The perception of SEAT as the affordable performance option
Just because a carmaker majors on its publicity front as a producer of sportingly targeted models, states Iain Robertson, should not dissuade potential buyers from investigating lower down its line-up, as the Leon SC FR ACT shows.
It used to be de rigueur to describe every Seat as emerging from ‘Volkswagen’s Spanish arm’. It is not so easy these days, as Seats are produced in several European countries, mostly because they share so much of the Group DNA that restricting their origins to the Iberian peninsula would make them inordinately expensive, rather than just slightly overpriced.
Before informing you about a Seat Leon model that I happen to believe is a real corker, I just need to clear my throat of the pricing frog that seems to blight it. While all VW Group prices have been on an ‘up’ escalator in recent times, I had believed that both Skoda and Seat would provide the building blocks for the rest of the firm’s immense range. As both brands had always been regarded as ‘affordable’, perhaps even ‘budget’, in line with aspects of their individual remits, contemplating them alongside Volkswagen and other premium-priced mainstreamers is not where I expected to be at present.
Of course, fluctuating currencies and increasing local salary demands do not help the situation. Yet, with every press release that I read about the upwards trajectory of Seat (especially in light of its fairly recent, troubled past, which also included strong rumours about VW wishing to sell off the brand to the highest bidder), I cannot help but feel that increased volumes should also incorporate better value deals. Trust me, Seat is not alone in ‘market pricing’ but the inherently high tags can make the consumer gasp somewhat. Okay, grouse over.
As much as I have enjoyed the slightly nervous but exceptionally quick Leon Cupra models, tapping into their performance potential on British roads would be potentially foolhardy. Therefore, a less potent but no less zesty model needs to fulfil a broader performance brief. Factor in the Seat ‘acronym’.
In Seat-speak, ‘SC’ stands for Sport Coupe, a three door variant of the Leon. ‘FR’ is the Fast Road trim level, which is a practical drop down from Cupra but not as basic on the equipment front as some of the cooking Leon models. The 1.4-litre TSI engine highlights that it is a turbocharged, direct-injection petrol unit, which develops a useful 147bhp, allied to a welcome 184lbs ft of torque, or pulling power (being numerically greater than the bhp figure is a very good thing). Finally, the ‘ACT’ is the technologically fascinating aspect, standing as it does for Active Cylinder Technology.
For many years, VW Group has tinkered with and productionised its stop-start technology. A large number of models across all of the Group brands now carry it as standard. It is reliable, even though its actual functionality is something upon which I place a sliver of doubt. You see, it is all very well stopping the engine, while the car is not running temporarily at traffic signals, or junctions, or in city centre snarl-ups, but while the noise and pollution might be relieved momentarily, both increase exponentially upon restart, however smooth is the uptake. As a result, one of the actions I take, in any car thus equipped, is to switch off the ‘default’ setting almost as soon as I enter the cockpit.
Seat’s response is ingenious, to say the least, in that on a relaxed throttle, or upon slowing down to stop, the four cylinder engine will simply shut-off two of its cylinders, while leaving them adequately lubricated, to ensure that wastage is reduced significantly. The result is a government Official Combined fuel return of 58.9mpg, a number that can be reached (even exceeded) with appropriate careful driving, while around 54mpg is closer to the norm. Its CO2 emissions are also a very reasonable 109g/km, which equates to a free first year and subsequent £20 annual VED fees.
Yet, in performance terms, the Leon FR loses nothing. Its top speed is given as 134mph, although 140mph will be within indicated reach on most unrestricted autobahns. The FR will also log a 0-60mph dash in a sparkling 7.6 seconds, which, if you needed reminding, while not scoring super-hatch points, it is still comfortably in hot hatch territory. Yet, thanks to its well-rounded torque delivery, you do not need to extend the revs, or be stirring the gearlever to extract the max all the time.
In my book, the three-door styling looks particularly attractive and provides the maximum appeal of brilliantly easy access to its smart and impeccably assembled interior. Not wishing to dwell too heavily on my previous statement, the test car was equipped with a number of (on the face of it) value-added extras. They included the Technology Pack (LED lamps, sat-nav and DAB radio, fitted free of charge but priced at a notional £1,075), the £455 Driver Assist Pack (high-beam and lane assist systems), Seat Sound System (135W amplified stereo, 10 speakers and a boot-mounted ‘woofer’, at £355), the £155 Convenience Pack (rain-sensing wipers, auto-headlamps and auto-dimming rear-view mirror), Alcantara upholstery (+£445; should be standard in FR trim), 18-inch diameter alloys (+£380; look good, but standard 17s might provide a slightly less lumpy ride quality) and the space-saver spare (+£100; a useful safeguard, I shall warrant, but a largely unnecessary bit of bulk).
The total adds £2,420 to the bottom-line, to make the Leon SC FR a whopping £22,120 on the road, which, for a 1.4-litre hatchback is pushing it a tad. By the way, the metallic white paint finish also adds £530, a feature that I feel is unnecessary profiteering, when you consider that all types of paint finish ought to be standard, unless opting for one of those ‘colour changing’ mica alternatives.
Of course, very few of these items really enhance the car’s capabilities. The Leon carries itself well. Its handling is crisp, with a lovely accuracy to its steering, a surgically sweet turn-in to bends, or lane deflections, and only a slight evidence of ‘bump-thump’ arising from the optional, larger diameter alloys fitted with ultra-low profile tyres. Sadly, on our sorely pockmarked roads, that ‘bump-thump’ can become conspicuously annoying, hence my prior remark about the 17-inch alternatives being the preferred default for the suspension’s sake.
While the ride quality is fairly quiet (on smooth surfaces), the interior comfort is exemplary. Classically clear instrumentation ensures that familiarity breeds rapidly, while the on-screen chassis adjustability (a core benefit of the VW Group MQB platform engineering) and excellent stereo system can drown out any extraneous noises. The well-padded, hide-wrapped tiller is great to heft and the rest of the controls are both well-balanced and fall naturally to hand (or foot). A normal parking brake lever ensures secure hill-parking and glitch-free hill-starts.
However, the all-saving grace of the Leon SC FR is its all-round competence. The simple truth is that none of us needs the fire-breathing 276bhp of the Cupra model, regardless of its heavily vaunted sporting appeal. Personally, I can live without the vast array of purported ‘creature comforts’, most of which fall under the banner of ‘technology’ and actually deliver nothing positive in terms of driving enjoyment. What comes as ‘standard’ with the Leon SC FR is its sheer breadth of capabilities, allied to truly low-cost overheads and there is no business person, or private buyer, for that matter, who will complain about the excellence of that package.
Conclusion: Put into context, the Leon delivers in spades. It has looks on its side, as well as merchantable quality. It is user-friendly and does not raise the hackles in any single area. Ally those aspects to first-class engineering standards and dependability that result in minimal return visits to the garage and this model’s suitability for purpose is underscored to perfection. Apart from my niggle about pricing, there is nothing about the Seat Leon SC FR, with its ingenious ACT technology, that would put me off acquiring an example for personal use and that is how impressive it is in real terms.