Seat Leon sports Spanish flair

Andy RussellIt may not be the diesel Seat races, but the road Leon isn't dull to drive, says ANDY RUSSELL.It was one of the most exciting motor races I've seen - two Seat Leons robustly carving through rival touring cars and impossibly narrow gaps to the front of the field, using every inch of the track… and the grass verge.Andy Russell

It may not be the diesel Seat races, but the road Leon isn't dull to drive, says ANDY RUSSELL.

It was one of the most exciting motor races I've seen - two Seat Leons robustly carving through rival touring cars and impossibly narrow gaps to the front of the field, using every inch of the track… and the grass verge. But what really amazed me was those Leons were diesels and made their petrol competitors look decidedly slow.

It was great entertainment but it also brought home how important motorsport can be to boosting a car-maker's reputation, especially given that the Seat Sport team has just won the World Touring Car Championship manufacturer and driver titles again, repeating the double success of 2008. For these are cars that resemble the ones, if only in shape, you buy in the showroom.


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The Spanish car-maker's Leon has always stood out in the compact family hatchback market with its coupe-like styling and, sensibly, Seat has played it safe with the new-look exterior, choosing to give it a mild facelift to further emphasis its sporty nature.

The familiar Seat face gets a new grille and bumper and larger headlamps to make the front look sharper and wider. At the back, there is a new rear hatch designed to improve rear visibility along with a new bumper and tail lights.

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The Leon's appeal is helped by a wide range of engines with five petrol units ranging from 85PS 1.4 to extremely potent 240PS 2.0-litre turbo. Being part of the Volkswagen Group also means Seat has some good diesels at its disposal with 90 and 105PS 1.9 and 140 and 170PS 2.0-litre turbo diesels.

With more emphasis on green motoring and eeking as many miles as possible out of every gallon I opted for the Ecomotive version of the more powerful 1.9 diesel - even though it seems rather at odds with the Leon's sporty image.

Tweaking the engine control unit, longer third, fourth and fifth gears to cut revs, low rolling resistance tyres and a indicator on the dashboard to show the best time to change up have boosted combined fuel consumption by more than 10pc to 62.8mpg, cut emissions from 135 to 119g/km - dropping the annual road fund to just �35 - and, if you have one as a company car, you pay tax on 13pc of its list price rather than 18pc, but it costs �350 more than the standard 105PS diesel.

It pulls smoothly and strongly and makes good progress but this 1.9-litre engine has seen plenty of service in various guises and is showing its age with noticeable diesel clatter when cold. Even though I fell short of the claimed figures I couldn't complain at a best of 60mpg and 55mpg overall. Early next year the Leon Ecomotive will get the new 1.6-litre common rail diesel engine with automatic stop-start to cut the engine in stationary traffic which will drop emissions to 99g/km so you won't pay any annual road fund.

The Leon's sporty character comes to the fore in the way it drives. Being based on the VW Golf platform is a fine starting point but, compared to the previous Leon, the suspension has been tweaked to improve road comfort but not at the expense of its acclaimed handling. The ride is still firm, but not uncomfortably so, but the upside is taut, agile roadholding and good body control on twisty roads helped by well-weighted steering.

Inside it will seat four big adults with plenty of leg and headroom in the back despite the sloping roof and the deep, spacious 341-litre boot is very practical but has a high sill. Rear seat backs split 60/40 and fold flat but there is a step up from the boot floor.

A lot of attention has been paid to raising the perceived quality of the interior with a new multi-function steering wheel, sporty instrument cluster with a central rev counter and controls that are logical to find your way around. It's not as classy as a VW Golf inside but it's well finished - most materials are good quality but the metallic-effect trim on the fascia looked tacky. Front sports seat give good side support.

Comprehensive safety kit sees anti-lock brakes, stability control and front, side and curtain airbags across the range. Equipment-wise SE is attractive including dual-zone climate control, cruise control, radio/CD with MP3 point, electric windows and folding door mirrors, trip computer, alloy wheels, tyre pressure monitoring and front fog lights with cornering function.

There's a lot to like about the Leon - it's practical, good to drive, well built and, best of all, it's got flair.

PRICE: �16,240

ENGINE: 1,896cc, 105PS, four-cylinder turbo diesel

PERFORMANCE: 0-62mph 10.9 seconds; top speed 116mph

MPG: Urban 49.6; extra urban 72.4; combined 62.8

EMISSIONS: 119g/km

BENEFIT-IN-KIND TAX RATE: 13pc

INSURANCE GROUP: 6E

WARRANTY: Three years/60,000 miles

WILL IT FIT IN THE GARAGE: Length 4,315mm; width (excluding door mirrors) 1,768mm; height 1,458mm

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