When in Spain, drive a Seat Leon05 | 09 | 2014

    Our intrepid, occasional correspondent Hugh Hunston has spent a week getting to know all about the Seat Leon in the searing heat of Andalucia: but was he terrorised again by his old Spanish friend Jose?

    SUN, SEA, SANGRIA and a Seat Leon on the Costa del Sol? Well maybe not the sangria, as local Andalucían wine more than passed muster.

    So did the 2.0-litre, diesel three-door, automatic Leon FR SC, in vivid emotion red, or should that be “emocion rojo?" which, courtesy of absolutely necessary aircon and English-speaking satnav, kept us cool and more or less pointing in the right direction for one week and circa 500 kilometres (310 miles.)

    I'm never sure if being concealed in a locally popular left-hand-drive car — arguably the Spanish equivalent of Ford’s ubiquitous Focus in the UK — is an asset or liability, should you make some driving gaffe en route. Do Spaniards make allowances for any sign of fecklessness onboard a UK-plated Euro hatchback?

    In any case we, or I, did not attract much, if any, Latin impatience along the predominantly auto-via route between Malaga airport and Sotogrande, within sight of that bastion of Britain’s colonial past, Gibraltar.

    Apart from having its steering wheel on the left hand side of the car, the Leon reflected the kind of comprehensive UK specification which has helped nudge Seat over the 2% share level in the British market this year.

    Badged FR, or Formula Racing, our Leon’s running gear consisted of a muscular 150-horsepower diesel engine, linked to a DSG twin-clutch semi automatic transmission. Seat running gear — including the MQB platform the Leon shares with VW’s Golf, Audi’s A3 and Skoda’s Octavia — comes courtesy of the parent VW Group’s vast store of components.

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    As a result, those used to driving the other group brands might feel a tad cheated by how familiar the Leon feels, but the chassis has been tuned to be firm and responsive in a mildly Latin sort of way, and it all hangs together in a reassuringly (whisper it) solid and dependable German manner.

    Along the AP-7 auto via toll road, with its sweeping motorway arcs plus impressively engineered tunnels and bridges, the Leon ticked over at 2000rpm on the legal 120kph limit (75mph) laying the foundations for an overall 50mpg plus average fuel consumption.

    Incidentally, Malaga is apparently is one of Spain’s dearest fuel fill-up locations with a mockingly high cost per litre for diesel of €1.27, or £1 in old money.

    Whereas the edges of the motorway through Marbella featured the skeletons of half finished low and high-rise flats, courtesy of Spain’s harsh recession, Soto Grande represented a parallel, seriously affluent universe.

    Manicured golf courses abounded, within close proximity of Southfork Dallas-style gated avenues, plus a marina enclave with security posts resembling the border crossings of small countries. Interestingly, Securitas patrols driving Toyota Priuses were much in evidence.

    Not that our Leon was ever stopped or checked. SUVs predominated with Range Rovers of all varieties, Audi Q7s and Porsche Cayennes vying for the title of having the largest and flashiest alloys, and the darkest rear privacy glass. That area must also boast one of Europe’s highest concentration per square metre of conspicuous consumption BMW X6s beyond Munich. Medallion men abounded.

    Minis were scattered around, with several roadsters and convertibles, even if their bulbous Countrymen cousins looked incongruous sheltering self-consciously in palm tree-covered parking bays.

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    SUV ground-clearance was a pragmatic choice with traffic calming mounds meaning that any following Porsche Panamera’s occupant knew that speeding risked removing its sump and deranging aluminium suspension components. Perhaps for that reason we clocked just two Ferraris and a single Maserati.

    So, cruising was the order of the sweltering days involving the game of matching the cars and their owners to the yachts in the marina, with Sunseeker power cruisers almost as common as Cayennes.

    Trips to the less ostentatious and meticulously restored Estepona down the coast, and motoring up country to white villages containing all manner of ancient buildings and venerable tractors, underlined the Leon’s competence. Front and rear parking sensors were a boon in narrow, vertiginous cobbled streets and I now understand why most Andalucian motorists have reflective, foil sunscreens for when cars are parked in the midday sun…

    It was up and down the mountain roads that the previously ignored steering wheel paddles on the DSG semi auto transmission excelled. Their manipulation generated quicksilver ratio changes matching the right gear to the right gradient and bend.

    If there was one nit-picking criticism it involved the need to push twice to activate main beam or dip the lights, while in D, 'for don’t think about it gear mode', the transmission seemed reluctant to change up in urban conditions.

    Being of a certain age, Seat and Spain have, thankfully, come a long way from the days of me being terrorised by Spanish friend Jose in the Catalonian foothills as he single-handedly — the other one was resting, holding a cigarette, on the window sill — slalomed his agricultural Fiat 124-based Seat towards France.

    General Franco was still in power, Spanish motorways were measured in tens not hundreds of miles, and the Italian car firm controlled Seat, rhyming with Fiat.

    Some argue that Seat should be VW’s Alfa Romeo, but succeeding in the automotive world dictates economies of scale and being a member of a larger secure family. Plus producing southern European cars that hang together and deliver on performance and economy.



    Seat’s Leon, not surprisingly, features prominently in the company’s leading brand position in Spain’s recession-ravaged new car market. Up until the end of July it clocked up 19,565 sales, not far behind market leader Ibiza.

    The positions of Seat and Leon represent something of a mirror image with the UK’s almost institutionalised top name badge Ford and its leading lower medium hatchback the Focus, which gave best to the chart-topping Fiesta supermini during the same period. The Focus managed a somewhat larger tally of 50,757 registrations versus its Spanish rival’s domestic volume.

    In Spain, the German-built Focus trailed in 10th place on 11,185 units, while the Barcelona (Martorell-assembled) Leon earned a fairly modest 11,481 sales among British car buyers, placing it 28th overall, one slot ahead of the Ibiza. But Seat’s UK sales have surged by 22% this year to corner 2.1% of the overall market.

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    Hugh Hunston

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