The first car I reviewed on this blog was the SEAT Leon SE, and I thought it was a brilliant car. But it turns out a brilliant car can be made even better. Enter the Leon FR.
Let’s begin where the majority of improvements are concentrated on the FR: the suspension. SEAT’s FR package is designed to improve the Leon’s handling, stiffening everything up so that the car handles more sharply, basically ensuring it is more fun to drive on twisty roads. On the previous generation Leon, the FR trim was deemed too stiff by many, generating a rough and unpleasant ride. That is not at all the case on the new FR – the handling is dialed in just right. Drivers will notice an ever-so-slightly choppier ride on the motorway in comparison to the SE, but it is nowhere near uncomfortable. Quite the opposite, in fact. It feels poised and balanced, and a few hours on the motorway are pleasant and relaxing.
But even though it could happily do it all day, you don’t buy a Leon FR for motorway cruising, of course. It’s when you throw it into a corner on a winding rural road that the Leon FR absolutely comes alive. To begin with, the weight of the steering and the feedback that comes through the wheel are excellent, such that you feel entirely in control of the car. It is so responsive and easy to point the car exactly where you want it to go. It takes corners beautifully, with little discernible body roll, and feels thoroughly planted from entry to exit. Even on rough surfaces, the car handles so precisely that you don’t question its ability to go where it’s supposed to. I have rarely driven a car that so noticeably enjoys being driven through corners quickly, and that inspires complete driver confidence. SEAT has clearly designed the Leon FR to be a driver’s car, and they’ve simply nailed it.
This particular Leon came with Volkswagen’s 2.0L TDI, making 148bhp and 236lb.-ft (which will now undoubtedly be scrutinized following #dieselgate). This is the first opportunity I’ve had to drive the 2.0L, even though I’ve generally recommended it over the 1.6L TDI for its power gains. In many ways, it doesn’t disappoint. It retains the smooth and efficient character of the TDI engines, and the increase in power is certainly welcome. Whilst not a fast car, it feels pretty quick, and the power band is well-situated for the kind of spirited driving you want to do in this car. Perhaps because it is quicker, however, you will notice more turbo lag with the 2.0L, particularly when it comes to rolling starts in second gear. Typical of diesels, it also runs out of steam over 3500rpm, which puts a slight damper on the fun. I would like to try the Leon FR with one of the bigger TSI engines, perhaps the 1.8L.
The engine sends power to the wheels through a 6-speed gearbox, which has nice throws and good ratios that work well with the engine’s power band. I had a slight problem with this particular gear lever, though: Like all Volkswagen products, you have to push the lever down to shift into reverse, but the spring controlling that function on this lever felt quite loose. As a result, a few times when I grabbed the lever to shift particularly from first to second, the pressure from my hand would inadvertently push it down and end up sort of directing it into fourth gear. It’s a bit hard to explain, but basically, you need quite a light touch to shift into the gear you wanted. Again, this may have just been an issue with this particular car, but it happened frequently enough to be a little annoying.
I maintain what I said previously about the Leon’s interior. It is comfortable and quiet, and the driving position is excellent. There is a good amount of room everywhere. It is clearly not of the same quality as the Golf – materials feel a bit cheaper all around – but it certainly looks better. Everything about the Leon tells you this is a sporty car, from the red stitching to the leather-wrapped and well-designed steering wheel to the fantastically-readable and well-positioned gauges. In many ways, the Leon’s interior is a lesson in ergonomics too; with the exception of a relatively small and laggy infotainment screen, the controls are simple and straightforward, and laid out logically, again emphasising the fact that this is first and foremost a driver’s car.
Finally, I maintain that the Leon is just a great looking car. The sharp angles and hunkered down stance give it an aggressive and somewhat intimidating persona, particularly from the front. I always like cars that look like they have a bit of attitude, especially when they’ve got the character to back it up, as the Leon does.
Last time I concluded that the Leon was a brilliant car, and that I would probably prefer it over the Golf. In FR trim, the Leon turns brilliant up to 11, and I do not hesitate to say it is better than the Golf. In fact, as far as reasonably priced cars go, the Leon FR is, very simply, the best car I have ever driven.
Engine: 2.0L TDI I4, 148bhp, 236lb.-ft.
Gearbox: 6-speed manual
Mileage at pickup: 2874
Distance driven: 360 miles
Photo location: 54°45’11.6″N 1°35’19.4″W