First Drive: SEAT Leon SC review

New cars Seat Reviews
PetrolBlog heads to Barcelona for a first drive review of the new 3-door SEAT Leon SC and, with the help of some great roads, finds that it's rather good.

I genuinely didn't know what to expect from the new SEAT Leon SC as I flew over to Barcelona to review it. I'd read about how it was more than just a 3-door version of the new 2013 Leon, but that could have been pure marketing talk. And if I'm being totally honest, it's quite a while since I was excited about a SEAT. Heck, I thought the Alhambra was the best new SEAT you could buy.

But having spent a day in the company of the Leon SC (that's Sport Coupé to you and me), all that has changed. It's a very, very good car.

The launch was rather different to normal as it involved an early morning flight out and a return flight the same day. Fortunately accommodation was booked at Heathrow the night before, so waking up at silly o'clock was made a little more bearable by the effortless two minute walk to the terminal. That said, much coffee was consumed.

By the time we reached Barcelona the sun was shining and temperatures were already approaching 22 degrees. Faced with a choice of petrol or diesel Leons at the airport, I naturally chose the range-topping 180hp 1.8-litre FR. As luck would have it I had the car to myself, so the sat nav was set for our lunch stop in the hills north west of Barcelona and the climate control to a cool 16 degrees.

After a slow crawl out of the city the traffic cleared to reveal a string of roads that would readily tempt you out of bed to embark on a Dawn Raid. The route climbed for what seemed like a good half an hour, revealing some majestic views of Barcelona and the Mediterranean Sea behind it. Naturally I pulled over to take some snaps.

Rear of SEAT Leon SC FR TSI

Which gave me a chance to take a proper look at the Leon SC. It's subtly different to the 5-door, but you really need to see it in the metal to appreciate the difference it actually makes. From the A-pillar forward it's as you were with the 5-door, but the rest is distinctly coupe-ish. The roofline gently slopes to a rear screen that's inclined 19 degrees further than the 5-door. There's also the small matter of a wheelbase shortened by 35mm. The modular MQB platform used by the Audi A3, Skoda Octavia and Volkswagen Golf is proving to be quite versatile.

I could wax lyrical about the styling all day, but I don't think I'll convince anyone. The SEAT Leon SC is a distinctly 'see it for yourself' kind of car. And yes, the sunshine and beautiful surroundings of Barca certainly helped to give it a radiance that might be lost in say Bradford. And besides, it doesn't warrant any lyrical waxing - it's good, but too VAG to be brilliant.

Side view of Emocion Red SEAT Leon SC FR

But brilliant is a word I'd happily use to describe the packaging. In shortening the wheelbase and losing the two rear doors, SEAT has managed to retain pretty much all the practicality of the 5-door. You'll still find the 380-litre boot and the loss of headroom is so minuscule you'll hardly notice it. So the Leon SC is almost as practical as the less attractive 5-door and yet comes in £300 less. If you're the young and trendy individual the Leon SC is aimed at, there really is no contest.

So it all comes down to the choice of trim level and engine. Or, as a young and trendy person might say, what flava SC you want.

I was fortunate enough to drive the £20,285 1.8-litre petrol FR to lunch, followed by a simply awesome drive in the £19,540 2.0-litre diesel SE in the afternoon, with a jaunt back to the airport in the £21,535 1.8-litre petrol FR with DSG gearbox to round things off.

So, having finished admiring the new Leon SC and glorious views of Barcelona, I jumped back into the car and headed for lunch. The route took in a selection of A and B roads, plus a little town driving thrown in for good measure.

The petrol-engined FR is an immediately engaging car. The driving position is spot on and the sports seats - which are standard across the SC range - are supportive and comfortable. The FR seats even get some additional red-stitching to compliment the leather-trimmed with red-stitching flat-bottomed steering wheel. Overall the Leon SC's interior could hardly be called adventurous, but it's well screwed together and very, very well executed.

SEAT Leon SC FR interior

SEAT had preloaded the Leon SC's excellent swipe-action controlled touch screen infotainment system with the works of techno-electronica-rock genius, Moby and it seemed to rather suit the car. It's an unashamedly youthful and upbeat kind of car and Moby's ditties only served to encourage me to drive just that little bit faster. And the FR positively thrived on it.

As I would find on the return leg to the airport, the 6-speed manual gearbox is by far and away a better choice than the DSG ’box for the absolute enthusiast, but the dual-clutch transmission does an excellent job of keeping up with your demands. Only occasionally does it get caught out and just once or twice it started to get impatient in traffic. My advice? Save the £1,1250 extra needed for the DSG and treat yourself to a driving holiday in rural Spain. I can recommend some cracking roads...

