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Seat Leon 1.4 TSI (2015) long-term test review

Published: 27 January 2015

► It's the end of our Seat Leon 1.4 TSI test
► We look back at the highs and lows
► It's a great Golf alternative, not as cheap as used to be 

Month 7 running a Seat Leon FR 1.4 TSI: the farewell verdict by CAR magazine

The intrinsic vexation associated with any interruption to a languid post-work pint aside, easily the most aggravating thing about the regular, pub-based, ‘What should I buy next?’ inquisitions that are the only downside to this employ is that Nobody Ever Takes Your Advice. This, I have learnt to my thirst, is because the people who pose this question have, in fact, already made a decision. All they require of you is vindication – via the medium of lengthy chat – that an unpleasantly-swollen-in-both-cost-and-couture Countryman or a de-badged 3-series with 175,000 on the clock and an exhaust the size of a McDonald’s straw is just the ticket.

Indeed, failure to concur changes absolutely nothing except a reduction of rollercoaster first-plunge magnitude in the chances of being offered a refill. Imagine my surprise, then, when the Old Folk’s Boogie department of the ff-C family tree actually took my advice and bought a Seat Leon. Imagine my even greater surprise to receive a subsequent call in which they waxed positively lyrical about the ownership experience to date. Then again, after six months of entirely engaging, straightforward, sit down, shut up and drive, I’m about to follow suit.

For starters, Alejandro Mesonero-Romanos has finally managed to style Seat into a position of respectability within the Volkswagen Group; my only caveat associated with the resultant, long-overdue growth of brand stature being a commensurate hike in prices. Which we’ll come to.

And it’s good to settle into the Leon’s entirely comfortable driving position free of the perception that the switchgear and instrumentation merely constitute Oxfam-bound cast-offs from last year’s Golf wardrobe, even if that might actually be the case.

If anything, I find the Leon dashboard layout both visually and ergonomically more appealing than VW’s somewhat Teutonic offering. The instrument binnacle is a paragon of clarity, the multi-information and centre console screens sit well together and, in favouring the rolling cylinder over the rocker switch in key areas, the steering-wheel-mounted switchgear is actually easier and more intuitive to operate than that of the latest-generation Golf.

Glitches? The hazard warning light switch has developed a tendency to stick in the ‘on’ position, and the missus says that the air-conditioning keeps defaulting to 22 degrees when no-one’s looking. Then again, she also says that if I overhaul the garden pond I might get lucky, even if it isn’t my birthday. And I don’t believe that either.

Standard equipment levels are acceptably high to boot, though I cannot now remember why I specified the car in FR rather than SE trim level. Some tantalising extra toy or other must have been worth the ask, because the down side is a tougher ride quality gently pushing the envelope of acceptability in a family hatch.

Then again, I have found that both the hooligans and the evil-smelling dog are far less prone to long-haul puking on stiffer undercarriage, and I enjoy the extra poise it gives the car when extending that cracker of a 1.4-litre turbo petrol engine; this really is an entirely entertaining machine to drive.

In all, then, my only reservation of any consequence concerning the thoroughly engaging Leon FR 1.4 TSI is the price. Even the most judicious rummaging of the options bin sent the price of this specimen over the £21,000 mark and, as discussed six months ago, that brings the cost to within a couple of grand of a comparable Golf.

I suppose we must just get used to the fact that a newly self-confident Seat can no longer be had for five grand less than an habitually self-satisfied Golf.

By Anthony ffrench-Constant 


Month 6 running a Seat Leon: Anthony’s mum tries it out for size

Octogenarian bones tend to take on the consistency of parchment, so, when my Ben P-sized dad recently measured his length in the hallway, his femur simply disintegrated. Superb surgery and a disgusting NHS ward later, I suggested he trade in his 160,000-mile Civic (which, from every angle, looks to have been assaulted with baseball bats) for something boasting a taller hip point and, hence, easier ingress. A long shortlist of small SUVs was rejected on the basis that they were all too big, some measuring at least 13mm longer than the battered Honda. ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘try my Seat…’

CAR magazine's Seat Leon in its natural habitat: the open road

Now, having once experienced the smeared, yellow blur that constitutes eyesight when clad in the Old Person Suit Ford contrived to hone first Focus ergonomics, I must confess to abject alarm and whimpering as my equally aged Ma smeared through the 90mph mark in the FR. ‘Well, I must have one of these,’ she said as I fired the drogue ’chute and released my marker buoy.

