First drive review: Seat Leon ST FR 2.0 TDI (2014)

I second that emocion, Manuel

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EXCITEMENT HASN’T always had an easy time catching fire around the Seat Leon. Seat is part of the Volkswagen corporate behemoth and, whether it’s in hatchback, coupé or estate form, you know that a Leon is essentially a knockdown VW Golf that has been tarted up for Spain. Many accordingly find it hard to get beyond the faint but lingering aura of broken biscuits and own-brand cola that hangs over the model.

For quite a while Seat tried to shake people from this unhelpful mindset by getting a woman to whisper thickly, at the end of all its adverts, the words “auto emocion”, which is Spanish for “let’s immediately have sex” (or that’s what it sounded like). But the test was to stand next to, or sit inside, a Seat Leon and say “auto emocion” in a tone as close as you could muster to the one in the advert. It was hard to do this earnestly, or at least without feeling a gap between the warmth of the advertising and the slightly colder Euro-pragmatism of the car in the metal.

You can have changes of heart with brands, though. Mine came last year in, appropriately enough, Spain. Draw a Seat Alhambra people carrier in the holiday rental lottery and you might not necessarily be whooping and waving the keys aloft with unalloyed glee. But mine was smart, smooth and a pleasure to sit in.

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It was also surprisingly robust. The house where we were staying was at the bottom of a hill, reached via a perilous track studded with vicious rocks. Ideally the job of going in and out would have called for a Land Rover or a helicopter, or both working in tandem. The Alhambra didn’t flinch. It went up and down the track, many times daily, like a goat. But a goat with five people and their baggage inside it. I’ve felt a deep gratitude and quiet fondness for the brand ever since.

And now there’s a new Leon ST — the Sports Tourer version. It’s built on the platform for the VW Golf estate, which is also the platform for the Skoda Octavia estate, but, with its crisper edges and sassy grille, it’s peppier and younger-looking than either of them. Peer at the crimped rear haunches and triangular light clusters through half-closed eyes and what the ST most looks like is not a VW, but a BMW.

I had the ST FR, which is that glorious contradiction in terms, a hot estate car. It was fitted with a 2-litre diesel unit (quite clattery at low revs but passenger-worryingly swift and with an engagingly firm engine note at cruising speed) and seats swathed in rally-friendly, red-stitched leather and plumped up with perforated bolsters, the better to keep your buttocks approximately parallel to one another during the more extreme cornering manoeuvres.

Tradition dictates that bits of the interior that might be shiny on a Golf are likely to be matt on a Leon, but that actually makes the cabin rather restful. Adding 10½in to the length of the hatch bumps up the boot capacity by 55%, bringing it to 587 litres with a height-adjustable floor. The seat backs flatten at the tug of a handle in the boot, sparing you the need to stomp around the outside of the car and jam your fingers under recalcitrant levers. With the seats down, the boot grows to 1,470 litres, and although the ST would struggle to find part-time work as a hearse, it’s unlikely to fall short while you’re out and about with your family.

True, nearly £4,000-worth of appreciation-enhancing extras had been bolted to my test car, boosting its price north of £27,000. This appeared to include a fee of £150 for a “net boot divider”, when, clearly, you could knit your own for a lot less.

The car had also been blessed with a “tiredness recognition system”, which notices if you drift across the white lines without indicating and reaches the reasonable conclusion that you are either precariously distracted or asleep.

As ever, in this particular area of driver management, what the car then does by way of intervention is surprisingly muted and forgiving — a small alarm sounds and a graphic quietly recommends a cup of coffee — when surely the situation is dire enough to call for a siren, flashing lights throughout the interior and a recorded voice shrieking, “Wake up before you kill someone, you idiot!” Cars can be too polite sometimes.

Cars can also be overburdened by their own electronics. I should probably report that, trying to pull away from a set of traffic lights while accidentally in third gear, I created a shudder in the ST’s bowels that briefly switched on the park assist system — not long enough for the car to park itself, thankfully, but long enough for it to think about doing so.

A short while before this, on a stretch of empty and perfectly smooth carriageway under the Hammersmith flyover in west London, I was suddenly advised by the dashboard to “check roadway”. How was I meant to do that? Stop and get out? Phone the council? Uncertain about the etiquette, I simply drove on. I still don’t know what the car was worried about and I probably never will, although I suppose it’s better to be safe than sorry, especially under the Hammersmith flyover.

Anyway, let’s ignore these glitches. During my 24 hours with the car, I drove it for 60 miles up and down the M1, did the school run in it, twice, and used it to take the dog to Pets at Home for a haircut. All of these things it accomplished with pace and style.

The big test was still to come, though. Back in the car park at the home of VW in Milton Keynes, I switched off the engine, drew in a deep breath and whispered: “Auto emocion.”

Obviously, it sounded ridiculous. Nice car, though.

Verdict ★★★☆☆

It’s been emocional


1968cc, 4 cylinders
181bhp @ 4000rpm


280 lb ft @ 1750rpm
6-speed manual
0-62mph in 7.8sec
Top speed:
65.7mpg (combined)

Road tax band:

Dimensions:L 3540mm, W 1641mm, H 1489mm


The rivals

  • VW Golf estate GT 2.0 TDI, £24,700
    For: Huge 605-litre boot; has an outstanding mix of qualities, making it that rare thing, a five-star car Against: Less powerful and more expensive than the Leon ST

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  • BMW 316d ES Touring, £26,875
    For: An impressive driving experience; a more premium image Against: You’ll pay more and get less; the boot is comparatively small

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