Don't get me wrong - the DSG is very good and it should offer a slight improvement in fuel economy, but the 1.8-litre engine is so willing, you'll want to feel like you're getting the most from it. And the 6-speed manual ‘box allows you to do just that.

At this point it's also worth mentioning the ride which is quite excellent. The new Leon manages to combine a beautifully compliant ride with a firm suspension that allows you to feel totally connected to the road surface. Admittedly the surfaces on our chosen routes were smoother than a double glazing salesman, but even when I ventured off the 'approved route', it still managed to impress.

Emocion Red SEAT Leon SC FR in Spain

Those in search of maximum communication through the seat, pedals and steering are likely to be disappointed, but remember, there's a Cupra version in the pipeline, so there's plenty of room for improvement. Until then, the multi-link rear suspension, 15mm lowered ride height and sports dampers do a mighty fine job of giving the FR an edge over the less potent models in the range.

And then there's the steering which initially feels a little light. But once you start playing through the corners it weights up nicely to provide steering which is rewarding if a little numb. That said, the turn-in is sharp and the reactions are - as near as dammit - instant.

In truth, the lunch stop came too soon. I was having too much fun playing with the Leon and revelling in the attention the car was attracting. Admittedly I was driving in SEAT's homeland, but the Leon SC was turning heads everywhere. As reported in my first drive review for MSN Cars, everyone from a Vin Diesel-lookalike to the most beautiful girl in Spain turned to look at the Emocion Red 3-door Leon.

But then it is the first time SEAT has offered a 3-door Leon and I was of course demonstrating god-like driving skills behind the wheel*.

Alor Blue SEAT Leon SC SE

Lunch passed and I was offered a play in an Alor Blue Leon SC SE 2.0 TDi. Its 30hp down on the FR TSI, but then it does offer 68.9mpg and 106g/km CO2 - impressive. Besides, if you want a Leon SC FR oil-burner, there's one available. And you won't pay a penny in road tax.

Ignoring the pre-determined route, I headed north and - quite literally - made a break for the hills. I figured that once I reached a suitable point I could simply programme the lunch stop into the sat nav and make my way back to base. And boy oh boy am I glad I did.

For two hours it was simply wonderful. I chanced upon the kind of roads that would make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up on end. Hell, even the hairs in your nose would have a little dance of excitement. One stretch could only be described if I asked you to bring to mind the Nürburgring, Dorset's Zig-Zag-Hill and the roads in the opening scene of The Italian Job.

Fortunately there was no sign of the Mafia or a bulldozer. Unfortunately I couldn't find Matt Monro on the infotainment system, but SEAT had programmed the greatest hits of Creedence Clearwater Revival. After the techno-mastery of Moby in the morning, the classic tones of late 1960s American rock seemed to suit the less edgy SE diesel down to a tee.

Alor Blue SEAT Leon SC SE TDi in Spain

Everything about the SE feels less special, from the smaller 16-inch alloys to the less sporty interior. The driving experience is also less hardcore - much less focused. And yet, it remains quite brilliant to drive. You can charge into corners, leaving braking to the last minute, before throwing the car into the bend without so much of a hint of body roll.

There's a touch of understeer and the traction control light was illuminating like a disco light, but the diesel Leon SC was just so willing to play. There's also a whole heap of torque on offer - 320Nm to be precise - so the diesel manages to feel punchier, if a little less livelier than the petrol. It's hard to argue against the diesel Leon SC as an everyday allround proposition. It's economical, quick, excellent to drive and good looking.

But my choice for the return journey to the airport simply had to be the FR petrol. So I jumped into a manual car and made my way back.

Torres! SEAT Leon SC FR

Perhaps my admiration for the Leon SC FR could be summarised in two small points.

Firstly, on more than occasion I had to remind myself that I wasn't driving an Ibiza. In a world where cars are getting bigger, it makes a refreshing change to drive something that 'shrinks' when out on the road. The new Leon SC is as playful as a supermini and that's a very, very good thing.

Secondly, there was one 15-mile stretch of road on the way back to Barcelona where the car was so good, I just had to turn around and drive it again. That's the sign of a good car.

So there you have it. The Leon SC is approved by Vin Diesel and Miss Spain and goes great with Moby and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Makes you wonder why anyone would want an Audi A3...

*the latter part of this statement may not be entirely true.