Arriving back in the UK after a couple of weeks of benefitting from Hertz’ Ultimate Choice program, which allows you to choose the precise car you want to drive, with some fairly simple rules on what you will get for the price of a mid-size reservation and what will be a fixed price upgrade, I knew that I was not going to get the same sort of choice from the Heathrow base. At least as the courtesy shuttle pulled into the site, I could see that there were plenty of cars parked up, with the facility more or less full. I had booked a Group C car, and as a President’s Circle member, that should mean a “guaranteed upgrade” to something slightly bigger or more costly. But not today. Allocated to me was a beige-coloured Renault Captur, which was not only no upgrade at all, but also not exactly appealing. The Gold Booth was unmanned, and when I went into the main building and approached an agent who was serving no-one, she told me very clearly that I had to take a ticket and wait til I was called. She then made sure that she did not call me, preferring to remain serving no-one. The agent I did speak to struggled to find any alternatives – once I declined his offer of a £350 a day upgrade to a Discovery (!) – but eventually came up with a Seat Leon. Although this was not the guaranteed upgrade, either, I knew from previous experience that the Leon is a very good car, and so sensing it was the best offer I was going to get, I opted to take it, keen to get another experience of a car which had undergone a subtle mid-cycle update since I had last sampled it.
The two examples of the current Leon that I have driven previously were both powered by the 1.6 litre TDi unit, but this one was petrol powered, featuring the established 1.4 TSi unit that sees service in a vast number of VW Group products. In this installation it develops 125 bhp, My experience of petrol engines in this class of late has large been one of disappointment, as most of them seem to be geared to maximise the CO2 rating resulting in gutless performance unless you work them really hard. Fortunately, that was not the case here. The engine is smooth and refined, and although you can rev it quite hard without feeling like you are imperilling it, it was also sufficiently flexible that even if you were quite gentle with it, then there was decent acceleration available. The test car had a 6 speed manual gearbox. First gear is quite short and you will almost immediately need to change up once you move away from rest, but after that the gears are well spaced. There’s quite a shot throw between the ratios but the lever slots easily and cleanly with just the right amount of resistance so you know that you’ve selected the intended gear. Sixth gear is intended for steady speed cruising, though there is some acceleration available without the need to downchange, and when engaged then noise levels are very low, so this is a peaceful cruiser on the motorway. There is little in the way of contribution from the wind or the road either. There is a stop/start system, which cut in and out unobtrusively, with little delay in firing the engine back up again when you depress the clutch pedal. When I reached home, having driven 110 miles, the fuel gauge was still showing full, so there was little doubt that this was one rental car that did start wit a genuinely full tank. I kept the car for a few days, and covered a total of 476 miles. When I did the maths having filled it up and returned the average computed at 53 mpg, which was a particularly impressive achievement, helped for sure by the fact that many of those miles were driven at a steady motorway speed. Even so with a result like this, and given the flexibility of the engine, the argument for the diesel looks a little less compelling than you might have expected.
I knew from my previous Leon test cars that this is one of the most enjoyable cars in its class to drive, and this one did not disappoint. The steering is well weighted with plenty of feel to it, which is a welcome change from so many modern family cars. The handling is good, with the Leon being fun on twisty roads as well as the straighter ones. There is plenty of grip and whilst this Seat will eventually understeer, you need to be driving with lots of enthusiasm for this to be particularly evident. Pleasingly, the ride is good, too. This car came on 225/45 R17 alloys. The brakes were well judged, with good feel to the pedal. Like so many cars this one has now gained an electronic handbrake, which when combined with the manual gearbox is less than ideal, though this one was better than most, as it would disengage relatively readily. Visibility is generally good, with a good field of view from the mirrors, though you do need to be careful at oblique junctions as the third side window is small and there are rather thick kicked-up C pillars. Placing the car on the road was generally easy and this version came with parking sensors to warn as the back of the car neared an obstacle. Other safety features included a distance warning, and traffic warning updates through the navigation unit.
Open the door and look inside the Leon and the good news continues. It is nicely finished, with a quality of materials that is little different from that which you will find in a Golf, and certainly significantly nicer than Ford think they can get away with in the Focus. The dash moulding is of high quality plastic with a nice texture to it and there are cloth inserts on the door casings. The seats in this version were part leather trimmed and there was a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear knob. It’s not just the material quality which impresses but also the overall design. The design has not changed during the life of this generation Leon. The instrument pack is part of a much wider moulding which extends beyond the centre of the car. There are two traditional round dials for speedometer and rev counter, and the fuel level and water temperature are small insets in the lower portion of these, using a series of dots rather than pointers. Between the dials is the digital display area with a number of different menus which you cycle between by pressing buttons on the steering wheel spokes. Many of the other components are straight out of the VW Group parts bin, certainly the column stalks and the rotary light dial that it is to the right of the wheel. Audio repeater and phone controls are on the steering wheel spokes. This version of the Leon has keyless starting with a button in the centre console to the right and in front of the gearlever replacing the need to insert the traditional ignition key. There is a 8″ colour touch screen high in the centre of the dash for the Easy Connect infotainment functions, which included navigation as well as the audio system and some car settings. This underwent an upgrade as part of the 2017 facelift, borrowing the latest technology from the more recent Ateca. Now included in the unit is the Easy Connect infotainment system, Seat Full Link and the exclusive SEAT ConnectApp that comes with voice recognition and gesture control technology, allowing functions to be activated with just a finger swipe on the touchscreen. The Media System Plus, with its eight-inch screen, is the highlight of the former. The latest Leon has, for the very first time, a Connectivity Box in the central console that enables wireless smartphone charging. Seat Full Link opens up the world of connectivity for users of virtually all smartphones. Alongside MirrorLink, Full Link also incorporates the functions of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. For areas with low satellite reception, the system also comes equipped with a GSM signal booster. Most of the buttons have been banished, with just audio volume and pre-set station selectors being the only ones left. Below the unit are three rotary dials for the dual zone automated climate control. The whole layout is neat and tidy and easy to use. There is a tyre pressure monitoring system and about 15 miles into my journey, on a busy M4 this gave me a warning which caused some alarm. Sufficient for me to stop and get the car checked, but with no fault found, it was reset and there were no further issues or warnings.
