Miserable Review: 2014 Seat Leon 1.6 Diesel.

This is the first time I’ve ever embarked upon a car review while I’ve been in an absolutely foul mood. Usually you’re plied with goodies and refreshments and then handed the keys by a beaming member of a manufacturer press relations team. They then send you out on either a well chosen set of lightly trafficked roads, a private circuit or maybe a proving ground, and usually you’ve allocatedyourself enough time to build some kind of meaningful relationship with the review subject.
This review, however, started out with me being two and a half hours away from an appointment, in a city separated from me by 120 miles of near-stationary traffic.
So it all starts rather badly, and that’s not just the writing.

“Hi there, I’d like to hire a car please”
“Certainly sir, what size or car type do you wish to reserve?”
“Er, dunno, really. Hadn’t thought about it. Anything. AN car. Maybe Focus or Astra sized”
I requested the latter in light of previous experience on smaller loan cars where my greedily proportioned frame saw much of its below-hip extremity absorbing not only all the available space beneath the dashboard but beginning to risk firewall penetration. No way would I risk that kind of pain again for any length of journey, especially since somebody else was footing the bill.
When I reached the rental depot at five minutes to closing time there sat an Emocion Red SEAT Leon SE, though I only worked out that last detail after playing on the SEAT online car-configurator. Paperwork complete (at business rates this car has worked out at £16 a day to hire…) I jumped in and headed home via my Grandmothers for what proved to be a fruitless evening of Audi tinkering, more of which anon. But on the dark, familiar roads to my place I was able to accelerate my learning process.
As you near my house there is a section of road which I’m familiar with on an almost molecular level. It has a smooth downhill left hander of tightening radius and slightly negative camber, and then an abrupt right hand kink which causes balance to rapidly shift from one side to the other. This road is firmly on my test route as well as my for-the-hell-of-it route. Of course, in a new-to-me car I’ll attack the route with enthusiasm rather than outright vigour, maybe dialled down slightly further than that for the air temperature being just 5 degrees above freezing.
The (at that time mysterious to me) engine was running at just the right revs in third to accommodate my little playtime, I took the entry right hander wide to set things up via the apex, turned in gently and let the car find its line, the steering was obedient and well weighted, bit more power, yes, this is nice. Encouraged, but aware that understeer forces were building, I sharply lifted off just for a moment to readjust the line and get a bit more lock on ready for the tightening of the curve, then as soon as I brushed the loud pedal, oops!
The back wheels lost traction first and the tail swung into the turn, then the front end broke free and countered what was going on behind me. I responded quicker than I expected I would, gathered things up and drove out of the crisis at reduced pace, a little confused by what had happened. It felt like black ice, but that road drains well and it had been a warm day. Intrigued, a few hundred yards later on a nice, benign corner with loads of safe run-off I provoked it again just a little bit. This time only the back wheels went loose, easily resolved by the application of power. But why did the car release grip so easily? Perhaps it’s the tyres? Maybe they were some bizarre cheapo brand and the compound was too hard? I made a mental note to examine them when I got home. Alas, once there I was invited to bed immediately so absolutely any car-related thoughts quite rightly went on the back burner.
Next morning I gave myself plenty of time not just to reach my intended  destination, but also to drop a package at work, a ten mile detour which unfortunately took me away from my nice, friendly intended route and into a hellish blacktop nightmare. Seemingly any atmospheric phenomenon, any celestial occurrence gave drivers an excuse to bunch up and cause tailbacks. Dozens of times I came to a standstill, eventually gathering pace again and finding absolutely no justification for the hold-up itself. This was not doing my blood pressure any favours and meant I kept finding negatives to crow about in the poor little SEAT.
I was finding the power delivery annoying. It’s a turbodiesel unit weighing in at 105hp and really isn’t short of go when you need it. But there is nothing there at all below 1900rpm which makes smooth, progressive driving a bit of a lunge-fest. I was also finding the ride quality a bit on the brittle side, despite the deep-profile tyres on 16″ wheels.
Ah, back to the tyres. I was annoyed by the warning which kept coming up on the dashboard when I reached a certain speed. It was telling me that I had exceeded the recommended speed for winter tyres. Oh! That might have explained the whole mid-corner let-go thing, winter tyres can be excused for not being  up to the task of being pelted round corners. But no. Further investigation revealed that the warning had been set up incorrectly and the tyres weren’t cold-weather hoops at all. Nor were they budget specials. They were Michelin EnergySavers. That was a little disappointing.
I was annoyed by the dashboard. The fuel and temperature gauges are built into the speedo and tach in such a way that the little notches which comprise their respective scales look just like the continued markings of the major dials. What’s wrong with nice, instantly legible pointers on real dials? The dash also kept telling me something about my air conditioning being on, with some kind of sliding scale bar graph registering a value of between 0 and 1. Eh? It didn’t tell me what this meant and, to be honest, it was probably nothing I wanted to know anyway. If it was a chastisement, telling me that running my air-conditioning was somehow harmful to my fuel economy, well that’s for me to decide not some smug Spanish hatchback. And I really didn’t need the little bar graph going up on the dash when I adjust the volume. I can tell when I turn it up because it gets louder. Volume level is not driver-critical information.