She’s right; it is a ripping drive. Only problem is, the model hasn’t been around for long enough to land any on the used market. To which a long-suffering Seat dealer in Portsmouth will readily attest.

By Anthony ffrench-Constant


Month 5 running a Seat Leon: not enjoying the eco-tips served up by the car

Bit of a nanny, the Leon, it transpires. Beneath an exterior at which one of the missus’s MILF chums incessantly gushes ‘the most beautiful blue I’ve ever seen on a car’ beats a heart of pure Hattie Jacques’s matron. Constantly interrupting the chosen instrument binnacle readout (I favour a digital speedometer) to deliver far more important information, the Seat keeps offering us ‘ECO TIPs’. And this – especially since an ECO TIP sounds encouragingly akin to the herbal cigarette with jazz pretensions that proved such a marketing flop in the ’70s, but actually isn’t – is becoming irksome.

‘Close windows to reduce aero drag… Don’t change down above 1300rpm… Into 5th now; come on, come on… Why must you keep disabling the start/stop system…? And you’re wearing that shirt this evening, are you…?’ It would be interesting to learn how much fuel could actually be saved by kowtowing to this relentless badgering. But, in the case of the ff-C FR, we’ll never know.

And that’s because, having already done their job by knocking a couple of grams off the CO2 figure to secure a kinder VED band, start/stop systems are merely a shuddering re-start annoyance which we habitually disconnect. And, moreover, every journey has to take place at maximum velocity anyway.

And that’s because, firstly, this 1.4-litre turbo is such a sweet unit that it seems positively churlish not to thrash it at all times. And, secondly, the sooner we get there the sooner I can give my brain a break from ratshit Radio 1. That’s the only on-board issue about which the dog and I are in total accord.

By Anthony ffrench-Constant 


Month 4 running a Seat Leon: dog transport skills

Evil smell, drool and enough shed hair to stuff a mattress aside, one of the major down-sides of transporting a large, slobbering dog anywhere in a small car is the requirement to first remove the parcel shelf from the canine kennelling  department. Ours being a particularly large dog, this procedure must be followed for at least 50% of the cars I drive.

Snag is, the shelf goes in the shed and is promptly forgotten. And I’m gently embarrassed to admit that I have now garnered such an expansive collection of same that my great grandchildren may one day thrill to be told how little it’s worth by a bow-tie ‘n’ blazered expert on that greed-gets-it-in-the-gonads hilarity, the Antiques Roadshow.

Incidentally, whilst we’re on the subject, proof, if ever it were needed, that a dog is indeed a man’s best friend is readily available via this simple experiment: simply shut both the dog and the missus in the car boot for a couple of hours. Upon release, which one will be more pleased to see you? I do urge you to try this at home. I know I have…

By Anthony ffrench-Constant  


Month 3 running a Seat Leon: inside the cabin

Not only has the new Leon’s exterior design now come of age, but the interior is also far more appealing in its new-found homogeny. Still clearly cantering from the VAG stable albeit, it no longer feels like a hand-me-down from previous generations of Golf.

The seat’s entirely comfortable, the driving position first class, and the instrumentation a paragon of clarity and efficiency. Largely. Because – though the family still thrills at details such as a centre screen that, with a positively Jeevesian on-board-butler prescience, is movement-sensitive to the approaching digit – we have unearthed a few glitches…

The first concerns the driver’s door hinge which, irritatingly, boasts only one intermediate stop position; that one which makes it impossible for the hastily constructed to shoehorn themselves in or out without liberal applications of mud both to door card from right foot and to buttocks from B-pillar. From there, the door flails, unhindered, straight to feeding-whale-shark status. And that matters more in a town sporting car parks which all slope like Jimmy Carr’s shoulders.

CAR magazine's Seat Leon cabin (2014)

The second is an ignition barrel installation angle so ill-considered that to insert the key and fire the engine in one movement requires a suppleness of wrist reserved for relentlessly solo practitioners of the priapic arts. Thirdly, on start-up in the rain, a harrumph-inducing wiring loom Horlicks spurns the re-awakening of wipers previously abandoned in ‘auto’. Bizarrely, the column stalk must be biffed out of ‘auto’ and back again to stir the blades…

Such details are unlikely to drive us dotty. One thing that already does, however, is a reversing light boasting all the candle-power of, um, a candle. In an age of headlamps powerful enough to send stunned wildlife tumbling from the trees, it’s lunacy to have to left-foot brake down a dark lane in the hope that the additional rosy glow might free my reversing from its large-scale-demonstration-of-Brownian-motion shackles.

