First Drive Review: 2013 Seat Leon 2.0 TDI FR

 

Snap brings us our first review of a car not sold in the United States, the 2013 Seat Leon 2.0 TDI FR. It’s one car RawAutos believes should be sold stateside immediately.

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Spanish Fly: Meet the much less expensive Volkswagen Golf VII

This handsome little devil called Leon is built in Madrid at the Seat factory located there and this is the model’s third generation. Seat stands proudly for “Sociedad Española de Automóviles de Turismo” and the company started in 1950 by the government has had a truly spotty existence. But I personally love the damned thing.

In the past few years, the three brands I cared about least in the Volkswagen Group family were Spain’s Seat, the Czech Republic’s Skoda, and France’s Bugatti. The latter just because it’s a silly endeavor pursued at all crazy cost by the King of Wolfsburg, VW CEO and immortal bionic man Ferdinand Piëch. Bugatti is boring because there still is no second act to the Veyron.

The first two have mostly been the ugly stepchildren to VW ever since either became wholly part of the German Empire – Seat in 1990 and Skoda in 2000. They were just as irrelevant and lost as Fiat was until Sergio Marchionne came along to give the torinesi some balls in 2003. Volkswagen Group didn’t have much of a clue quite what to do with these comparatively tiny brands in fragile countries until the world economic crisis handily came along and made both Seat and Skoda – and their workers – far more agreeable to bigger changes regarding costs reduction and heavier sharing overseen by the Wolfsburg mothership. The German ethic is very much in charge now in both places.

These days now, I really enjoy both Seat and Skoda a bunch. Only Bugatti continues to pursue irrelevance on a grand scale.

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Then there’s been the forever challenge of making Seat and Skoda distinctly separate brands from one another so far as product offerings and price point. Especially since it is by no means sufficient that Skoda sell massively only in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, while Seat continues the faint praise of being a sales leader in Spain – a market that bought 1.6 million cars in 2007 but just 680,000 in 2011. The two companies need to go far more global and need to be clearly differentiated in a way similar to how Hyundai and Kia are only now finally doing with some success.

I’ve been testing all of the new bread-and-butter smaller cars from the four big sharers at VW Group – Audi, VW, Skoda, Seat – and all of them from the third-gen A3 and Golf VII right through to the Mk 3 Octavia (Skoda) and Leon are better than the crucial A-class over at Mercedes. The A-class may be the very best looking of all compacts, but its drive dynamics and materials choices related to the price suffer when put up against any of the VW Foursome. And, as you’ll see, particularly this sexy new Leon is a relative bargain for a car this good in the high-taxation European context.

As on all of the new generation cars which now ride on the massively important new MQB architecture (for Modularer Querbaukasten or “modular transverse matrix”), I chose to test the VW Group 2.0-liter TDI four-cylinder diesel from the EA288 family. I have done so because this engine is an ongoing work of German art sold around the world. The entire engine family has recently been re-engineered specifically to accommodate the needs of MQB, and the 2.0-liter TDI is now 18.5 percent more efficient than before. This means this top trim Seat Leon 2.0 TDI FR with 181 horsepower should get up to 65.3 mpg highway and 44.4 mpg in the city if it ever were to grace U.S. streets.

Particularly satisfying today was driving this 181-hp motor with 280 pound-feet of torque (from 1,750 to 3,000 rpm that) while shifting through the fabulous six-speed manual transmission. Granted, had I had the six-speed DSG with paddles, then the onboard Seat drive profile interface would also govern shift timings, but I vastly prefer the manual gearbox on a hot diesel of this dimension. The FR designation is a new label that stands for Formula Racing, and the chassis, stance, engine output, and detailing get a nice upgrade versus the standard 148-hp 2.0 TDI. Getting to 60 mph from a stop with this FR turbodiesel takes an estimated 7.3 seconds. I haven’t even had a chance yet to drive this hotter diesel trim in the other cars sharing MQB, not even in the Golf.

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Whereas Audi is intended to be this segment’s benchmark compact premium, the Golf VII is the universally desired and practical near-premium hatch. Skoda gives buyers value for high quality and above-average space, while Seat gives buyers value with a premium sport look and feel. The new Seat brand tag is “Enjoyneering”, in fact, a term creation sure to please the practical Teuton and hot-blooded Catalan alike.

Beyond the clear pluses of this Leon I drove, though, is the fact that trim for trim the Leon costs about $5,500 less than the new Golf VII. That’s huge, in case you wondered. This stylish little diesel hottie from Spain would come in at around a $26,000 starting price if ever it came to the States in exactly the trim I tested. Me likey likey. And an absolute base Leon at the lowest price would be around $18,000.

The Seat Leon 2.0 TDI FR with manual shifter, 181-hp rating, and Start & Stop, is one of the great driver’s hatches that Europe produces, and at this price and equipment level it may be the very best one. The Seat version of VW Group’s adaptive drive menu called Seat Drive Profile is a simpler and frankly better version of the software. Here you get Comfort, Sport, Eco, and Individual without having to bother with a Normal setting. (What you choose is sort of your “Normal”, right? i.e. Individual serves this purpose in my logic.)

Once up in the hills of southernmost Spain (Where else?), this powertrain with this FR treatment did all that Seat told me it should. While simply sitting in the Leon cabin, I definitely feel the slightly less plush materials chosen versus those on the higher trim Golf units and on all Audi A3s, plus the slight lack of attention to the aesthetic detailing as particularly on the Audi. But nonetheless, the sheer quality of assembly and the extremely pleasing stylistics of the living space – as with the new exterior “arrowhead” design theme – make this former econobox a totally satisfying near-premium compact today. Then the wider tracks and longer wheelbase, with less front and rear overhang, make for lots of passenger and cargo room while catering to a better drive dynamic.

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The U.S. just loses the plot entirely when it comes to fantastic smaller cars like this new Leon – pronounced “lay-ON” by the way and best done while wearing a swishy swashbuckler’s cape and a Zoro mask. I played all day in this comfy fuel-sipper, the 18-inch Continental ContiSportContact 5 treads doing their all at every turn. And the 18-inch Performance wheels with titanium blade detailing are just stunning on this li’l red machine.

This trim Leon arrives all over richer countries in the EU as of May this year. Why buy the Audi or VW high-buck versions when you could have this exquisite salsa? Oh, right, Americans can’t. Bummer.

2013 Seat Leon 2.0 TDI FR

Engine: 2.0L turbocharged i4
Power: 181 HP / 280 LB-FT
Transmission: 6-Speed Manual
0-60 Time: 7.3 Seconds (Est.)
Drivetrain: Front-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight: 2,880 LBS
Seating: 2+3
MPG: 44.4 CITY / 65.3 HWY (Est.)
MSRP: $26,000 (Est.)

[Billy “Snap” MacGillicuty – text; Charlie Magee – Photos]

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