Paul Healy drives the SEAT Leon FR

Paul Healy
While Bob and the rest of the Next Gear team were busy hooning around Mondello Park in the company of a Seat Supercopa I too was having my own Seat moment and it all started with a haircut. My local barbers waiting area, much like the doctors and the dentists, consists of worn benches and ten year old copies of Evo and Top Gear that have all been thumbed to within an inch of their lives. It was whilst flicking through one of the threadbare periodicals that I stumbled upon something of a revelation.

The reviewer started the piece by talking of ‘his’ driving road. A road he knew so well that it was the perfect testing ground for like by like tests with similar cars. The road stays the same and as the driver knows each inch of the ‘test track’ intimately so too does his driving. Therefore the differences between cars are actual differences between cars and not the affects of different driving conditions. The cars in question were the Mitsubishi Evo and the Subaru Impreza STi (see what I mean about the age of the magazines). This got me thinking. Was there any road I knew so well that it could be described as ‘my’ driving road. There are plenty of tasty roads within a couple miles of my house, providing you can catch them free from tractors, but only one that I knew so well that it qualified. Being a main road (as main roads down this way go) the chances of catching it free are few and far between but when you do it is sublime even featuring what can only be described as a replica of Laguna Seca’s infamous corkscrew with an off camber left corner that turns in on itself before pitching you towards oncoming traffic as the road flicks towards the right turn. Best of all because I have driven this road at all hours of the day, in all conditions and stuck behind all manner of cars, trucks and farming equipment I have learned to know pretty much every inch of it. Perfect!

Now all I needed was a car – the cars parked on my driveway were out of the question. I know their characteristics to well to look at ‘my’ road through new eyes. I needed something with a bit of poke and a decent enough chassis to truly exploit the corners on my own personal five mile test track. Only one car that I had access to there and then fit the bill, so I jumped into the Golf and made the short trip to my brother in laws house to borrow his Seat Leon FR TDI.

With its quasi MPV / coupe looks even the standard Leon manages to stand out from other cars in the crowded C class segment. Opt for the FR spec and you have a car that looks like its going to grab you by the gentleman’s area and have some fun with you. It is not quite as wild looking as something like the Focus ST but stood beside the car on whose platform it is based, the VW Golf, it is positively hooligan. The deeper valances and mean looking alloys are not all that separate this car from the rest of the Leon range though. As the stepping stone between the standard range and the range topping Cupra models the FR gains sports suspension, a brace of FR badges, custom interior and most importantly a 170bhp TDI engine that is backed up by 350Nm of torque. That’s more torque than the likes of the BMW 530i and the Porsche Boxster S. It is the same unit that is used across the VAG range but it seems particularly at home under the bonnet of a car from VAG’s ‘sporty’ division. A 2.0 TFSI engine is offered, the same engine as used in the MkV Golf GTI, but with the TDI returning 6 L/100km and motor tax of €447 the oil burner just makes more sense and has been the bigger seller of the two.

So back to the drive – flanked by my brother in law, who was unwilling to let his pride and joy out of his sight, I settled into the FR monogrammed bucket seat and got myself accustomed to the surroundings of the sporty Seat. While not on par with offerings from Audi or Volkswagen the FR’s interior is still a nice place to be with leather and brushed aluminium used extensively. Everything is exactly where you expect it to be with the helpful addition of controls for the radio and optional sat nav placed on the square bottomed steering wheel. Fire the engine up and the white dials spring to life and you are greeted with something you are not expecting from a diesel powered car – a distinctive exhaust rasp. Even at tickover it burbles away encouraging you to choose the first of the six gears and get on your way.

Through the first series of corners on the ‘test track’ the Leon was already proving itself more adept than the cars I would normally drive. The heavy diesel engine did lead to a touch of understeer but this is quickly corrected by lifting off the accelerator before planting it again once you round the corner. That is when you discover the true wonder of this car – with all that torque available from as low down as 1,800rpm it just pulls like a train out of corners and just keeps going until the turbo is spent signifying its time to change gear. The normal benchmark of 0-100kmh just don’t do this car justice as at 8.2 seconds its almost sedate but it is the mid range acceleration that is this cars forte. Overtaking is an absolute doddle with Massey Fergusons finest dispatched in the blink of an eye before weighing anchors to slow down for the slow right hander that precedes the fearsome ‘Corkscrew’.

This was to be the real test of how good this car was. I know my braking points, turn in points and the point where you can begin to lean on the accelerator pedal again before powering out of the right hand flick – and it surpassed all expectations. I was able to brake later, the tight chassis turned in easier and actually allowed me to take a tighter line and once the camber of the corner levelled out it soon disappeared into my rearview mirror. All the while the brother in law was holding onto the ‘oh shit handle’ for dear life. He would later tell me that the only reason he wasn’t flipping out was that I seemed so calm. Yeah right I was having a blast and really resented having to hand the keys back at the end of the trip. My one gripe with the car, and it’s a fairly big one, is the stiff suspension. It is perfect for hooning around backroads having a laugh and on the motorways it is fine but once you hit the slightest pothole, cats eye or uneven stretch of tar its time to call the chiropractor. It really does detract from what is an otherwise great car especially with the low profile tyres wrapped around the optional 18’ alloy wheels. And when you consider that despite being a hot hatch this car is probably going to spend most of its life just tootling around doing day to day things it becomes a problem. The solution – drive everywhere as if you are late for mass!