SEAT LEON FR - CONTINUING THE LEGEND
Most manufacturers have a performance division developing sports versions of their mainstream cars but few have done as well with them as SEAT and its FR range.
The FR-badged models have accounted for as much as 40 per cent of sales on certain cars, the most famous being the much-loved last generation Leon FR. Now that car has been just been replaced with this all-new one which has a tough act to follow but which more than rises to the challenge.
It scores well on every point, starting with that vital ingredient - the looks. The last Leon FR was almost universally praised for its purposeful looks but if anything I think the successor looks even better.
It starts with a good base because with that amazing swage line, or Dynamic Line as SEAT refers to it, sweeping down its flanks and its almond-shaped headlamps the Leon is already one of the more stylish cars on our roads.
You may now that SEAT is putting a lot of effort into motor racing at the moment with the Leon competing in several championships and the FR (standing for Formula Racing) draws heavily on that in its styling.
The bumpers at both front and rear are unique to the FR and have a very aerodynamic look. The front has three big air intakes and I even managed to like the diffuser look at the back although it's a shame that SEAT haven't done what Renault has with the new Clio Renaultsport 197 and given us the real thing. Still, with the addition of big alloys the Leon really does look the business and much more ground-hugging than the standard car.
Inside the sports theme is continued with the usual sports seats, silver details, some FR logos and white-backed instruments. It is a pleasant place to be and has just the right hint of performance.
The FR comes with a choice of either a 2.0 T FSI petrol engine developing around 200 bhp or unusually in this market, a 2.0 TDI diesel. I tried the latter car on the road and the former on the track and was delighted with both.
On the road the Leon displays a remarkably good mix of excellent ride and tremendous stability under even hard cornering. The springing and damping is quite compliant but the roll bar must be pretty stiff because the FR remains flat with minimal roll.
There is also very good communication through the nicely weighted steering and its response to your input at the helm is instant. It should come as no surprise to say that it reminded me of the Golf GTI given that they are mechanically related and that is high praise indeed.
The diesel works exactly as you would expect, its prodigious torque pulling the Leon off the bend nicely.
Several laps on the test track in the petrol version where I could push it to the limit confirmed my view that the Leon has a well balanced chassis that can be steered on the throttle which is always a good sign. It's true of just about every good performance hatchback these days but it does amaze me how far front-wheel drive cars have come in the past few years and the Leon FR is another example of this.
It is also a very forgiving car in extremis, by which I mean that you can go past what is normally considered the point of no return and yet it remains controllable. It even has a `prompt' system in the steering when it detects the onset of oversteer, which is when the back of the car begins to try to overtake the front and is a prelude to a spin, which the driver interprets as a suggestion to turn the wheel in the direction of the slide.
I can't say I found that very helpful because it is an instinctive reaction anyway but I will say that I found the Leon FR to be a very stable, well-balanced and responsive car. It has enough power with either engine even though the 240 bhp flagship to tackle the Ford Focus ST and Vauxhall Astra VXR won't arrive here until next year.
The market has changed in the past few years and especially with the above-mentioned ST and VXR which offer tremendous performance for not that much more money than the SEAT. That said, the new Leon FR is more than good enough to compete. It has superb engines including the diesel option mated to an equally talented chassis, is sensibly priced and looks fantastic.