Actually,  the audio system annoyed me quite a lot. This is the familiar VAG touch-screen effort, this one being the entry level with no DAB radio and no sat-nav. It’s still a reasonably well equipped system, with lots of adjustability, but I. Hate. Touchscreens. In. Cars. In combination with a sharp, pitching ride a touchscreen is a recipe for mis-entered information. You find your finger constantly bouncing off the screen, or touching it in the wrong place and entering absolute garbage. It’s dangerous, too, You spend so much time trying to get your keystrokes right you can’t possibly be concentrating on the road. And really, for all the touchscreen messing about, what have you achieved beyond a regular radio / CD? I believe that BMW and Mercedes get this kind of thing right with their  iDrive and COMAND systems, and with Audi being part of VAG with MMI, why not roll that out across the empire?
The sound wasn’t up to scratch, either, well it was if scratch happens to be awful. There’s an annoying boominess in the lower mid-range which makes everybody sound like they’re speaking inside an enclosed glass box, and no matter what you do with the bass and midrange controls you just can’t dial it out. As a result music sounds muddy and congested, the only thing you can play through it which sounds right is a stripped down piano piece or a harpsichord solo, and quite frankly there was no way I was in the mood for that kind of thing.
It didn’t break down, which was pleasing, and eventually I arrived at my destination just three minutes early, which was a minor miracle. The day went well, actually, and at the end of it I re-approached the Leon ready to drive to my budget lodgings. Looking at the SEAT now it was a pretty good looking machine. I reckon SEAT’s loaf-and-machete school of design works its best on this car, on the smaller models it looks a bit overdone, but this is pretty sleek. The headlamps are assertive without looking too attention-seeking, and the whole assembly has more visual excitement to it than, oh I don’t know, a Golf. It doesn’t quite carry off a premium look, though. Not the way other VAG cars manage.
Inside, too, all is well. The seats feel comfy at first though I think my Giraffe proportions were more than they can fairly be expected to cope with, my lower back was a little tender at the end of it all. The dashboard is a nice looking edifice, bringing vaguely to mind certain SAAB designs around the air vents. It was all put together well enough, though I wish VAG would pension off their steering column stalks- I’m pretty sure these would interchange with my ’98 A4. A black (or grey) mark for the upholstery, too. It’s just so overwhelmingly boring as to be anachronistic in a car supposed to evoke “Emocion”.
In terms of being a car, well, it was excellent. It was very economical, managing 65 mpg (big old British gallons, mind) when driven reasonably vigorously, including a few embarrassing periods at sustained quasi-legal speeds where I’d forgotten I still had another gear left. That gearbox, by the way, is a nice thing to use, with just the right amount of notchiness to feel like you’re involved in actual mechanical activity. It seems to be crying out for another gear, though. Top and bottom are just fine, but making the ratios a bit closer would maybe plug that sub-1900rpm gap.
That ride, too. I’m pretty sure it’s not the springing or the damping that are wrong, and at 20k miles elapsed they should be bedded in by now, so maybe the car could benefit from softer bushing? I wonder if this might not just help the ride but also reduce skittishness on the corners?
On the trip home I went, again, via my grandmother’s so I could retrieve the tools I had left and which I’d need again to work on the Rover at the weekend. I took the Leon back over the same route on which it had tried to fall off the road two nights previously. The air temperature this time was six degrees, bone dry, no mist or fog. I approached the corners slightly hesitantly and with a firm grasp of the wheel, I was probably driving 5-8% softer than last time. I got to the point of the same mid bend course correction to make the second apex, the feel or (lack of) was exactly as I experienced last time. Not very confidence inspiring. But this time the car just gripped and sailed around. I could have thrown it around with far more determination than I did, but as last time there was no warning when the limit was breached, I don’t think I’d ever trust it. I’d like to try one on different tyres.
Summing up, then. Aside from the niggles that my bad mood and general crossness inspired, there isn’t really anything fundamental to complain about. I like the looks of the thing, if driven with any degree of restraint it’s a fine way of getting about. I’m pretty sure I’d rather have this than the more expensive yet equivalent VW Golf which shares its VAG MQB platform, rear suspension aside. I don’t buy into the Golf thing. The Golf is damned by its own excellence. It’s such a polymath as to have become almost the default choice. To not buy a Golf when you can is seen as almost idiotic, and this makes me want one even less. The thing is, though, I just don’t think I’d want to own a SEAT either.
What is SEAT as a brand? Well, it has been aligned as the sporty yet accessible wing of VAG. The old “Auto Emocion” slogan was canned because people didn’t know what it meant. In the Leon there was certainly nothing much sporty going on (apart from the jiggly ride) and it wasn’t especially emotional, either. It’s not as if SEAT have a rich history to draw from, either- reinvigorated Fiats up to the late ’80s, then the whole “System Porsche” thing and VAG links after then. It’s tricky to pinpoint exactly what the USP of the brand actually is.
What the SEAT Leon, and the company as a whole, cries out for is something that captivates you. That’s not something that any amount of additional power or bigger wheels (see Seat CUPRA) will achieve alone. If VAG’s Spanish brand were allowed a little time off the leash, the freedom to cook up a proper Paella with a bit less bratwurst and sauerkraut prominent in the mix, I think the result could be delicious.
(All images copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2015)

