Much rests on the shoulders of the new Leon, SEAT registrations across Europe having dropped by 35% for the year to the end of August, versus the market’s 32% (EU-EFTA-UK). The fourth generation of SEAT’s best seller has arrived at just the right time then.

It isn’t all bad news for the Spanish marque, with ACEA data also showing that market share is holding up at 3.3% compared to 3.4% this time last year. The totals are 237,646 (1 January-31 August 2020) and 363,183 (2019). That seems like a disastrous drop yet it’s not, as Dacia is just 10,000 units ahead and the gap to Hyundai or Kia, which are neck and neck, is only 22,000 vehicles.

How 2020 will end is anyone’s guess yet SEAT’s number one model will likely continue to account for roughly one third of brand volume ahead of the Arona, Ateca and Ibiza. Remembering that fact explains why the new Leon looks and drives like an evolution of the fourth generation car.

This time around there’s no SC, that car having been dropped in 2018 when it became clear that demand for three-door C segment hatchbacks was drying up. But the ST (Sportstourer) has been replaced as the outgoing estate sold well in Germany, the UK and certain other markets. These two bodies also give SEAT the chance to directly compete with the new Volkswagen Golf, the Leon remaining a less expensive option version-for-version.

Here in Britain, the new model is offered in six trim levels – SE, SE Dynamic, FR, FR Sport, Xcellence or Xcellence Lux – and with a wide choice of petrol engines but only the one diesel. These are: 110 PS 1.0-litre three-cylinder; 130 PS, 150 PS or 150 PS Mild Hybrid 1.5-litre three-cylinder; and 115 PS 2.0-litre four-cylinder TDI.

There is also a PHEV for the first time. Called eHybrid, the engine is a 1.4 litre TSI plus a single motor, the combined output of which is 150 kW (204 PS). SEAT says the 13 kWh battery allows a maximum range in EV mode of 37 miles. Both five-door hatchback and ST bodies are available.

There’s a more powerful plug-in hybrid variant too but that’s reserved for the new Cupra Leon, which has changed brands from SEAT. The powertrain is identical to the Golf GTE’s: a 110 kW (150 PS) and 250 Nm 1,395 cc petrol turbo engine and 85 kW (115 PS) motor. These produce a combined 180 kW (245 PS) and 400 Nm. The lithium-ion battery gives the same WLTP 60 km as the eHybrid.

In addition to the PHEV, there are to be several engine choices for Cupra Leon customers when sales commence:

  • 180 kW (245 PS) and 370 Nm 2.0-litre TSI petrol, front-wheel drive, hatchback and Sportstourer
  • 221 kW (300 PS) and 400 Nm 2.0-litre TSI petrol, front-wheel drive, hatchback and Sportstourer
  • 228 kW (310 PS) and 400 Nm 2.0-litre TSI petrol, 4Drive all-wheel drive, Sportstourer only

Returning to the SEAT, not all of the following engines are available in the UK but the global all-turbo powertrain line-up extends to these combinations:

  • 66 kW (90 PS) three-cylinder 1.0 TSI
  • 81 kW (110 PS) three-cylinder 1.0 TSI
  • 81 kW (110 PS) three-cylinder 1.0 eTSI (48V starter-generator and 48V lithium-ion battery)
  • 96 kW (130 PS) four-cylinder 1.5 TSI
  • 110 kW (150 PS) four-cylinder 1.5 TSI
  • 110 kW (150 PS) four-cylinder 1.5 eTSI (48V starter-generator and 48V lithium-ion battery)
  • 140 kW (190 PS) four-cylinder 2.0 TSI with standard DCT
  • 85 kW (115 PS) four-cylinder 2.0 TDI, manual transmission only
  • 110 kW (150 PS) four-cylinder 2.0 TDI, manual or DSG transmission
  • 110 kW (150 PS) four-cylinder 2.0 TDI, DSG gearbox and 4Drive system (ST only)
  • 96 kW (130 PS) four-cylinder 1.5 TGI (3 CNG tanks with a total net capacity of 17.3 kg)

In common with the new Volkswagen, the Leon’s dashboard has gone largely digital, something which will win it many friends but also turn some potential buyers away. Even those who don’t mind if their car’s ventilation controls aren’t dials and buttons will probably find the system on this car’s touchscreen to be fiddly and overly complicated. Still, the screen itself is a good size and the graphics attractive. If only there was a volume control knob for the sound system instead of a virtual slider.

All cars for the British market come with keyless start, two front USB sockets, LED headlamps with automatic high beam, heated mirrors, an electronic parking brake, an eight-inch infotainment system, cloth upholstery, leather-trim on the steering wheel and gear lever, plus the SEAT Connect system.

FR trim, which sits above SE Dynamic, includes another two USB outlets (for rear seat passengers), contrasting stitching on the black cloth seats and a wireless phone charging tray. You also get bespoke bumpers, LED dynamic indicators, 17-inch alloy wheels, dual tailpipes and a 15 mm drop for the ride height. The appearance package means this is the Leon for anyone who wants sporty looks without a high price, the FR costing less than GBP24,000 and having a CO2 average of 125 g/km.

Fuel economy is an official 46.3-51.4 mpg and that’s slightly pessimistic if my time with the car is any guide. Top speed is 130 mph but a zero to 62 mph time of 9.4 seconds is disappointing in the context of what a great handing car this is. Even with the lowered suspension and a not too sophisticated rear suspension system compared to some competitors, the ride is also very comfortable. 

In summary, compared to what you have to pay for an equivalent Volkswagen Golf or Audi A3 Sportback, the Leon FR makes a lot of sense. 

The SEAT Leon range is priced from GBP19,855 (SE trim and 1.0-litre 110PS TSI petrol engine). The as-tested FR 1.5 TSI Evo 130 PS manual costs GBP23,515 before options.