The half-leather upholstered seats have manual adjustment, including a height adjuster for both driver and passenger and adjustable lumbar support. The steering wheel telescopes in and out as well as up and down. The resulting driving position was just spot on and the seat itself proved very comfortable.
Space in the back of the Leon is good. There is something of a central tunnel, so a middle seat occupant would need to sit with their legs astride this, but there is ample legroom and headroom. Occupants from rear air vents, though there is no central armrest. As well as bins on the door, there are map pockets on the back of the front seats for oddment stowage. There is a generously sized boot, which is quite deep from top to bottom even under the parcel shelf There is space under the floor for a few odds and ends around the tyre kit that you will find here. The rear seat backrests are asymmetrically split and simply drop down onto the seat cushions, to create an almost flat and long load bay. Inside the cabin as well as bins on the doors, there is a good sized glovebox, a well in front of the gearlever, a lidded cubby over the driver’s knee and a number of stowage recesses as well as a pair of cup holders and a cubby under the central armrest in the centre console.
There’s quite a large range of different Leon models available, with both three door SC and five door hatch bodies as well as the commodious Estate, or ST in Seat speak. The range of engines and trims has changed over the life of the model. A number of TDi diesel and TSI petrol engines are offered and these have evolved since the late 2012 introduction of the third generation car, with further changes coming in around the time of this test for 2018 model year cars, including replacing the 1.4 TSI unit that featured in the test car with the later 1.5 unit that has gradually been phased in across the rest of the VW Group family. For the petrol engines, the start point is a 1.2 TSi four cylinder with 110 bhp. A smaller 115 bhp 1.0 TSI three cylinder unit is used for the economy-optimised Ecomotive version. Sitting above these are 1.4 and 1,8 TSI units with the former available with 125 bhp or 140 bhp and the latter an impressive 180 bhp, and then there is the fire-breathing Cupra with 265 and 280 bhp. Diesel units are offered in 1.6 and 2.0 litre capacities, the latter having been available with 150 or 184 bhp since inception, whereas the 1.6 litre unit has been updated a couple of times with a 5 bhp gain each time, so currently up to 115 bhp, each with reduced emissions, with a version under the fiscally significant 99 g/km. Six and Seven speed DSG automatic transmissions are available with some, but not all engine combinations as an alternative to the five or six speed manual gearboxes. All Leon models have front wheel drive. The cars with 180 bhp have a more sophisticated fully independent multi-link rear suspension whereas the rest of the range has a torsion beam setup. It is not easy to summarise the available trim versions in a simple way. Initially for the UK market there were S, SE and the sportier FR as well as the Cupra, but now there are all manner of sub-divisions with the Dynamic Pack and the Technology Pack available individually, or in combination on many SE and FR trimmed cars. The Technology Pack comprises integrated satellite navigation, DAB audio system and LED headlights, as well as adaptive cruise control and rear parking sensors. The Convenience Pack consists of automatic headlights, rain sensor and auto dimming rear view mirror. The test car was in Xcellence trim, this being a further and more recent addition that includes many of the popular features that were not standard on the SE model. Right from the outset, S models come with 15-inch steel wheels, heated mirrors, front electric windows, air conditioning, colour media system with CD player, Bluetooth, six speakers, remote auto controls, ESC with tyre pressure monitoring, driver and passenger airbag, front side and curtain airbags, driver’s knee airbag and an alarm and remote central locking. SE trim adds ambient interior spot lighting, a leather wrapped steering wheel and gear knob, chrome dashboard detailing, front fog lights with cornering, cruise control, 16-inch alloy wheels, SEAT’s XDS electronic differential lock system, and hill hold control. FR models have 17-inch alloy wheels, redesigned front and rear bumpers, twin chrome exhaust pipes, dark tinted windows, front sports seats, a flat-bottomed leather steering wheel, dual-zone climate control, LED tail lights, sports suspension and SEAT Drive Profile. This lets the driver alter the characteristic of the power steering, giving it more or less resistance, as well as the throttle sensitivity, and in DSG-equipped cars it alters the gear shift pattern. Options include 18-inch alloy wheels, full leather upholstery, satellite navigation, SEAT Sound System (including a boot-mounted sub-woofer), rear parking sensors, rain-sensing wipers and light sensing headlamps. The Xcellence trim was new for the 2017 mid-cycle update and has a distinctly upmarket feel with standard features including luxurious upholstery (Alcantara and leather as an optional), extensive trim elements and multi-colour ambient interior lighting. On the outside, it gleams with a chrome design front grille, new front and rear bumpers, and also comes with rear LED indicators. On the inside, it benefits from an aluminium XCELLENCE kickplate, LED interior illumination pack and KESSY (Keyless Enter and Go).
I thought I would like this Leon, and I did. Standards are generally pretty high in this most competitive class, but there are generally a few things, often little ones, that blemish the score sheet in most rivals, but really I struggled to think of anything about the Leon that I thought was a weakness. And I failed. That it looks good as well is an added bonus. It might be a few years old in design terms now, but to my eyes it still looks good. Add in the high quality interior, the space inside and the fact that it is good to drive, and is far from the most costly car in its class and I reckon it is a winner. Best Car in Class, I think.