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  1. dukeisduke Avatar

    What’s that “out of range” crap about? And, the radio has an SD card slot, but no USB port?

    1. Citric Avatar

      I assume if it has one the USB port would be mounted in the console so you don’t have cords waggling about.

      1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

        Yep, no USB connector on this one. And it took me ages to fathom that the 12v socket was by the centre armrest.

    2. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      That came up when the Bluetooth link was severed. pretty cool actually. The phone integration was pretty good, so good I forgot to mention it in the review.

  2. Tanshanomi Avatar

    SEATs have never been offered in the USA, so the brand remains something of an enigma to me. This despite being enough of a Hispanophile to read whatever I could find about the marque’s history. It seems that SEAT has never had much heritage or identity of their own — they simply build tweaked foreign cars in Spain. Sure it made sense to build Fiats under license in Spain during Franco’s autarkic economic regulations, but by the time VAG got in bed with them, there to me there was questionable justification for SEAT to continue as a separate brand. There seems to be less difference between a current VW and a SEAT than there was between most of GM’s B-O-P redundant derivations.
    I can’t imagine anybody being a SEAT fanboi. No one living more than two hours from Barcelona is likely to ever get a SEAT logo tattooed on their arm.

    1. JayP Avatar

      SEAT has nice designs and some look better than the VW of which they are based.
      But being in the US, we can get Kias.

    2. Monkey10is Avatar

      I live in ‘Yurp, and believe me; the SEAT brand remains something of an enigma to all of us as well.
      For a while they tried to define themselves as ‘Auto Emocion’ but produced precious little that would provoke ’emocion’. Now they have another slogan; but no clearer identity.
      It is a continuing shame that whilst Skoda have flourished as a VAG sub-brand and have a very strong identity now, SEAT are now harder to define as a distinct entity than when they were just “the Spanish FIAT”.

  3. Troggy Avatar

    The ride and handling can easily be summed up by the ‘eco’/energy saver tyres fitted. They trade off grip in the quest to reduce rolling resistance and improve fuel economy. Eco tyres are the first thing to get rid of on a new car.
    My Subaru Outback had Yokohama Geolandars fitted – a light carcass ‘green’ tyre with stuff-all grip. An AWD Subaru – squealing and squirming with every twitch of the wheel. The thing should have gripped like a cat on carpet. I spiked two of them in rapid succession travelling on dirt roads, so replaced the fronts with Pirellis which performed far better. When I spiked the third Geolandar I replaced the remaining tyres – spare included.

  4. Brendan A. MacWade Avatar
    Brendan A. MacWade

    I seemed so excited about the Leon three years ago.
    Granted the model unveiled had 17″ wheels and the premium infotainment system. Those go a long way.

  5. salguod Avatar

    It looks like what a first generation Mazda3 hatch would look like if the Mazda designers hadn’t cared quite so much.