New entry-level version of the facelifted family hatch has much to commend it
There seems little doubt that the Seat annals will mark 2016 as the year of the Ateca, the thorough, appealing and well-rounded compact crossover that (if there’s any justice) ought to significantly fatten the slender profit reported by the Spanish brand recently. Nevertheless, an update to its family-sized Leon should not be understated; the Ateca maybe the tree branch with all the blossom on it, but it is only there by the grace of the hatchback trunk.
That is possibly truer in this year than any before it because the current Leon has been such a conspicuous hit. There are several good reasons for this, although primary among them is the model’s cleverly creased appearance. Seat has acknowledged this by being even less proactive with the styling makeover than normal. The Leon’s grille is a little larger, the bumpers are slyly altered and the lights changed – but that’s about it.
Things get no more dramatic underneath. The platform and chassis are essentially unchanged and there are only minor alterations to the engine line-up. Chief among them is the timely introduction of the Volkswagen Group’s petrol l.0-litre triple in its 113bhp guise. The updated 1.6 TDI diesel, with slightly more power, is also ushered in.
There are now five trim levels: S, SE Dynamic, SE Technology, FR and a new range-topping XCellence. The launch of a specifically upmarket option is indicative of the Leon’s broad success – as is the likely popularity of the pricier 1.4 EcoTSI petrol engine. The model also absorbs the raft of driver assistance tech that made its debut on the Ateca, including Traffic Jam Assist, Pedestrian Protection, Traffic Sign Recognition, Blind Spot Detection and an uprated park assist system.
The interior’s transformation is no less subtle than elsewhere. Most notable is the latest generation of infotainment tech, available with 5.0in or 8.0in touchscreen displays, depending on trim choice. Tested in its larger format, which is standard from SE Dynamic and above, the system replaces its unsightly physical buttons with a ‘home’ function one that brings up an on-screen menu. This is much tidier, although it loses its dial controller, too, which makes zooming in and out of the sat-nav map a little more tedious.
The centre console has also been reordered. Its forward cubbyhole has been enlarged and incorporates a Connectivity Box that can enable wireless charging of a mobile phone. There’s a new start/stop button, too, and better-organised storage around the electric handbrake switch. Aesthetically, Seat has introduced some more trim surrounds in the dashboard to lift its slightly dour, downmarket look. Minor alterations all – and plainly not meant to propel the Leon’s perceived quality beyond the point where a new mid-range VW Golf will start, but astute enough to mildly enhance the car in the eyes of a repeat customer.
To drive, with either new engine aboard, the Leon remains a first-rate modern hatchback: business-like, polished, meticulously comfortable and hugely undemanding, yet precise and prompt enough not to be thought boring. Like the Ateca, it’s possible to have your Leon with adaptive dampers now, but the cars we drove on smaller wheels and passive suspension hardly needed any help burnishing the Spanish road surface.
The 1.6 TDI remains so familiar as to defy any palpable difference in its gravelly, generally quite giving attitude. A gentle rise in horsepower hardly eradicates the need to work the four-cylinder unit quite hard, but previous experience confirms its advantages if left to plough a furrow up and down a motorway.
The 1.0-litre turbocharged petrol motor is more interesting – in part for its throaty twang, but also by being obviously punchier. Mated to a six-speed manual gearbox, it feels long in the gears, yet its keen performance ought to satisfy most buyers and it is almost silent at 70mph.
The triple’s main limitation, in fact, proves not of its own making. Rather, it’s because you can’t have it in a trim level any higher than SE Technology, which means it’ll stand a good chance of being overlooked by UK buyers preoccupied with the bigger wheels and better spec list of the FR models. That’s a shame, because with 148lb ft of torque, 64.2mpg combined and 102g/km CO2 emissions, the three-pot unit is quicker and more efficient than the 1.2 TSI that currently sits above it in the new range pecking order.
Seat certainly expects most UK customers to ignore its smallest engines and opt for either the unchanged 148bhp 1.4 EcoTSI or the 1.6 TDI. Both are fine choices, although this facelift isn’t progressive enough to make a trade-in pressing business. On the other hand, as a sub-£20k cheap-to-run, nice-to-drive family hatch, the new five-door 1.0 TSI is probably one of the industry’s most rounded solutions. And certainly its best looker.
New petrol engine reinforces the idea that the facelifted Seat Leon is the affordable family hatch to buy
Seat Leon 1.0 TSI SE Technology
Engine: 3cyls, 999cc, turbo, petrol
Power: 113bhp at 5000-5500rpm
Torque: 148lb ft at 2000-3500rpm
Gearbox: 6-spd manual
Kerb weight: 1236kg
Top speed: 126mph
Economy: 64.2mpg (combined)
CO2/tax band: 102g/km, 17%
Rivals: Ford Focus 1.0T 125 Zetec, Vauxhall Astra 1.0T 105 SRi