The second generation SEAT Leon was a car that started off slow and got a lot better as it developed throughout its lifespan.
There are a number of cars that you could say that about – think Jaguar S Type and BMW X3 as examples – and the one thing they have in common is that they're usually ignored by used car buyers who only remember the first, rather sniffy press reports. Go for a late model year and you get a cracking used car bargain. The Leon is a perfect example, writes Andy Enright.
The original MK1 SEAT Leon was a huge success, becoming for a short while the go-to sporty hatch for British buyers. The second generation car never enjoyed the same success and it's largely down to a rare instance of Volkswagen Group clumsy brand management rather than any inherent fault of the car. When the second generation Leon was launched in 2005, there were no sporty FR or Cupra models available. Without these flagship models and with less aggressive styling, the Leon instantly lost its mojo. SEAT introduced the sportier cars later but momentum had been lost and the damage was done.
The Leon subsequently worked twice as hard to impress and the vehicles we look at here are the facelifted models that were unveiled at the 2009 Geneva Show. You'll recognise these cars by the revised grille with a smaller SEAT logo and more stylised chrome surround as well as bigger headlights. We'll cover models right up to when this Leon was replaced by a third-generation model unveiled at the Paris Motor Show in autumn of 2012. Here's how to get ahead of the game when buying used.
With some very reliable and high-tech engines, strong build integrity and a decent reliability record honed through the pre-facelift cars, this SEAT is a decent reliability proposition. The Leon is a car where the price differences between good and bad examples aren't too great, so be fussy. Look for a fully stamped up service history and reject anything that looks in any way tatty, grubby or vaguely dog-eared. Give FR and Cupra models a particularly detailed inspection and ensure that they've been run in quality synthetic oil.
As you might expect given this car's heritage, it's pretty much like a Golf to drive but with a slightly sportier suspension set-up that on original versions of this car erred on the side of harshness, particularly when it came to the sporty derivatives. This revised model however, offers a much better ride and handling compromise, with the FR variant for example, featuring softer springs and more compliant anti-roll bars. The result, combined with the Golf's already impressive multi-link rear axle, is a car that works with the road surface rather than skittering over it. It's a much nicer drive.
In an attempt to differentiate the Leon from its visually quite similar Altea MPV stablemate, SEAT have created a driving position that sees you sit right down low in the car. This is one of the reasons why the whole on-road experience feels quite sporting, a feeling aided by the slickness of the 5 and 6-speed manual gearboxes, with the smoothly responsive DSG semi-automatic transmission still available as an option. Even the electric power steering offers good feedback and features a clever 'Driving Steering Recommendation' system that in harsh cornering on slippery surfaces, can help to stop the tail of the car sliding out and sending you into a spin.
As with any VW Golf, the engine range here is mainly about knowing which units to avoid. If you can feel the passion and sportiness that this car is supposed to be about in the entry-level 85PS 1.4-litre petrol or 90PS 1.9-litre TDI diesel models, then you're doing better than us.
The mainstream 102PS 1.6-litre petrol or 105PS 1.9-litre TDI diesel variants are more acceptable but we'd shake the piggy bank a little further to stretch to either the impressive 125PS 1.4-litre petrol TSI or the 140PS 2.0 TDI diesel. Only customers for top of the range variants get anything actually very hi-tech under the bonnet however, the fastest 170PS diesel featuring up-to-the-minute common rail technology, whilst the flagship Cupra R gets a 265PS powerplant borrowed from the super-quick Golf R.
The second generation SEAT Leon really did come good later in its life. Perhaps the biggest testament to that fact is that the third generation model didn't seek to distance itself – from a styling perspective at least – very much from its predecessor.
UK buyers were a little slow to catch on to how good this MK2 model was back in its production 2009-2012 production period, which means there are plenty of bargains available. Unlike most other family hatchback designs, it's the really sporty cars where the best buys are to be had.