Matthew Jones12 November 2013

First drive: all-new Seat Leon ST

We drive the new Seat Leon ST, the estate that's more of a Golf than a Golf. Confused? Read on...

What's this?

The new Leon ST is the same as a Golf Estate, only it looks a bit different, it's worse inside, and it costs a lot less. But underneath, and under the bonnet, it's more or less identical, and sits on the same MQB architecture you'd find under a load of stuff from the VW group (Audi A3, Octavia, Golf). Which, weirdly, makes it more of a Golf than a Golf.

Eh?

See, there's no doubting the Golf is A Very Good Car, only it's become a bit of a treat-yourself premium thing. A car with stuff on the options list like self-parking, DVD players, and subwoofers for a "special, rich sound" feels a bit more lifestyle than real life. But the Leon, which starts at more than £2000 less, has the sort of anodyne, charming design of the original Golf, and feels a bit more... ruthlessly practical. Which is why we all fell in love with the Golf in the first place.

Like?

That boot, for a start. Wagonising the hatch has added 26cm to the car's length (all behind the rear wheels) and increased space by 55 per cent to a total of 587/1470 litres. That's 111 more than a Focus estate, and only a shade off the class-leading Octavia Estate. And while it lacks the Golf's rich-sounding bass, there's useful stuff in there like a twin floor so the loading bay sits flush with the boot lip, a pair of handles so you can drop the back seats in a single pull, and an optional foldable passenger seat that gives a 2.5-metre-long loading capacity from dash to tailgate.

Tell me about engines.

It's the usual MQB suspects - three petrol TSIs (an 85bhp 1.2-litre, 121bhp 1.4-litre, and 177bhp 1.8-litre), and three diesel TDIs (a 170lb ft 1.6, 236lb ft 2.0, and 280lb ft 2.0) - all available in FR trim. But the shiny new 2.0-litre diesel is our favourite. We loved it in the hatch, and despite the ST's 45kg weight premium and 1.1-second drop in 0-62mph time, the in-gear thrust still engenders a dangerous tingling, if not the full table-rattling spasm you get from something like a Focus ST Estate (though a Cupra version's coming). But the payoff is a real-world 55mpg, and 106g/km of C02. Which is, plainly, nuts.

What about the handling, though?

A massive great diesel lump dangling over the front end hasn't screwed with the handling too much. It rides tidily and feels light and quick-witted for a medium-sized estate, helped by its flyweight 1233kg mass. That said, the progressive steering system isn't the last word in feel, and the occasionally jerky DSG auto ‘box doesn't change as nicely as the six-speed manual. Anyway, leave that aspirational flappy-paddle business to the Golf crowd.

Any other tips for options?

It's a tricky car to spec, this. We'd recommend steering clear of anything too superfluous, like the adaptive chassis packs that has just been made available. It stops making as much sense when the price starts creeping into Golf territory, because the VW is a lot more tactile and German. Also, no matter how much you add onto the ST, the dashboard is so stark and button-poor, even the most optioned cars look like poverty models.

But this is £2000 less, and you get what you pay for. Which, in this case, is a traditional VW Golf estate.

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