Seat Leon First Drive

Drive the SEAT Leon in Spain and you’ll soon find out that the most rebellious of VAG's offspring is on to rather a good thing. SEATs, of course, are ubiquitous on the Iberian Peninsular - the Leon in particular - although most examples are tired old dust magnets that typify the utilitarian mindset of European motorists. 

This is a new SEAT, though, and it’s different from the rest.

Stance is aggressive, but the Leon feels small to drive

It’s shorter, with smaller overhangs; it’s wider, with a tarmac-hugging front grille; and it possesses angles and general obliquity normally the reserve of machines altogether more exotic. The Emoción Red car we drove dizzyingly high into the Andalusian hills above Malaga drew stares and smiles from the widest of demographics in the way that a VW Golf could only dream of, and on first impression you can see why. SEAT have perhaps succeeded in building the people’s Lamborghini.

So does it look as good as it does in photos? Yes, and then some. The Spanish maker’s Design Center in Martorell has been threatening to design a car of truly desirable aesthetic for quite a while - 2008’s Bocanegra Concept a particularly striking augury– and the new Leon is it. More compact and focused than the outgoing model, it also sheds the previous car’s curves in favour of crystal cut creases and a calculated stance.

Leon wears visual jewellery well - sharp alloys, striking light signatures and hard creases

With wheels set deep into the corners, the Leon’s shallow front graphic – with LED headlights and quadrilateral grille sitting in the same narrow band – sets the tone for the entire design. Tony Gallardo, the man responsible for the car’s blade-like light signatures, used the words ‘tension’ and ‘intension’ to describe the Leon’s appearance and attitude. Intent indeed.

And the Lamborghini reference isn’t as wide of the mark as you might think. Luc Donckerwolke, who this year departed SEAT to lead Bentley’s design teams, is largely credited with laying the foundations for the Leon’s design and is also a former employee of the forthright Italian supercar maker. The Diablo, Murciélago and Gallardo were all built under his direction, and the Leon emanates the same dynamic and self-assured character as the red-blooded racers.   

Built on the new MQB platform, the body is shorter than before while the wheelbase is longer

The full-LED headlights, which represent a first in this segment, are the real talking point as they lift an already striking design to new heights and instantly draw the eye. SEAT worked hard to give these LEDs the appropriate ‘temperature’ – aiming to match natural daylight as closely as possible – and they’re certainly easier on the eye than similar but blinding efforts by Audi and Porsche. SEAT can fit LED taillights, too, that are as crisp and elegant as the headlights are arresting, although this is an optional extra on less expensive models.

From the driver’s seat, too, there are small, seemingly inconsequential details that make the Leon a bit special and glamorous. The jet-fighter wing mirrors, for example, are small and wickedly angular, whilst inside the IP, air vents and touchscreen neatly align with each other along the dashboard. I say ‘seemingly’ because the wing mirror design prevents the typical and all-pervading wind noise from the A-pillar and the linear dashboard design means the screen and dials are at a comfortable height for both hands and eyes. The interior is well thought-out and well put together – a running theme throughout the entire car.

Leon shares driver facing centre-stack with Golf, build quality a huge improvement

The new Leon isn’t only a pretty face, though. In keeping with contemporary trends, it’s 90kg lighter on average than the old model and makes widespread use of high-strength steel, avoiding more costly materials.

When the Leon goes on sale in the UK in March, SEAT will offer a range of petrol and diesel engines – the 105bhp 1.6-litre TDI emitting 99g/km CO2 – and later in the model’s lifecycle an Ecomotive variant, emitting less than 90g/km CO2, will be available. As is now relatively commonplace, all the engines feature stop/start technology that deactivates the engine when the car is at a standstill, although the Leon also recovers electrical energy under braking.  

It can’t be easy with older brothers as illustrious as Volkswagen’s Golf and the Audi A3, but the feisty yet somehow mature Leon possesses a raw edge not yet seen in the brand. High levels of perceived quality and a refined ride mean that what drawbacks there are – namely mildly asthmatic engines and a lack of prestige – shouldn’t be enough to put buyers off.  

It may be the youngest VAG sibling, but the Leon is also the best looking and the cheapest. With no small amount of swagger, SEAT have finally arrived.

SEAT Leon FR 2.0 TDI

Engine: 1968cc 4-cyl turbodiesel Power: 150bhp @ 3500rpm Top Speed: 134mph 0-62mph: 8.4s CO2 emissions: 106g/km Combined economy: 68.9mpg Price: £21,385 

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