Previous versions of the SEAT Leon sat in the shadows of its more illustrious VW Group relatives. While undeniably stylish, the Spanish machine felt like it had been engineered as a subtly inferior product to the VW Golf and Audi A3. However, that all changed with the arrival of the all-new third generation model in 2013.
Based on the same impressive scalable MQB architecture as the Golf, A3 and Skoda Octavia, the slickly designed SEAT now had substance to match the style. As a result, it became the class leader, offering the same grown up driving experience and solid quality of the Golf, but with a lower price and bags of extra kerb appeal. In early 2017, SEAT aimed boost the car's success even further with a subtle facelift, which offered revised engines, improved infotainment and more kit.
Subscribe to evo magazine
The Leon is available in two basic bodystyles; a five door hatch or an ST estate. The latter is also available in rugged X-perience guise, which features raised suspension and four-wheel drive. It’s effectvely a halfway-house between the Leon and SEAT’s SUV, the Ateca.
Under the bonnet the biggest change is the adoption of VW's excellent 113bhp turbocharged 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine, which will eventually replace the tried and tested four-cylinder 1.2-litre TSI. Elsewhere, the familiar 1.6-litre TDI has been overhauled and now produces 113bhp, which is a boost of 5bhp.
The 1.4 TSI engine with ACT (Active Cylinder Technology) in the FR model has 147bhp and 184lb ft of torque, which is enough to allow it reach 62mph in 8.0 seconds and onto a 134mph maximum. That it can achieve those figures and still offer the best economy in the petrol line-up - with a 60.1mpg fuel economy figure and emissions of 109g/km - is pretty extraordinary. It’s not just the numbers that add up either, as that 1.4 TSI ACT engine punches hard, yet remains extremely smooth all the way up to its redline.
If it’s practicality and fun that you want, the Leon Cupra ST 300 is hard to beat. The chassis is grippy while still being engaging and fun. The extra length of the estate does have a minor effect on how the car feels, the hatch is just slightly more adjustable. The Leon Cupra is remarkably fast in whatever form; rarely has 296bhp felt so strong.
> Performance and 0-60 time - The standard Seat Leon might not quite garner the attention of the Cupra but it still can come in 177bhp form.
> Engine and gearbox - Engines vary from 1.2, 1.4 and 1.8-litre TSI petrol four-cylinder units. They’re all turbocharged and offer decent power and torque combined with reasonable fuel economy.
> Ride and handling - The steering may be light on ‘feel’ but the car has impressive turn in and traction. It’s also fairly refined.
> MPG and running costs - If fuel consumption and low emissions are your absolute main priority then the Seat Leon Ecomotive 1.6 TDI is the model of choice here.
> Interior and tech - The Leon is all about flat surfaces and decent build quality. It keeps it simple but feels solid. Infotainment is good with Bluetooth and audio connectivity.
> Design - Sound proportions, sporty detailing and bright colour and trim options, consider the Leon a Golf's more attractive Spanish cousin.
Prices, specs and rivals
At the bottom of the Leon range is the £20,000 SE model, equipped with a 1.6-litre TDI engine and a surprising amount of equipment given its entry-level status - an 8.0-inch touchscreen with audio streaming as well as USB aux-in connections, air conditioning and electrically adjusted and heated door mirrors all come as standard.
FR trim sees the SE's 16" wheels swell to 17 inches, the rear windows gaining a tint, more aggressive front and rear bumpers, sports seats, dual-zone climate control, SEAT Drive Profile with different driving modes, and front and rear parking sensors with optical display. FR models also gain sports suspension.
The three-door SC model was taken off sale for 2019.
The Leon’s most obvious rival is its closet relation, that being the Volkswagen Golf. The Golf is typically more expensive and in fairness it feels it too. Of the models sharing the MQB platform, the Leon is probably the cheapest-feeling in the cabin, the Golf does a better job of hiding the areas where it uses lower rent plastics. Economy and performance are largely similar model-for-model, and styling is up to you - we think the SEAT is the more exciting, but the Golf's considered lines will probably age better.
The Audi A3 and Skoda Octavia, are also on the MQB platform. The A3 is the most expensive of the lot but again, it feels it too - and if you go right to the top of the food chain the A3 is the only one which offers a five-cylinder engine. The Octavia, meanwhile, beats the lot of them for interior and boot volume, and it feels more upmarket than the Leon inside.
The current Ford Focus, like its predecessors, is a fine handling car. However, it's starting to feel its age and the interior isn’t nearly as impressive as the Leon’s in terms of functionality and solidity. The Ford is also hobbled by its small boot..
Elsewhere, the range of rivals is huge: the Mazda3 is a neat handler and the Honda Civic offers great real-world economy in 1.6-litre diesel form, but its gawky looks won't be to all tastes. The Kia Ceed and Hyundai i30 are good value, Peugeot's 308 feels like a quality product (and has its own powerful hot variants) and if you can push your budget, both the BMW 1-series and Mercedes-Benz A-class are compelling premium alternatives.
Pick of the bunch is arguably the Vauxhall Astra, which delivers the best ride and handling balance of any compact hatch, plus its 1.0-litre triple is an eager and punchy performer. Better still, SRi models look the part and get Vauxhall's OnStar service as standard. This system gives you access to a concierge service that will look up local facilities for you as well as remotely input sat-nav directions. Also included is a 4G wi-fi connection.