What is it?
The most powerful diesel version of the new third-generation SEAT Leon. It uses a 181bhp version of the familiar VW-group 2-litre turbodiesel, which is claimed to be good for a 7.5sec 0-60 time and a 142mph top speed. The engine is only available with sporty ‘FR’ trim, one step down from Cupra in the SEAT hierarchy, with prices starting at £22,430 for a three-door SC. An ST estate will set you back £23,380.
As you’ll be increasingly bored of hearing, the new Leon is based on VW Group’s world-conquering MQB platform, which will go onto underpin more than 40 different models from the corporate empire. As such, it’s a glorified parts-bin special, with all its major components familiar from other applications. At least the FR is powerful enough to be adjudged worthy of the independent rear suspension that less powerful MQB-based cars now have to do without. Compared to less sporty trim lines, the FR rides 15mm lower and has 20 per cent stiffer suspension with sports-tuned dampers.
The 2-litre TDI matches its healthy power output with a stonking 280lb ft of torque, available from 1750rpm to 3000rpm. A six-speed manual gearbox is the only transmission option – if you want a DSG twin-clutch paddleshift ‘box you have to settle for the weedier 148bhp TDI engine.
While the first two generations of SEAT Leon only came as a five-door hatchback, there are now three body styles to choose from. There’s a three-door, named less prosaically by SEAT as the Leon SC, while a five-door estate version is known as the ST and commands a premium of around £1300. The SEAT Leon ST’s boot is 587 litres in size – around 50 per cent bigger than the five-door hatch’s – yielded by a 270mm increase in the car’s length, although the wheelbase (and so rear legroom) remains the same.
While that’s around 20 litres smaller than the boot found in its Golf Estate relative, the Leon is far and away the more interesting looking car, and being available in FR trim, it doesn’t miss out on the most powerful petrol and diesel engines currently in the range. As a result, it plumps up the marginally populated small sporty estate car market (currently led by the Ford Focus ST and Skoda Octavia vRS. Good news as far as we’re concerned – if you must have a practical car for dogs or family kit, it might as well be a quick one…
How does it drive?
It’s quick. The engine’s wave of torque makes for an effortless mid-range - it’s the sort of car that you can find yourself driving considerably quicker than you were expecting to. Unsurprisingly, the motor doesn’t enjoy being revved beyond about 4000rpm, a sentiment likely shared by the driver given the increasingly strained noises the engine makes at the top end.
It’s certainly effective – the FR is an impressively effortless overtaking machine – but the overall effect lacks finesse. In slower corners the engine’s torque quickly threatens to overwhelm the grip of the front tyres.
The chassis, though, is a far more polished thing. If you can live with the relative lack of feedback and absolute involvement, this is an unfailingly sharp and neutrally balanced little car and one which you can keep up very good pace in. As with lesser Leons the electric power steering only delivers sketchy feedback, but its quick and precise enough and it’s a surprisingly fun car to drive quickly. Even in this sportier FR trim, with its firmer settings, the Leon is comfortable and compliant, and at typical cruising speeds it’s a pretty relaxing place to buy.
The same traits are present in the ST estate variant. While enjoyment won’t be top of the agenda for the vast majority of estate car buyers, it’s good to know that when the boot’s not full of fragile objects, there’s some satisfaction to be had.
How does it compare?
Against other diesel warm hatches, pretty well. The Leon FR is £3000 less than the new Mk7 VW Golf GTD, which uses the same engine. It’s also £1300 cheaper than the BMW 120d, which boasts almost identical power and torque numbers.
But it’s also £3000 more expensive than the sweeter, if slower, Leon FR 1.4 TSI. And although the petrol-powered car can’t match the diesel’s economy, it’s nicer to drive.
Anything else I should know?
Economy figures are good. Mixed driving produces around 50mpg, and even when thrashed it’s hard to get the TDI 184 below 40mpg.
A Leon ST Cupra will follow, taking the fight to its only real competitor – the 247bhp Ford Focus ST Estate – with a smidge more power and almost identical boot space. Which you prefer will likely to come down to looks and dynamic character; the Focus is frisky and will indulge lairy throttle lifts while the Leon is a more polished performer.