Sociedad Española de Automóviles de Turismo, otherwise known as Seat, started becoming a part of the Volkswagen universe of companies way back in June of 1983, and it has taken right up until its latest generation of models for all the benefits of the VW Group empire to come to bear. Prior to the past couple of years, Seats have continued being built and sold passably well with a healthy enough rapport with VW, but the full tech swap and nod of faith had never totally happened yet from Wolfsburg. Now it must.

This has changed at last, a smart move brought on by the global economic crisis, then the massive local Spanish economic collapse, and finally the ray of new hope presented by the Chinese market. Central to Seat's success is this model, the Leon, which shares many of its major parts with the new Mk7 Volkswagen Golf and third-gen Audi A3, as well as the new Skoda Octavia sedan. Their great unifying element is the spanking new MQB architecture, for Modularer Querbaukasten or "modular transverse matrix."

It's no secret that I really like the Seat brand and its fruit forbidden to Americans. I could move to Mexico and grab one, but I've never moved to a new place just to buy a car, so that's a non-starter. Within the Volkswagen C-segment model assortment, the plan is to keep the A3 at the premium compact top end, followed closely by the Golf, and then a price drop to either the Leon or Octavia. The Leon gets by on great youthful styling and a sporting image, while the Octavia is generally the smart choice for small families needing a little more space inside. After this drive, I was left asking, "Why buy the Golf or A3?" And VW Group doesn't like it when that particular question comes up. They have a delicate marketing challenge on their hands, let us say.

Driving Notes
  • This 1.8-liter TSI engine with 178 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque we tested in Spain is the currently the top-trim version of the Leon three- and five-door hatchback range. The trim treatment is called FR for Formula Racing. The dash to 60 miles per hour is estimated at 7.0 seconds flat, but it'll do it quicker than that.
  • In the US, this all-new 1.8-liter engine is due to become the base engine for the new Golf when it arrives middle of next year, replacing the age-old, hard-working 2.5-liter five-cylinder. What the exact power and torque calibrations for us will be is yet unknown.
  • Whereas in the European context, the popular thought is to skip the hotter gas-engined trims and go for the top turbo-diesel trims. I would disagree with that, and mainly on this Seat Leon only. The 1.8 is much sportier throughout a rev range that is capped at just over 6,500 rpm, and this Leon in FR trim is meant to be shoved around without pity.
  • I would have preferred to test the standard manual six-speed transmission, but nowadays the seven-speed dual-clutch DSG is better, quicker, nimbler and more fuel-efficient. The efficiency claim is some 25 percent better (with the onboard Seat Drive Profile in Eco mode) than anything the current North American 2.5-liter can produce in the Golf.
  • I did feel the tactile difference of material choices on the interior, plus one can tell by just looking at the cabin that the styling and image departments deliberately pulled back from what the A3 and Golf are allowed.
  • There was also a notable difference in cabin sounds all around me as I hammered the Leon SC (for Sport Coupé, by the way). The sense is that there is a wee bit less noise-vibration-and-harshness work put into either this Leon or the Octavia I recently tested.
  • My wheel-tire combo for the day in the dicey hills around Barcelona was the top, FR-optional 18-inch alloys with Dunlop SP Sport Maxx GT treads, 225/40ZR18 92Y all around, which was a great set of rubber on this dimension of car on these roads.
  • This generation Leon – as I learned testing the five-door late last year – has been deliberately shrunk in overall length in order to sit squarely in the middle of the C segment. I love this move in the face of current tendencies to make everything larger as we all apparently fatten up. Despite the shrinkage in dimension, space on the inside is increased.
  • The rear axles on all Leons are not multi-link but straight beam units, and this would also count as a cost-saver. Golfs and A3s in the top engine trims get multi-link setups, so the overall drive experience will always be marginally better.
  • The exterior of the Leon is really nice to behold and spot-on with the sporting image they need to push for the brand. The heavily studied edgy side mirrors reduce wind drag by huge amounts, and I heard no noise from them at any speeds below 85 mph.
  • Now we await the Seat Leon Cupra, the top-most trim of them all with a 260-hp tune of the 2.0-liter TSI engine. This is an excited expectation that is a sort of tradition here in Europe. People say there may not even be need for the ultimate Cupra R trim this time around, because the standard Cupra is so good. I don't buy that story; if there is no Cupra R it means that Volkswagen and Audi don't want a Cupra R barking up their tree and possibly robbing sales.