REVIEW DATE: 2007-05-11 10:05:00.0
SEAT's Leon is a big step forward over previous generation models but is it worth paying the premium for a diesel model? Andy Enright tackles this thorny issue
Some cars are easy to like despite their countless faults. Others are unswervingly efficient but have a problem justifying their existence. Step out of a SEAT Leon TDI diesel and there isn't too much you can note in the demerit column. Taken in isolation, it's a very accomplished vehicle. But buyers don't choose cars in isolation. They compare and contrast different models, and this is where the Leon diesels may have a struggle. They're up against the enemy from within. If you can pinpoint what the Leon does materially better than its MPV sibling, the Altea, you may well be a Leon customer - and a very clever one.
There's no doubt that the Leon and the Altea are very similar both in terms of looks and mechanicals. They ride on the same chassis and share most of their engines. The Altea is more practical, offering greater interior space, but the Leon takes a sportier direction with sleeker lines and more dynamic trim designations. The Leon TDI diesel models we look at here have the dual appeal of being efficient and fun.
There are three diesel engines offered, two very good and one rather old. I'd hoped that SEAT would do the decent thing and pension off the rather tired 1.9-litre diesel powerplant, but it's offered here in budget 105bhp guise. You can even buy it in eco-friendly ECOmotive guise, where it dips below the all-important 120g/km CO2 emissions barrier. This is an engine from the diesel old school, offering reasonable refinement but rather annoying lag and surge driving characteristics. As long as you're prepared to use the gear lever a lot, it's possible to hustle it along at a reasonable clip but drive it back to back with the far more sophisticated 140bhp two-litre TDI unit and you'll soon see how far diesel engine design has progressed.
"The Leon diesel is a car fighting to carve a small niche for itself"
Still, the 1.9-litre makes reasonable figures. It'll accelerate to 60mph in 12 seconds and return an average fuel consumption of 57mpg. Top speed is pegged at 114mph. Naturally the 140bhp 2.0-litre offers significantly more brio. The manual version will dip under ten seconds for the sprint to 60mph and top out at 125mph. The penalty for this additional zip isn't punitive either, the fuel consumption average being a creditable 50.7mpg. The range topping engine is well worth paying a premium for. It's an up-rated version of the 140bhp 2.0-litre TDI that produces a hefty 168bhp. Performance of 135mph and 0-60mph in 8.3 seconds mark it out as pretty nippy and economy of 47mpg will raise a few eyebrows.
The 140bhp 2.0-litre model's ace in the hole is the ability to specify it with the revolutionary DSG twin-clutch sequential manual gearbox. This is a piece of technology that the likes of BMW and Ferrari eye jealously. You'll have to pay a premium of around £800 for the privilege, but it's worth it if you mix up your driving between city streets and open roads and want a transmission that can shine in both situations.
The trim levels can be complicated to understand. The 1.9-litre engine is offered in Reference, Emocion, Ecomotive and Stylance guises, whereas the 140bhp 2.0-litre car comes in either Stylance or Sport with the option of the DSG twin-clutch gearbox. If you want the 168bhp 2.0 TDI model, then you'll have to shell out for the sporty FR trim. Prices start at £13,950 for the 1.9-litre Reference, with the 2.0-litre Stylance pitching in at £16,945 and the FR topping out at £17,945.
Its clear SEAT have put a lot of effort into improving the chassis dynamics and have benchmarked the best handling cars in the class. Given that the basic underpinnings are shared with the latest Volkswagen Golf, it's already off to a flier. Factor in an additional aluminium subframe for added rigidity and stiffer suspension and you've got a package that's significantly more able in the twisties than the old car with its rather rudimentary torsion beam rear suspension.
The Leon is a good deal bigger than its predecessor and this extra space is particularly noticeable in the rear. The old car was pretty tight in the back but the addition of 12cm to the latest models' length is felt particularly in the rear, where there's now knee room for six-footers. Although there's no armrest in the back and the bench is a little flat, you wouldn't feel hard done by undertaking a longer journey here. The rear tailgate opens wide to reveal a load bay that's a little awkwardly shaped for bulky items but is otherwise perfectly adequate for this class of car. Weight has gone up by a mere 8kg, helped in no small part by innovative panel stamping procedures and an acrylic rear side window that incorporates the door handle.
Both the front seat and the steering wheel are multi-adjustable and there's plenty of headroom up front even for taller drivers. The nose curves rapidly out of view and shorter drivers may want to specify parking sensors. The windscreen pillars are annoyingly chunky which means that you'll probably be doing a fair bit of see-sawing in your seat as you negotiate roundabouts. One can almost excuse this feature due to the fact that the windscreen wipers park vertically into the pillars - a rather neat trick that helps with the vital showroom wow factor. All-round visibility isn't a Leon strong point, the three-quarter view being hampered by thick pillars and the rearward view consisting of a number of headrests. The fascia is also rather disappointing for a car with such bold exterior styling.
As much as the Leon tries to impress, it's tough to come up with objective reasons to buy one of the base models over an Altea. I can understand those who wish to upgrade to the seriously sporty models, but the lesser TDI derivatives face a tougher task. That said, taken in isolation the Leon is an accomplished product.
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|For LEON TDI RANGE|
|OVERALL||7.5 OUT OF 10|
|Space / Versatility||8|
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