Seat Leon: Beauty with a hard edge

The new Seat Leon is a good-looking car with an attractive price tag to match. But, says John Simister, there is a downside to all the positives - prepare yourself for a bone-shaking ride

Model: Seat Leon Reference 1.6
Price: £11,995 (range starts at £11,295)
Engine: 1,595cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 102bhp at 5,60rpm, 109lb ft at 3,800rpm
Transmission: five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 114mph, 0 to 60mph in 11.4 seconds, 38.1mpg official average
CO2: 183g/km

Driving is the thing. That, and being watched. Not by nasty speed cameras, though, more by ordinary folk suddenly captivated by the beauty and visual dynamism of the new Seat Leon. Let the brochure expand, a brochure that reads worryingly like the product of one of those internet translation programs. 'The driveway leads to the motorway. The motorway takes you to the open road.'

My driveway doesn't, in fact, open onto the M25, handy as that might sometimes be. But it's that ultimate open-road bit that matters here, provided I'm not thwarted by those watching people. "Some people just have an unexplainable pull towards things that are big and shiny", the intriguing brochure contends, but I'm not sure if that's intended to include the Seat. It's shiny, yes, but hardly big.

Seat is the Volkswagen Group's "Latin" brand, the one in which "emotion" and "passion" and other such anthropomorphic characteristics surface most readily. It's a good bit of brand positioning, actually, because no one else makes a car range so overtly aimed at the promise of a good time. Alfa Romeo comes closest, but an Alfa is upmarket of a Seat. The Spanish brand is a value brand as well as a sporty one, a kind of Skoda with style and excitement.

And here lies the central conundrum, one that benefits Seat but which, when vocalised by VW Group chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder, does leave a smoking hole in the part of his feet that bears an Audi tattoo. The chairman has said that he can't see the point of expensive cars when today's cheaper ones do as good a job, which was an unfortunate thing to say given that an Audi A3 has near-identical mechanicals and understructure to those of a Golf, a Skoda Octavia - and this new Leon. Were it not for people's obsession with superficially smarter brands, Seats and Skodas would clean up.

You might favour the new Leon over all the others anyway. This is one good-looking car, its style (by Briton Steve Lewis) based on the Seat Salsa concept of a few years ago. We've already seen the look, upwardly distended, on the Altea and Toledo almost-MPVs, but here in the Leon it best achieves the intended effect of sporty simplicity. It's all about shapes and curves: an almond-outline headlamp, a drooping flank line, a stubby bonnet flowing into a vast windscreen.

Where are the rear door handles? Hidden behind the rear door's rearmost frame upright, access gained via a scoop in the clear polycarbonate rearmost side windows. And where are the wipers? Like the MPVs', they park upright next to the screen pillars. Let's hope they don't thwack the pillars with every stroke when the linkage gets worn - Mercedes-Benz rejected a similar system for the new A-class for that reason.

That shared platform means the Leon has suspension very like that of Ford's Focus. The VW group has adopted a similar design, and we know that the sportiest Golf (the GTI) is a delight to drive. So, with its sporty aura, the Leon should be similarly exhilarating. The cabin sets a promising scene, with most of the fascia seemingly covered in racy carbonfibre.

But if you press the faux-carbonfibre, it squashes. It is, in fact, a padded surface, a welcome touch on a value-flavoured car's fascia, but it's strange to expect carbonfibre's rock-hardness and feel softness. However, the cabin styling is as simple and broodingly dramatic as the exterior's.

There will be properly sporty Leons in the future, beginning next April with the FR models - a 170bhp turbodiesel and a 200bhp, turbocharged petrol engine. In November a 240bhp Leon Cupra will complete the range, a car likely to sell well in the UK where Cupra versions of the previous Leon took a surprisingly high percentage of sales despite having the sort of ride over bumpy roads that put you on first-name terms with your osteopath.

There's a less powerful turbo, with 185bhp, in the price lists but it wasn't available for my initial Leon drive. So I began with the 150bhp, 2.0-litre FSI version with efficiency-enhancing direct fuel injection, combined with Reference Sport trim. The trim levels are Essence (basic), Reference (added air-con), Reference Sport (sporty seats and suspension and more powerful engines with six-speed gearboxes), Stylance (posh and loaded) and Sport (Stylance but with sporty addenda).

You will have noticed that the sporty word has appeared rather too often, almost as if the whole idea were a reluctant nail which keeps popping out and has to be banged back in. Such is the process of painting an identity on a brand which is otherwise a blank canvas.

But there's one sporty aspect which goes too far, and that's the ride quality of any Leon with Sport in its name. They are, quite simply, too firm for our collapsing British roads. So firm, in fact, that my passenger's words emerged from her mouth in jerks and gasps as we traversed the bumps of a regular country lane.

This spoils the sporty Leons, and I shudder (probably literally) to think what the Cupra is going to be like. But think past the suspension, note that the body is free of rattles and creaks, feel how accurate the steering is, and you can see that the Leon is fundamentally a good car.

I also tried a 140bhp TDI version, which comes only as a Sport, so the same comments apply to the ride. A non-sport version arrives next year, thank goodness. And then I sampled a 1.6 Reference, with a 102bhp petrol engine. Seat doesn't get the more powerful 1.6 FSI unit used in other Group products, which is odd. But here was a Leon with suspension able to absorb bumps properly, yet still taut enough to steer keenly and provide fun for the driver. It was the best of the lot, even if its engine had to be worked hard.

It's a good-looking, likeable and good-value car, this new Leon. But please, Seat, don't over-egg that sporty stuff. The Leon deserves more subtlety.

The rivals

ALFA 147 1.6 TS, £14,165

Alfa Romeo's recent facelift perked up an ageing but characterful car, and suspension changes have improved the 147's ride. The twin-spark engine sounds crisp, and goes well. All-in-all an interesting alternative to the Leon.

FORD FOCUS 1.6 LX, £13,345

This cheapest Ford Focus 1.6 looks expensive next to the Seat, or you can have a Ti-VCT engine for more power and yet more cost. Unfortunately the interior of the Focus is plasticky and the styling dull, but overall it's a great car to drive.

VOLKSWAGEN GOLF 1.6 FSI S, £13,710

The Volkswagen Golf gets the better FSI engine but you certainly pay for the privilege, and for the kudos of the VW badge on your bonnet. That said, the current Golf is a good-looking, beautifully made car.

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