Terrain in Spain

Having been asked to take Seat’s dramatic new cub through its paces, here are some notes that I felt should be shared.

Hard as it may be to test a car without preconceived ideas, I felt little guilt associating this car with the rest of the vehicles in the VW stable sharing the Golf platform. It is, after all, the Seat offering for the C-segment, and like the rest of the C-segment, it has grown out of the cheerful slim-fit jeans-and-t-shirt into a more beefy guise.

he front of the Leon is where one can immediately tell that this car has grown. The pointy nose gives way to a long curvaceous bonnet, interrupted briefly by the neat grille introduced on the Altea and headlights that shamelessly follow the clear-lens, integrated cluster formula that became mainstream in the late nineties thanks to its ageing cousin. A gash in the side of the car claws all the way from the tip of the headlights, up through the doors and tears back down to the rear wheel-arch. This joins forces with a high rear-end to provide the car with an aggressive stance, sitting on its haunches just waiting to pounce. Seat have been touted as the Alfa Romeo of the VW group in terms of design and the concealed rear door handles are an acknowledging nod in the direction of these allegations. The rear-sloping roofline completes the coupé look that Walter de’Silva had in mind when working to fulfil a ‘sporty elegance’ brief.

Cosseted within the cocoon-like cockpit I was impressed by the build-quality of the interior. While not as revolutionary as the Citroen C4, it is a move away from the rest of what this segment has to offer. Most other cars in this class seem to have resorted to bland interiors when addressing a market that reads all about concept cars but goes out to buy a Ford Focus, so the sporty interior of the Leon is a welcome change. The leather steering wheel is easily manoeuvrable to enable a comfortable driving position without obscuring the red and white illuminated instrument panel. A multitude of buttons, switches and mystifying controls are scattered all over the steering wheel, wiper and indicator stalks, and overflowing onto the centre console. The function of most of these is self-evident and their location convenient, however there were a couple that will force an embarrassing delve into the user manual. The only serious gripe with the interior is the broad, sloping A-pillars that have the driver craning all the way forwards when trying to negotiate an intersection.

Starting up the entry-level 1.9 TDI raises some objections from deep within the massive snout but the chatter resolves after a few minutes of driving. This diesel has been tweaked into compliance with the Euro IV emissions standards. Quite a feat then, when a pleasant amount of torque is delivered from an engine that emits less pollutants than our receptionist who lights up the occasional silk-cut. While not particularly nippy, thanks in the most part to the scales tipping in at up to 1400 Kg for this model, the torquey engine provides enough acceleration for most day-to-day situations. The 140 BHP 2.0 TDI boasts a huge 320Nm of torque and is probably a better match to the sportive demeanour of the Leon. The engine line-up also comprises three petrol engines, the entry level 1.6 Litre and two 2.0 Litre FSI engines, the range-topper boasting a turbocharger that pushes power up to 185 BHP. Still, one cannot help but anticipate the forthcoming Cupra for a reputed 240 BHP of carnivorous muscle.

The tight chassis and suspension setup are the real treat that this vehicle has to offer. Starting off from the superb Golf underpinnings, the Spanish setup manages a stiffer and more sporty ride, with less body-roll and more enthusiasm for bends, while being tuned for Spanish rather than German tarmac. This terrain-tweak is possibly what accounts for the way in which this car masters Maltese roads, suspensions making up for erratic camber while the huge amount of rubber and air in the 205/55/16” tyres soaking up the bulk of tarmac terrors.

ESP, TCS, ABS and EBA provide sufficient acronym assistance to keep the Leon on track under most circumstances. The little TCS (traction control system) indicator inside the instrument cluster protests occasionally by flickering at the indulgent driver but that is all the intrusion you can expect to notice. Switching off TCS, on the other hand, can provide more fun by a torque-steering front end and a tail that is keener to slide outwards when provoked. Don't try this at home unless an adult can supervise your experiments.

The excellence of the suspension could have been complemented by even more sound-proofing to deaden noise within the car. Somehow wind and road-noise, while not unpleasant, sounded louder than other cars in this class. This is made up for by the in-dash CD-player that played Saint Germain reasonably well through six speakers that are carefully blended into the interior. This can be upgraded to an all-singing, all-dancing, MP3 playing 8-speaker setup, a recommended upgrade since the dash won’t permit straightforward aftermarket modification and neither will the style-police.

The Leon proves a worthy C-segment contender, with a class-leading suspension and interior, an engine line-up worth exploring and a dramatic and exciting design. As tested, the Leon stands for the area in Spain it is eponymous for, vast and steeped in heritage. It will need the power afforded by the larger engines to truly dominate the plains and eat its competition, growing into the adult Leon that this cub is only too eager to aspire to.

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