Mild aesthetic tweaks and new engines for Seat’s excellent Leon.
Seat talks about having three pillars upon which its future success will be built and these metaphorical supports are the year-old Ateca, the absolutely brand-spanking new fifth-generation Ibiza supermini, and this Leon, which is now receiving its midlife facelift a little later than expected, given it was launched in 2012.
But it’s the third-gen Leon that really kick-started Seat’s move from ‘youthful but sort of slightly underwhelming Iberian arm of the Volkswagen Group’ to a genuinely zesty, talented brand. The Leon Mk3 is a strikingly handsome, spacious, well-equipped and sharp-driving machine that can do the day-to-day mundanities well, too.
Therefore, not much has changed for the 2017 model year updates, but what has been done applies to the entire vast family of Leons – the SC three-door, the five-door hatch, the ST wagon, the X-Perience off-roading estate, and the Cupra performance models.
There’s new equipment on-board, including ambient lighting, an electronic handbrake, Front Assist automatic city braking with Pedestrian Protection and Hill Hold Control, plus a revised infotainment system with a different button arrangement down the side of the screen, while the 1.6-litre TDI diesel engine is uprated from 110- to 115hp. A 1.0-litre, three-cylinder TSI petrol engine with 110hp is also introduced for the first time in the UK.
The argument that Seat has made is that the stylists got the third-gen Leon just right first time around, so drastically re-writing its genetic code for a midlife facelift would have been counterintuitive, especially as it’s the company’s best-selling car on these shores.
However, although the changes externally are fairly minimal, they come together to give the Leon enough easy-to-spot freshness to mark it out as different from its predecessor. The main alterations revolve around LED head- and taillights, with LED technology in the indicators and fog lamps too.
The bonnet is wider and lower, which necessitates a bigger trapezoidal front grille and thus a refreshed bumper arrangement too. This all works well and better ties in the sharply detailed front of the car to its crease-toting flanks.
Inside, less has changed and this isn’t the greatest news. Higher-specification cars, like the SC 1.4 FR Technology tested here, just about carry off the rather drab dash design by featuring some nice touches like piano black trim, a big touchscreen infotainment system, more attractive climate control switchgear, and a better, thicker-rimmed design of steering wheel.
But head to the lower grades, like S and SE, and you get more blanking buttons on the console, no navigation (although you do get Full Link – incorporating Mirror Link, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility – so you can import your phone’s mapping if you want), primitive air conditioning dials and a thin-feeling steering wheel that all contribute to making the Leon’s cabin feel many steps in quality behind that of an Ateca, for instance. Overall, even in higher grades, the Leon has a good cabin, but certainly not a great one.
The predicted top-selling model in the UK is a five-door manual hatchback in FR Technology specification with the 1.4-litre EcoTSI petrol engine that delivers 150hp and which can also seamlessly shut off two of its cylinders under light throttle loads to save fuel.
We’ve driven it in three-door Sports Coupe (SC) guise with a seven-speed DSG automatic transmission fitted, this last item accounting for our test car’s reasonably high starting figure of £22,400, but you can get in a Leon five-door from as little as £17,455.
It is worth bearing in mind, though, that while the hatchback and ST models come in a six-strong range of specifications, the SC and the X-Perience get just two trims each, so there’s less choice for buyers of these particular Leons.
How does it drive?
What the third-gen Leon has always had is a chassis that offers a lovely blend of impressive ride comfort along with engaging steering, good body control, and an admirable resistance to understeer. As nothing mechanically has changed, the Seat remains as supremely competent in the driving enjoyment department as ever.
It does feel just a little bit crisper to command enthusiastically on a twisting road than its near-identically underpinned stablemates, the Volkswagen Golf, Skoda Octavia, and Audi A3, but the Seat sacrifices a tiny amount of suspension compliance and refinement as a compromise.
It’s not enough, though, to have you cursing every time the 17-inch wheels of the SC meet a surface imperfection on the road. In fact, for most of the time you’ll hardly even notice the ride or the elevated tyre chatter that the Seat possesses.
The Leon’s steering is by no means perfect, but there’s a good weight and directness about it on the sportier 1.4 FR model with its bigger tyres that further reinforces this as the variant to have, because drives in the 1.0-litre TSI and 115hp 1.6 TDI variants both revealed much lighter, less inspiring set-ups.
We’d therefore almost pick the 1.4 FR for that facet alone, except for the fact that – Cupra aside – this is the best, smoothest, and freest-revving engine in the range. It has precisely half the horsepower of the flagship, but, in a relatively light body, it’s more than enough punch to make the EcoTSI feel decently potent in most situations. A sub-eight-second 0-62mph time is more than enough evidence of that.
You can opt for the seven-speed DSG gearbox if you must, but to be honest, the six-speed manual fitted to other Leons is a perfectly pleasant unit and it’ll save you £1,350 in the process, without doing anything harmful at all to the performance and economy/emissions figures.
It also makes the 1.4 TSI feel more like a warm hatchback, because there’s more driver involvement in shifting gear yourself than there is clicking the flimsy plastic paddles on the steering wheel of the DSG model.
Should I buy one?
Definitely, yes. The SC is supposed to feel sportier to drive than a five-door hatch, but in truth any Leon has a decent amount of dynamic sparkle to it that makes this one of the leading lights in its segment, even though it is five years old now.
It doesn’t have the greatest interior finishing in the class, but it does have an excellent chassis, generally fine engines and really attractive looks. The 1.4-litre EcoTSI is also a superb compromise between efficiency and performance, negating any need to look at the less powerful – and less exciting – models further down the range.