Updated: August 23, 2013
In terms of power and standard equipment, the Spanish car manufacturer SEAT offers among the best horsepower to money ratio. This value is best embodied in its flagship model Leon. With the new model poised to flood the world markets, and good reviews coming in all over the place, on the car's looks, quality, safety, and a drastic improvement in the overall feel, this is now true more than ever. But we are not going to talk about SEAT Leon 2013. Nope.
In today's review, and this is the first one in the newly launched sub-category on Dedoimedo, you will get a nibble of the past. We will take a look at the outgoing SEAT Leon model. Now, the fact it has been replaced does not mean we should not have some fun. Moreover, if you're mulling buying the new car, you might be interested to learn what the predecessor could do. To wit, I proudly present SEAT Leon 1.8 TSI.
At a glance
A proverbial one that is. As I have mentioned earlier, SEAT Leon is an extremely valuable bargain for its market price, especially when you compare it to the rest of the Volkswagen Group models in the same category. The review car comes with a 1.8-liter petrol engine, coupled to a turbo, producing 160 HP, with 250 Nm of torque kicking in at about 1,500 rpm. You will notice I am using metric units, and this is how it should be. But KW are boring, so no.
Spec-wise, the cars has a lot of lovely gadgets, all included. A slightly flat bottom steering wheel a la racing cars, covered in leather, and so is the gear level, which clicks and clacks the six-speed manual gearbox. Then, if you are not very skilled with a parking brake during hill stops in traffic, the hill-hold assist will be a definite perk. The car also has a tire pressure sensor. But we're not done yet.
You also get a decent multimedia system, with a touch screen, DVD, USB, plug-in for some original smartphone brands, navigation, Bluetooth phone connectivity, eight speakers, and a reversing camera, plus controls on the steering wheel. The multimedia package will most likely vary, depending on the market. Bend-follow lights are also nice, although they may confuse the OCD-infused drivers among you. Fog lights, front and rear. Alloy wheels, but more about those later. Aerodynamic wipers, tucked against A pillars, really neat!
You even get cruise control, which sounds kind of odd for a manual car, dual-zone climate control, electrically powered side mirrors and all four door windows, and a road computer with a lot of useful information, including a gear change suggest, designed for a very economic driving. Sporty seats and ISO fix, for those of you naive enough to procreate, complement the standard package.
Now, all in all, this does not tell us much. However, a comparable VW Golf may cost as much as 20% more, and an Audi A3 with the same specification can inflate the price as much as 40%. Of course, brand and overall quality also play an important factor, but surely not in the double-digit percentage. Moving on.
SEAT Leon is a nice looking vehicle. Some would say it's Golf with a bit of spice, but I do not think the two cars should be compared, the identical chassis notwithstanding. Personally, it think it looks better from the rear than the front, as the relatively plain bonnet undermines its lovely sporty character. But the tail comes with narrow lights and a fat bumper, and the twin exhaust hints at what hides underneath the hood.
There's a dose of coupe looks about Leon, as embodied by the Alpha Romeo rear doors, which have the handles placed vertically near the C pillar. The car appears a bit fat, and the side windows seem small, but once you're inside, the illusion goes away. Then you have the ten-spoke light alloy 16-inch wheels, in case anyone still had any doubts about your higher education. Cushty, modest, with more-than-meets-the-eye mantra all over. In white, it's just a normal family hatch.
Inside, SEAT Leon is a bit of a chavvy car. You do get that sexy soft-rubber-plastic on the dash, but then you also have a huge lump of cheap, easily scratchable silver-gray or black plastic, which serves no purpose whatsoever other than being there. Doors have horizontal handles, which are less comfy to grab while seated. Overall, the quality is decent, but we will discuss the tear and wear a bit later.
The driving position is excellent. You can adjust the steering wheel by rake and reach, and the seat can be slid up and down, back and forth, plus you can jiggle the lumbar wheel, which will then cause your seat to bulge ever so slightly into your lungs, and your peace of mind will never the same.
You will also notice that some details are purposefully made cheaper, to differentiate SEAT from the other contestants. For example, underneath the glove compartment, there's half a meter of wires of all sorts, and there's no nice cover to hide them away. Now, normally, your heads needs not be located near the floor mat, unless you're doing a scene in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, or experimenting with an appendix to Kama Sutra, but that's something that simply is not necessary. Likewise, the wiring for the speed pedal also show up, and for me, this is quite un-German.
Other than that, the interior is sound. After a while, some plastic parts may start groaning like a polite rheumatic Poltergeist, especially when the seasons change, but they do not diminish from the good-value-for-money sensation. Seat covers are made from dark gray cloth, which is resistant to wear and groin smell.
Now, this is the really important part, unless you treat your cars like an art exhibition, in which case, you should not buy a SEAT. Anyhow, before getting my hands on this hatch, I was promised a harsh, uncompromising ride. Perhaps, this was true with the early models, or with custom-built cars with ultra-low-profile tires, because I found the car too be extremely well composed and quite comfortable. The sporty seats offer decent lumbar and lateral support in turns, and you do not tire too much after a longer drive. The seats could be a bit deeper, so you have more of your thighs resting at any given time. You can remedy this by raising yourself up, but then you end up brushing the sun screen or the side of the cabin roof with your hair, in case you happen to be of more than average height.
