Leon undergoes comprehensive evolution for revitalised Seat
Provided with an early opportunity to review the latest Seat Leon, Iain Robertson admits that it took a ‘double-take’ to appreciate that it is a completely new model, so similar are its lines, dimensions and visual clues but they are present in abundance.
Owners of brands of known quantity and quality have a major nightmare on their hands, should they wish to update, upgrade and reinvent. Change for change’s sake is simply not an option. Reflect for a moment on two of the world’s most renowned brands: Coca-Cola and Mars. When Coke decided to alter its recipe in 1985 with ‘New Coke’, the consumer backlash led to a severe and costly about-turn in just eleven weeks and Coca-Cola Classic was reintroduced rapidly. Mars, on the other hand, has evolved the packaging of its famous Mars Bar, from a paper wrap to plastic strip but, although the unit size has reduced over the years, the recipe remains sacrosanct.
While Seat, a division of the grander Volkswagen Group, is not really in the same reputational boat, as this pair of brands, its Leon model has been central to its survival and revival since 1999. It is an important model, the outgoing third generation of which has been Seat’s best-seller by far. Based on the VW Golf (MQB) platform, the new Leon is tied inextricably to Group technology, which extends to the running gear, all ADAS (active and passive safety), connectivity and electronic developments.
Park the new car alongside the older version and the differences are easier to spot. Much like the recent new façade given to sister brand Skoda and its latest Octavia iteration, the front-end of the car has been reprofiled, slightly squashed and gifted a new pout on its snout. This fresher, leaner appearance is supported by moving the A-pillars rearward and more upright, with a longer, marginally narrower and lower cabin that features improved packaging. The style conscious side strakes have been sharpened, with the result of increasing the muscularity of the Leon’s profile, as though it had just emerged from a several months, behind-closed-doors training regime. It is a most successful job that also enhances the SW/estate variant’s accommodation.
It is an exercise that has been extended to the Leon’s interior, which is now much smarter in appearance, with a well-defined nod towards VW quality standards. It uses mood/ambient illumination to exceptional effect, with a version of the subtle dashboard strip-lighting that VW has introduced on the Golf MkVIII that extends into the front doors but also provides interactive information such as blind-spot warnings. Cutting out the buttons and relying on gesture control for its central touchscreen is elemental to the minimalist approach, the driver being fronted by a flexible, reconfigurable digital instrument panel.
Whether finished in cloth, or leather, the delicious mix of tactile surfaces and textures adds to the appeal of the new Leon. Naturally, there is the usual mildly bamboozling mix of six trim levels, which Seat goes to great pains to make less complex: SE, SE Dynamic, FR, FR Sport, Xcellence and Xcellence Lux. Using the firm’s online model configurator is useful and it is worth noting that Seat does not charge extra for metallic paint. The core equipment includes keyless entry and start, LED headlamps with automatic high beam, the full-width rear lighting bar, heated and electric door mirrors and an electronic parking brake. Move up the specifications for increasingly generous trim details.
While I am not a personal fan of pervasive connectivity, much like the Golf and the new Octavia, Seat has invested heavily in taking its Leon into ‘most connected’ territory. Apart from a vastly improved voice recognition control, the number of ‘smart’ applications that can be effected via a mobile-phone and can also be upgraded continuously during the life of the car are myriad. I accept that some people are lost without their vehicle-related ‘apps’ and that many of them now extend considerably beyond bragging rights but allowing wholesale access to personal information, when no guarantees of privacy can be maintained, remains highly questionable to me.
Powering the new Leon is one of the broadest ranges of engine capacity and power outputs. Each of them (bar one) has a 6-speed manual, or 7-speed automated-manual (DSG) transmission choice. Interestingly, the twin-clutch DSG selector now operates without a mechanical connection to the gearbox, although I was unable to detect any differences; it still shifts quickly and effortlessly. The line-up starts with a 107bhp, 1.0-litre turbo-petrol ‘triple’, moving up to 127, or 147bhp versions of the popular VW Group 1.5-litre ‘four-pot’, while a 2.0-litre alternative delivers a healthy 187bhp. Two versions of the 2.0-litre turbodiesel (112/147bhp) are also available.
Yet, most interest is sure to be levelled at the mild (48v) and plug-in hybrid alternatives, available on both 1.0 and 1.5-litre petrol engines and the oddball 1.4-litre engine/6-speed DSG units respectively. The latter installation features a single electric motor and a 13kWh lithium-ion battery pack. Quite why it is 100cc smaller capacity, with one less gear in the ’box is unexplained but its combined power output of 201bhp, a fast-charge capability from 0% to full capacity in just 3.5-hours and a 38-miles EV range highlight its practicality. While prices are yet to be announced and the plug-in model is sure to be the most expensive of the range, it is also likely to be a best seller.
Although early driving experiences were strictly limited, I can tell you that each of the petrol versions are a real delight, with crisp controls, firm but fluent suspension and fine chassis balance. The mild hybrid enhancements help to reduce fuel consumption, although the TSi engine range is renowned for its overall efficiency. We shall have a more comprehensive test session, once UK-specification models become available.
Conclusion: To be frank, I am as keen on Seat’s connectivity as I am about Huawei providing 5G connectivity to the nation. Yet, the new Leon is so much better materially that it can be forgiven its options. The changes have been wholesale but they have improved the car and whisked it to new peaks…if Seat can maintain keen prices, this one will be a winner.