Seat comes out fighting but its Leon lacks edge
Seat is planning to come out of the shadow of its German parent, ending a decade in which it dawdled among the lower-ranking brands on the Irish – and international – markets. The loss-making member of the VW Group is eager to cast off the view that it’s the weakest link in the Teutonic family.
For Irish customers, the first signal of a potential revival was the decision to overhaul the specification on its outgoing models and revise the price list to make its cars competitive. Then there was the go-ahead for new investment in its Irish dealer network, a mix of increased marketing and promotion along with dealer support. However, these are just the ancillaries; the crux of the plan involves a significant revamp of Seat’s model range.
Forgive us for being a little cynical, however. We’ve heard such promises before, including from the Spanish brand. Initial signs were not good either: a new logo that looks little different from the old; and the decision to scrap one of the best taglines in the motor industry – “auto emocion” – and replacing it with “enjoyneering”, a car crash of marketing speak.
Seat has an identity problem. It still likes to consider itself the sporty value proposition within the VW Group. If Skoda offers value for money, Volkswagen stands for mainstream premium and Audi for upmarket appeal, then Seat needs to play on this more youthful, sporty persona. Its customer base is the youngest within the group, according to its Spanish executives, so its models should be dynamic, or at least look more dynamic than the rest. Sadly the marketing rarely matches the motoring reality. In the past, it has unveiled some outstandingly good-looking concept cars while its Cupra performance variants sit well with the youthful, sporty spin. But auto emocion never existed in the world of the Altea and Alhambera. If there was any emotion involved, it was usually despair at a future motoring life filled with people carriers.
Things are about to change however. Seat is fighting back – or so they tell us. The first launches in its revised range were the Ibiza and Toledo, neither particularly exciting or sporty but both appealing to a core audience that wants good looks at an affordable price.
Car you’d like to own
Thankfully there is light at the end of the tunnel. Now comes the Leon, a car that has come to epitomise where Seat’s heart should lie.
The Leon has been the single bright light in its otherwise dull range this past decade; a Seat you would actually like to own. It boasts Golf-like engineering but better styling. The Leon has been the final line of defence against those who say the brand has lost the battle for relevance.
So does the new car deliver? At first glance, this Leon might look very similar to the outgoing model but it’s a completely new car. It’s based on VW’s new, mid-size platform, meaning that the underpinnings are completely new to the Leon range, and manages to be both lighter and stronger.
Interior space has been increased but the drop in weight – by an average of 90kg – combined with an improvement in aerodynamics means that emissions have dropped by an average of 15 per cent.
The new Leon’s interior is still not as sharp as the new Golf. The touchscreen system in the higher-specification versions is smart and relatively intuitive, but it’s neither better nor worse than what’s on offer from rivals, while there’s a certain sense of Saab about the plastics and air vents of the entry-level version that doesn’t make you think of a sporty hatchback. There’s nothing in here that suggests the Seat has an edge over rivals.
We tested three of the engines on offer: the 1.6-litre and 2-litre diesels; and the 1.2-litre petrol. Surprisingly the petrol engine was the star, even though we didn’t really get to test it over a long route. It seemed the most sprightly of the bunch and the one most eager to please.
On the other hand, the 1.6-litre diesel mated to a manual transmission didn’t seem to have the punch we were hoping for, while the gear ratios never seemed ideally suited to its performance. When the revs topped out in second gear, the step up to third gear seemed too great, meaning that the engine lost a lot of momentum. Meanwhile the dual-clutch (DSG) automatic transmission in the 2-litre never felt as quick to change as we have experienced in other DSG boxes in the VW Group range. The 2-litre diesel engine offered plenty of power, but the DSG didn’t seem to deliver its full potential to the road.
Overall, the 1.2-litre engine was the best combination of lively power and eager performance you would expect from a hatchback. Given that petrol engines make the most economical sense for motorists who do less than 15,000km a year, that should be good news for Seat buyers in Ireland.
Not on par with Golf
Dynamically, the car’s handling is well-weighted, but the ride can be a little rough in parts, particularly over badly undulating roads.
It’s not quite on a par with its cousin the VW Golf, which is a pity because that’s exactly the sort of comparison most buyers will make.
The sporty brand in the VW Group needs to be sharper than its German sibling if it wants to live up to its brand position.
The 1.2-litre petrol engine comes with a range of power outputs from 86bhp to 122bhp and all fall below 121g/km. The 1.6-litre diesel comes in either 90bhp or 105bhp with emissions of just 108g/km and a surprising 99g/km respectively.
That’s all good news even as we await this afternoon’s budget speech and the likely changes to motor tax.
Prices have yet to be confirmed for the new Leon, which arrives in showroom towards the end of February, but we expect them to start close to €18,900 for the 1.2-litre 86bhp model with entry specification. The 1.6-litre 90bhp diesel is likely to be close to €21,000 while the more powerful 105bhp will be closer to €22,000. That’s competitive with the mainstream models and all versions will come with air-con, Bluetooth and five-inch colour touchscreens as standard.
It’s also nearly €2,000 less than the equivalent starting price for a VW Golf. Yet there is the niggling feeling that the Golf may retain its value a little better over the long term.
Seat has a daunting challenge ahead to make the brand relevant to buyers. Value for money is the dominant theme in a recessionary market, but Seat needs to offer something more, a unique selling point that makes it stand out from the rest of the crowd.
It could learn a few lessons from Kia in this regard. The supposedly more youth-orientated brand from the Koreans, it has created a family of sharply styled vehicles that appeal to younger buyers.
For now the marriage of German engineering and Latin appeal seems a little disjointed, a bit like the brand’s new tagline.
1.2-litre petrol (86bhp or 105bhp); 1.6-litre diesel (90bhp or 105bhp); 2-litre diesel (150bhp or 184bhp).
Entry-level reference versions will come with: Bluetooth / 5in colour touch screen; air conditioning; 16in steel wheels. Style versions (€1,500 more) will feature: front fogs; rear electric windows; interior ambient lighting; XDS and hill hold; front centre armrest; leather steering wheel; cruise control; 16in alloy wheels.
FR versions will feature: full LEDs; rear park assist; rain-sensing wipers; rear tinted windows; Climatronic air-con; 17in alloys.
Starting at €18,900 for the 1.2-litre 86bhp model with entry specification. The 1.6-litre 90bhp diesel is likely to be €21,000, while the more powerful 105bhp will be €22,000.
New VW Golf 1.2-litre 5dr Trendline €20,945 (New VW Golf 1.6 TDi 105bhp 5dr €23,645); Ford Focus 1.0-litre EcoBoost €21,485; Kia Cee’d 1.4 TX diesel €20,995