Seat into the right groove in design terms, producing a curvy but sharp edged look that is instantly recognisable, and now the company has had the chance to apply these hard-won gains to the new, third-generation Leon. If there’s any justice in the world, and if car buyers are still paying attention, this should be Seat’s breakthrough model. It is, in short, that terrific car the Seat formula always promised.

At its core, the latest Leon uses Volkswagen’s brand new modular MQB architecture. That means it shares most of its technology, as well as its engines, with the latest, very well reviewed versions of the (rather pricier) Audi A3 and VW Golf. Despite its humble position in the Volkswagen group pecking order, Seat has been allowed to bring its MQB car to the market just a couple of months behind its German sisters – there are no cast-offs here.

Seat has combined all of these out-of-sight bits, some of the best in the business, with a really good-looking body; at first sight, it’s quite like that of the Ibiza, but peer a little more closely and it’s possible to see hints of the old car too, especially in the area around the front pillar. It works. And Seat’s designers have really gone to town on the interior as well, which is a big improvement on that of the old Leon. Not only are the materials a lot better but Seat has pulled off the difficult trick of giving the cabin quite a bit more visual interest than that of, say, the Golf, but without making it too outlandish. One clever touch is the use of slightly unusual trapezoidal shapes for the door handle surrounds, air vents and so on, a theme that is also carried over to certain elements of the exterior such as the door mirrors. These produce a certain amount of excitement for the eye, but don’t jar. If the Seat gives away anything at all to its German sisters in terms of its interior, it can be seen in a few of the minor details; you start the Leon with a key, not a button, and there’s a conventional handbrake rather than the electronic type. Most people will be able to live with, if not actively prefer, that.

It’s on the road, though, that the Leon really comes into its own, delivering exactly the sort of improvements that have already been seen on the A3 and Golf. MQB-based cars are coming out a lot lighter than their predecessors, and in the Leon’s case, the saving is a significant 95 kg. That’s been making itself felt in the agility of, in particular, the models with the smaller petrol engines, and on the basis of one example I tried fitted with Volkswagen’s 1.4 TSI engine that applies to the Leon as well.

But the most interesting car in the initial Leon line-up is the sporty top-of-the range FR model fitted with the most powerful 2.0-litre 184 horsepower diesel engine. Seat has a bit of a history of sporty diesels – in particular, in the last generation of the Ibiza - but this car raises the idea to a new level. We are all used now to the previously unlikely idea of powerful diesels providing rapid performance, and the Ibiza FR certainly does that, with the ability to sprint from rest to 100km/h (62 mph) in 7.5 seconds. But the interesting thing is that it just doesn’t sound very dieselly while it’s doing it. In fact, thanks, presumably, to some acoustic trickery, it has a very appealing, slightly gravelly note more like that of recent versions of Volkswagen’s – petrol-powered - Golf GTI, which adds quite a bit to the experience. At the same time, this top diesel turns in very good economy and emissions figures in official tests – 65.7 mpg and 112 g/km.

Will the new Leon give Seat the big boost it needs? The car is good enough, but the company is struggling with weak demand in its Spanish home market, which is less than half the size it was at the peak of the last boom, as well as in the rest of its traditional areas of strength in southern Europe. On the other hand it’s growing quickly in Germany, and James Muir, Seat’s British boss, spoke bullishly to journalists at the Leon’s early launch event about the company’s prospects in new markets such as China and Latin America, where it is already doing well in Mexico. He also gave the firmest indication so far that the company would expand its range to include at least one SUV in the next few years. It’s been a bit of a bumpy ride but with this very impressive new Leon in particular, Seat is now firmly on the right path.

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