So the car is very comfortable. However, only when you drive over speed bumps do you really get to understand the car's stiff setting. For example, a typical Peugeot 308 can soak up the bumps in my neighborhood at a very leisurely 50 km/h. On the other hand, woe me if I try anything more than 30 km/h in Leon.
On the upside, the handling is really awesome. The best testimony to the car's ability, as well as my own as a driver that is, is the following exercise. Sometimes, you have to go round long, sweeping 60 km/h curves. If you pilot Leon and there's a car in front of you, which might get into the curve a whole 10 seconds ahead of you, and yet, without challenging the laws of physics too much, on the exit, you might actually have to slow down lest you tailgate the other vehicle. In fact, contrary to the laws of mechanics, Leon feels more composed doing 90-100 km/h than 60-70 km/h through most bends, go figure. Do not try this at home.
The steering wheel is thick, chunky, well weighted, and sharp. There is no body roll. Still, if you try too hard, the ESP will do its best to keep you safe, and you also have the XDS traction system to make you believe you're a better driver than you really are. If you yank into corners too hard, the tail might get trippy.
Flat out performance is very good for a normal, human-designed family car. Leon does 0-100 km/h in about 7.8 seconds, although I would swear I managed to shave a few tenths of a second off the clock. You can push in the first gear up to 60 km/h, and in second almost to 110 km/h, without redlining. Pulling through low revs in the second all the way to the forbidden numbers, and then slightly beyond, is childishly good. Likewise, the acceleration from 80-120 km/h in the third is really swell.
The rev limiter is there, but it is generous, and it will not kick in immediately and choke the fuel, giving you an extra dose of fun. You can probably tickle the 7,500 rpm mark for a second or two before the engine starts complaining. There is a bit of turbo lag, and you can hear it whistling up, but the lag is fairly short, and if you do not abuse the rightmost pedal, you can get smooth, even and efficient accelerations without skidding, especially in the first and the second.
The engine is very flexible. The turbo comes in online at 1,500 rpm. On a straight stretch of road, you can click in the sixth at 60 km/h without any problems. In normal driving, the said sixth gear is sufficiently tolerant for all maneuvers and overtaking, and you will rarely ever need to downshift. The exhaust noise is also fun, a bit raspy, especially in the parking lot, so you can impress your neighbors.
Real-life fuel consumption is quite good. With about 90% of driving commenced on a highway doing about 110-120 km/h, fast acceleration, some urban crawling, mild ascents, and an occasional use of the aircon, Leon eats about 6.5 liters of fuel for every 100 km traveled. An extremely gentle driving will get you to about 5.5 liters, identical to the very accurate German figures in the brochure. Now, a liberal use of the gas pedal can easily ruin the economy. For example, just one or two hard foot-down accelerations from 0-100 km/h can alter the fuel numbers by as much as 0.5 liters in a 100 km trip. When you rev it like a champ, the thirst is measured in about 45-50 liters/100 km. After 32 months and about 55,000 km of driving, the engine does not show any sign of fatigue and the fuel figures are consistent since day one.
Tear and wear, niggles and wiggles
In its 2.5+ years of use, the cars has suffered some minor problems. Leon's suspension seems sensitive to road holes, because I had to take the car for realignment twice, each time caused by a tiny change in the rear wheel camber. The boot door latch failed, and I had to replace it, but it was covered under the two-year warranty that comes with the car, regardless of your kilometrage. Likewise, the car battery died, and it seems the grippy Dunlop 205/55 R 16 tires will need a replacement soon.
The multimedia system had a faulty DVD tray, so it had to be replaced right away. As a geek, I can tell you the software I received in my unit is Windows-powered and somewhat toyish, with too many colors and gradients. Then, it will also blank the DVD playback when the parking brake is lowered, including an annoying noise warning, which can be disabled in the workshop. On the other hand, the phone is good, it channels the audio into the speakers, and the same goes for navigation, which does not conflict with the music or radio.
Come the second summer, some of the harder plastic parks started to plink when it's hot, or on cold winter days, especially under the dash and somewhere in the rear doors. If you push the chavvy silver plastic with your fingers, it will groan too much. Another age-independent problem is that the passenger seat seat belt buckle bangs against the B pillar in urban driving, and this can be quite annoying. When you're exiting the car, you may snag the vertical adjustment lever at the side of the driver's seat with your leg, and ever so slightly lower your position, causing much frustration and endless re-adjustments. Like I have mentioned earlier, if you sit too high, your head will make love to some parts of the roof.
Some would call SEAT Leon a poor man's Audi A3. I would call it a wise man's car. With the excellent VW technology under the bonnet and a lavish standard set of gadgets, Leon does not fall short of its more pure-bred cousins. Leon offers a balanced, cushty - and I used this word already, that good it is - mix of joy, performance and economy, or value for money if you will, without being too cocky, but cocky nonetheless, or breaking your budget.
As for the new model, Leon 2013 is sharper, smarter and comes with a posh interior a whole class above anything you would have expected from SEAT. In fact, if you remove the badge from the front grille, you might not be able to tell the car's mark that easily. So good gets gooder, it seems. But back to our car.
All I am trying to say is, Seat Leon 1.8 TSI, with the proper manual gearbox, is a sweet, fun car, with a brilliant package of goodies and a solid measure of oomph, which does not lesser over time. If you love it like I do, then you should really be excited about the new model making its way to dealerships. Grade wise, 8.5/10.