By Anthony ffrench-Constant  


Month 2 running a Seat Leon: pondering Spanish design

It’s no surprise that Walter de Silva struggled to hatch a cogent corporate identity for Seat whist heading up its design department. For, whilst a troll through the Alfa Romeo archives afforded him the delicious Villa d’Este grille, and similar rummaging at Audi unearthed the gaping maws of Auto Union monsters, all the Seat pedigree had to offer were re-badged CKD imports.

Some might argue that this position hasn’t changed all that much during the company’s life under VW stewardship; Seat consistently afflicting its masters with a marginally kinder positioning conundrum than that with which ‘The English Patient’ so perplexed BMW.

However, under design director Alejandro Mesonero-Romanos, it strikes me that the brand finally seems comfortable in its own skin. And, with the caveat that it’s now clearly acceptable for bodywork folds to ape West Country railway lines in having no final destination, I very much warm to the Leon’s crisp, edgy styling.

A more aggressive front, mirrors you could open an envelope with and, sporting an overhang that would pass muster on the Eiger, the rear three-quarter panel all merit praise. De Silva must appreciate the historical irony of a Spaniard once again having more luck than a Walter with a New World.

By Anthony ffrench-Constant


Month 1 running a Seat Leon: welcoming CAR's new Spanish Golf

Given that the majority of my creaking abode was built over 300 years ago, that all of my ailing British stereo equipment is at least third-hand, and that the missus had almost certainly been run under the duvet on at least a couple of occasions before we met, this Seat Leon FR 1.4 TSI may very well be the first thing of any real fiscal import to arrive in my life free of a ‘Previously Owned’ tag.

With the 69 miles on the clock as it sploshed into view constituting merely the delivery distance between Milton Keynes and Mudfordshire, the Leon is so fresh out of the box I was momentarily taken aback to discover it didn’t actually flounce in under the bow of a giant ribbon like the E-type of marvellous noir-ish comedy Harold and Maud fame, which Harold’s mum bought him in a vainglorious attempt to dissuade him from endlessly faking his own suicide.

And the best thing about a spanking new car? No, not the smell, this isn’t a Bentley… It’s the fact that you get to choose the colour; a chore of which I have never before had the pleasure. So I was pathetically excited to plump for a hue which exactly matches the flint in my missus’s glare.

Only it doesn’t. £695 worth of ‘Alor Blue’ custom paint turns out, in the metal, to be a somewhat shoutier offering than that suggested by Seat’s online configurator. Don’t get me wrong, it is a great colour, but the closest iris match I can conjure calls to mind the spice-addicted inhabitants of the planet Arrakis. Whereas the missus, I gather, is from Venus.

Specifying the rest of the machine has proved pleasingly diverting to boot, albeit something of a struggle in the context of keeping the price tag below the self-imposed 20 grand limit that felt a more than adequate purse pursuant to a five-door family hatchback.

Anthony ffrench-Constant and CAR magazine's Seat Leon hatchback (2014)

Bored of bogging about at the oily end of the garage forecourt, it’s a pleasure to return to pastures unleaded in the form of a turbocharged 1.4-litre petrol engine generating 138bhp and 184lb ft of torque. It’s a shame that the VAG group binned the somewhat wonderful super- and turbocharged version of same on a cost basis, and a further shame that the ACT variant of this unit – which boasts the automated and undetectable temporary shut-off of two cylinders in the cruise – is not yet available.

No matter; mated to a crisp manual six-speed gearbox that evinces none of the notchiness of the new, this quiet, smooth and pleasingly spunky little unit instantly feels a perfect match for the car, smearing smartly off the line, to 60mph in a respectable 8.2 seconds, and on to over 130mph, whilst returning a quoted 54.3mpg and coughing up CO2 to the tune of only 119g/km.

Thing is, add the FR 1.4 TSI’s £19,565 price tag to the cost of that paint, and I’m already over my budget, so other goodies have been kept to a minimum.

The £1075 Technology Pack, which includes LED headlights, DAB radio and sat-nav is, mercifully, a free special offer; a £350 Winter Pack heats front seats and washer nozzles, and jet washes the headlights; a £150 Convenience Pack boasts sensor-sponsored wipers and lights, and an auto-dimming function; oh, and the nippers get £295-worth of rear side airbags.

That’s just £1490 on top of the base price, which, I feel, demonstrates admirable restraint. This equates to a total wallet-lightening of some £21,055 – over two grand less (a cursory VW website rummage reveals) than a vaguely comparable Golf.

By Anthony ffrench-Constant

By CAR's road test team

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