Think of the Seat Leon X-Perience as the Audi Allroad from Spain. The Volkswagen Group is busy sending most of its compact estates off to boot camp, where they specialise in fitting hiking boots and country clobber to Audi Allroads, VW Alltracks, Skoda Scouts and - now - Seat X-Perience models.
Few surprises are in store: there’s some extra plastic cladding around the bumpers and side sills to denote its soft-roader status, a ride height jacked-up by 28mm for a marginally more tip-toey stance and aluminium-look scuff plates front and rear. The latest, fifth-generation Haldex four-wheel drive system is standard on all UK Leon X-Perience models and the cabin is lifted by alcantara trim with orange seats and X-Perience branding smattered liberally.
Two models are available in the UK from December 2014 - a brace of 2.0-litre diesels, available in 148bhp trim with a six-speed manual transmission or 182bhp, available exclusively with a six-speed DSG twin-clutch automatic. Read on for our review of both diesel Seat Leon X-Perience models.
Another soft-roader… what’s this obsession with faux-by-fours?
The market can’t get enough of crossovers and Seat says the SUV set remains the biggest growing segment in Europe. Hence the scramble to launch its own 4x4 (see our Seat SUV news story here). The X-Perience is like an amuse-bouche to whet the appetites of the Seat faithful.
It’s not exactly cheap, mind. Priced from £24,385 in the UK, the X-Perience adds around £3k to the price of a regular or cooking Leon ST. Seat argues this is a range-topper to compete with the Cupra performance brand.
It’s projected to gobble up around 10% of all Leon estate sales in the UK, bought by those irritating on-trend lifestyle types you see popping up in advertising. Seems they’re real, mind: Seat’s target demographic is young family buyers, ABC1 with a penchant for - you guessed it - cycling and triathlons. While we used to be sceptical of such claims, we have to concede many of our mates do indeed fall into this active life type nowadays…
Seat Leon X-Perience: space, practicality
It looks neat enough, in an Audi A4 kinda way. And, no, we don’t mean the now-defunct Exeo Ingolstadt cast-off. The Leon X-Perience is thuddingly well built, with that neat VW Group uniformity that’s come to characterise the output of Wolfsburg’s myriad brands. Yes, the plastics used inside do still look and feel to be a notch lower than a Volkswagen’s - and maybe even a Skoda’s too - but there’s no arguing with the technology on offer inside. Clever-clogs multimedia systems, intelligent headlamps and radar-based safety systems are all available.
Climb into the cabin and you’re struck by the roominess on offer. This is a very practical family car, with a large, height-adjustable-floored boot, loads of rear leg- and headroom and spacious front seats. So far, so practical. We love the special touches, such as the levers in the boot to flop the rear seats flat and the integrated rear window blinds (a godsend for anyone with young children).
How does the Leon X-Perience drive?
You can’t knock the VW Group for its plurality of choice. The latest MQB architecture is an incredibly clever and flexible box of oily bits. That this one platform can morph from its heartland Golf into cavernous Octavia over there and a slinky TT roadster here is impressive. The Leon X-Perience merely extends its niche reach.
It should come as no surprise that much of the package therefore feels familiar. I drove to the Seat launch event in CAR’s Skoda Octavia vRS diesel estate long-term test car, equipped with an identical 182bhp 2.0-litre TDI engine and DSG gearbox. Do these bedfellows feel identical? No. But are they similar? Yes.
Performance is similarly keen, with 0-62mph claimed in 7.1sec and 139mph at the top end and the 4Drive traction quells wheelsman on slippery surfaces or when booting out of a junction (the Skoda leaves you spinning away furiously). The Haldex 4wd system is impressively fast-acting and will provide more than enough traction for most Brits. Running costs should be similar, too, with 57.6mpg combined economy and 129g/km of CO2 for a 21% benefit-in-kind tax bracket. Our spirited test drive in rural Spain yielded a somewhat less impressive 42mpg, mirroring our Octavia’s average thirst.
But don’t go thinking all these VW Empire products are total clones. Each brand is allowed freedom to tune their products for a unique feel and the Leon X-Perience is notably different from its sportier, stiffer-riding Octavia counterpart in some regards. The suspension is much better tuned, even running the top-spec’s chunky 225/45 R18 Goodyears, smothering away road bumps where our Skoda skips and crashes. It’s a delightfully plump, comfortable ride, yet the marginally taller ride height doesn’t destabilise the handling. It feels Golf-chuckable and the steering is well weighted and direct, even if ultimately not that feelsome.
What’s the Seat soft-roader not good at?
This is a typically polished VW Group product and launches Seat cleverly into a UK sector it’s been absent from since 2009/10’s Altea Freetrack (remember that?). But it’s not perfect, by any means. Leon X-Perience prices can spiral - the top 182bhp SE Technology is knocking on the door of £29,000! - but stick with the lesser-powered 148bhp manual and you’ll get reasonable performance (129mph top whack, 8.7sec 0-62mph) and £4485 extra in your back pocket. The range could expand in future to include smaller, and cheaper, 1.6 engines.
Seat interiors have improved hugely in recent years, but there’s still a nagging suspicion that the budget is just shy of group peers. And this strikes right at the heart of the Wolfsburg conundrum, whereby the pecking order (Bugatti bests Lamborghini and Bentley, beats Audi, Volkswagen, Skoda, Seat etcetera) dictates all. Does the man in the street give two hoots? Not at all, but we car nuts notice it all the same.
Dive into a LeGolTavia at the wrong level and you’ll rue the slightly amateurish sat-nav (the lower-spec Leon’s entry-level mapping ain’t so smart) and the woefully flimsy paddles on the X-Perience DSG’s steering wheel (like low-rent, particularly bendy After Eight mints). But to be honest, we’re splitting hairs in what remains a polished and tech-laden cabin. Of rather more concern is the stop-start’s annoying refusal to talk to the DSG transmission on auto-equipped models, which can leave you stranded at a roundabout while the diesel wakes from its slumber. This problem is less noticeable in cars with a clutch pedal.
Pontificating over brand hierarchy aside, the Seat Leon X-Perience is a fine car and is well worth a look if you want a cheaper alternative to an Audi A4 Allroad estate or similar. Away from the proliferation of VW Group soft-roaders, it is fighting against similarly Goretex-clad rivals from Renault (Scenic X-MOD), Vauxhall (Insignia Country Tourer) and Volvo (V40 Cross Country).
Rated in that context, we’d pick the slick Seat every time.