IAIN ROBERTSON 

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Easily the most focused version of the Seat best-seller, enthuses Iain Robertson, the latest Leon is by far the most striking in appearance, although he airs concerns about VW Group’s current platform sharing strategy, which erases character subtly.

When reflecting on the Leon’s lineage, being aware at all times, through its various generations, that it is notionally a Spanish Golf, it is fair to highlight that an aura of intense confidence has been invested in the latest iteration. Naturally, the VW Golf platform has been generationally enhanced but then each of the Group brands has been able to build its individual image on one of the most replicated underpinnings across the entire motor industry, even though significant line blurring would appear to have occurred in recent times.

Digitisation for the masses has been the watchword for the MQB platform, a factor evinced by the use of colourful touchscreen and flexible instrumentation displays, let alone the levels of advanced connectivity that allow Seat to boast that this Leon is its most connected model so far. While familiarity does breed, it helps to have a tech-savvy 13-year-old on standby to comprehend, no, decipher the various functions of reportedly simple but different and confusingly minimalist switchgear.IMG_0714-2

Naturally, the steering wheel spokes are where it all happens, as the lighting master switch is now a small bank of micro-controls, rather than a pleasant rotary dial, and, apart from the central locking release and electronic parking brake pushbuttons behind the gearlever, the centre-stack touchscreen is now ‘control grand central’. To be frank, I like the cleanliness of the design but I miss the reassuring positivity of clicking switches. The game has certainly moved on and even the teenager was foxed by initiating the sat-nav, let alone trying to locate a suitable radio channel.

Talking at the dashboard is probably the best bet but I was mildly discombobulated by the array of painfully polite text requests directed clearly at me, which ranged from ‘Please connect a mobile-phone’ and ‘Please steer in the centre of the lane’, to ‘Please note parking sensors are not working’. I am unable to comply with the first, while the second may have proved awkward at times and the third was issued while at the local hand car wash, the sensors probably being flushed with soapy bubbles.

Yet, I noted the view changing capability of the main instrument panel, which could be altered from ‘conventional’ dials to alpha-numeric readouts, incorporating either roadway, or map graphics. They all work instantly and efficiently, which should be driver supportive but were also annoyingly distracting to me. Ever since the Mark Two Vauxhall Astra featured its clunky digital dashboard, in the mid-1980s, I must admit to not being a fan personally.IMG_0715-2

With strong horizontal lines and edgier detailing, the tactile ‘floating’ dashboard moulding is the dominant feature of the Leon’s cabin but there is plenty of space for both practical storage and occupants. Its fairly deep boot capacity is a healthy and easy to pack 380-litres. If two tall front seat occupants demand the full rearwards reach of the runners, space in the rear can be severely compromised. However, the cross-check pattern cloth upholstery is both durable and very smart and the manually adjustable seats are supremely supportive, although there are some textures and trim elements that feel cheap and ill-considered, which is slightly disappointing, as this FR trimmed version of the Leon is price-tagged at £23,515, an aspect that is sure to drive potential buyers into lease, or PCP funding programmes.

Powered by the most popular 1.5-litre TSi EVO engine from the VW Group, the unit develops a modest 128bhp (147lbs ft of torque; 125g/km CO2) that works hard to overcome the 1.3-tonnes kerbweight, although the posted WLTP fuel economy figure of 51.4mpg proved (as with most VW products) to be a conservative one. The standard six-speed manual gearbox is a fluent delight to fingertip flick through the ratios, culminating in a leggy top gear of around 29mph/1,000rpm, which ensures that a 60mph cruise demands only a fraction more than 2,000rpm. It can post a 0-60mph time of 9.1s and a top speed nudging 130mph, both of which are most respectable figures.

Both ride quality and road-holding talents are honed to meet the sportier FR trim, which results in a level of firmness that can be jarring at times on typical British A and B-roads. Once I found the chassis settings on the touchscreen, they were improved by selecting ‘Normal’, although I never quite managed to ascertain what either the ‘Individual’, or ‘Eco’ settings might achieve. ‘Sport’ is simply too hard to make progress enjoyable. Yet, steering responses are linear, which makes accurate positioning on-road a genuine pleasure, as long as you can tolerate the ‘Please steer in the centre of the lane’ request.IMG_0720-2

The car’s brakes are superb and capable of hauling-up a fast travelling Leon all-square and without wheel lockup. The parking brake releases automatically, which makes hill-starts a doddle. The clutch action is also exceptionally smooth and there is scarcely a whiff of torque reaction, when changing gears quickly. The Leon’s overall composure on a blend of fast driven, give-and-take back doubles and smoother main roads is both encouraging and engaging, with well-contained body roll amplifying the overall stability.

While this latest Leon is by far the best of them all, the ultimate ‘closed eyes’ test could prove brand confusion. Yes, you are in a VW Group product but, where it was once possible to ascertain between a Volkswagen, Skoda, Audi, or Seat, now it is impossible. Apart from some minor styling differences, the materials are all but identical and, while noise suppression is excellent, they all sound the same. Ironically, price parity across the four main brands of the Group is such that the individualism that used to exist in the old Ferdinand Piech days has now disappeared entirely, which can be a disincentive to many potential customers.

Conclusion:       The new Seat Leon is a superb family hatchback but blurring the brand lines might be a dangerous move in the longer term. Seat needs desperately to assert its brand authority before it loses it completely to the grander VW corporate entity.IMG_0721-2