SEAT – Spain’s only major car manufacturer but part of the very large Volkswagen Group – has long described the medium-sized Leon as one of its “brand pillars”, along with the smaller Ibiza and the more recent Ateca SUV.
For 2017, the Leon has been thoroughly revised in order to keep up with rapid changes in the motor industry. Ahead of its launch in the UK, here is an explanation of the new car presented in ten bite-sized chunks.
1. It has a hard act to follow
More than 1.8 million examples of the Leon have been sold worldwide since the first appeared in 1998. All have been mechanically similar to contemporary versions of the Volkswagen Golf and other VW Group products, the third being based on the widely acclaimed MQB platform, though they have had their own distinct styling.
The MQB car has been particularly popular. 165,000 units were registered in 2016, the highest figure in Leon history. As with other SEATs, it sells especially well in Germany, where much of its technology was developed, even though the Germans might be expected to prefer their “own” Golf.
2. Minor styling changes
The outgoing model was styled by a team led by SEAT Design Director Alejandro Mesonero-Romanos. The new one doesn’t look much different. According to Mesonero-Romanos, this is because the Leon “is a very attractive model and it isn’t necessary to change its image, only reinforce it, refresh it.”
It would also be true to say that there wasn’t much scope for a radical redesign, since the new Leon is based on the same bodyshell as the last one.
However, Mesonero-Romanos and his colleagues have still been able to bring in several styling revisions. “The objective is to harmonise all parts of it, in particular the front and the rear, with the sides of the car.”
3. New safety technology
The new Leon is fitted with a range of driver assistance systems first seen on the Ateca. According to SEAT’s Vice-President for Research and Development Matthias Rabe, “You might even say that we’ve tucked the Ateca inside the Leon.”
The systems include Traffic Jam Assist, which allows the car to accelerate, brake and steer at low speeds. The Pedestrian Protection facility means that the Leon can spot small objects like people, as well as other vehicles, and avoid hitting them if at all possible.
Other features new to the Leon are Traffic Sign Recognition, Blind Spot Detection, Emergency Assist, High Beam Assist and parking assistance, the last of which helps you to position the car correctly both at the roadside and in a parking bay.
4. Three body styles
SEAT is continuing to offer three body styles for the Leon. Central to the range is the five-door hatchback, but there’s also a three-door known as SC, which stands for Sports Coupe.
The third and most practical style is an estate, but SEAT doesn’t use that term. Instead, it uses the ST badge, standing for Sports Tourer, for this shape.
As before, there is a version of the ST called the X-PERIENCE, which has a greater ride height, extra body protection, a two-litre diesel engine and four-wheel drive to make it more suitable for off-road driving.
5. Wide range of engines
In the “normal” Leon range (we’ll get to the exception shortly) several petrol and diesel engines are available with power outputs between 109bhp and 181bhp.
New to the UK is a one-litre, three-cylinder petrol turbo producing 114bhp. Previous experience of SEAT engines like this suggests it’s going to be very good, but you’ll get better fuel economy from the 1.6 TDI diesel with the same power output. The 181bhp engine is another diesel, larger than the high-economy one at two litres.
There’s also an impressive choice of gearboxes, including five- and six-speed manuals and six and seven-speed versions of the DSG twin-clutch semi-automatic.
6. The new Cupra
High-performance Cupra models have been part of the Leon range almost since it first appeared. The latest is the most powerful SEAT production car yet, with a maximum output of 297bhp, or 300PS, from its two-litre turbo petrol engine.
This engine is available in all the body styles. Unusually, the Cupra ST estate may prove to be the sportiest of the lot, as well as being the most practical. Unlike the hatchbacks, it comes as standard with four-wheel drive and the DSG gearbox, both of which will save time during hardcore standing-start acceleration.
7. A new trim level
Outwith the Cupra range, the Leon is available in five trim levels called S, SE Dynamic, SE Technology, FR and XCELLENCE.
The last of these is new, and has been created to give the Leon a “distinctive upmarket feel”. This is provided largely by alcantara upholstery, though leather is also offered as an optional extra. Other interior features include an aluminium kick plate, multicolour LED interior lighting and keyless entry and start.
If you’re very observant you’ll be able to spot an XCELLENCE model from the outside even without looking for a badge. They have their own chrome front grille, unique front and rear bumpers and LED rear indicators.
8. More connectivity
This is the first Leon to be offered with wireless smartphone charging, which you can take advantage of by placing your phone on the centre console.
According to SEAT, “virtually all smartphones” can be connected to the car using the Full Link system, which includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality.
The cheapest new Leon of all is the 1.2 TSI petrol manual five-door hatchback in SE Technology trim, which costs £17,295. The SC (available only with more expensive engines) is priced from £19,180, while the ST starts at £18,290, or £28,050 in X-PERIENCE form.
The most expensive variant, not surprisingly, is the Cupra. In its most basic form, without optional extras, it costs £29,840, or £95 less than the most expensive and less powerful Golf GTI.
10. Why "Leon"?
With the single exception of the Mii city car, all modern SEATs are named after places in Spain – a palace (Alhambra), a city (Toledo), an island (Ibiza) or a village (Ateca).
Similarly, the Leon is named after both a province in north-west Spain and its capital and largest city, founded as a military encampment by the Imperial Roman Army’s Legio sexta victrix, or “victorious sixth legion”, in the first century BC. Leon is also the Spanish word for “lion”.
In its home country, the name is written León, with an accent over the “o”, but SEAT UK does not use this.