Review and road test of the SEAT Leon SC (2013 - 2017)
A LESS COMPROMISED COUPE
By Jonathan Crouch
SEAT is supposed to be about 'enjoyneering', a marketing phrase the Spanish maker thinks is suggestive of dynamic driving, striking design and German technology. If all of that's true, then we should certainly see it in this car, the Leon SC, a shorter, sportier version of the company's best selling family hatch which was sold here between 2013 and 2017. Does it make a good used buy?
3dr 'SC' Coupe (1.2 TSI, 1.4TSI, 1.8TSI, 2.0TSI / 1.6 TDI, 2.0 TDI)
The SEAT Leon's always had an inherently sporty feel. Back to back World Touring Car Racing crowns in 2008 and 2009 helped of course but this aspect of the car's reputation is probably more down to the fact that customers have tended to prefer it in the more dynamic guises that have worn FR or even Cupra badges. It's the kind of branding most makers would pin to the boot lid of a spicy three-door or trendy little coupe, but the Leon line-up never offered us such a thing until the launch of this car, the Leon SC, in the Summer of 2013.
Its existence was made possible by the clever MQB - or 'Modular Transverse Matrix' - platform around which the structure of all the Volkswagen Group's Golf-sized compact family cars was being based by 2013. Thanks to this, models produced by the German conglomerate could be lengthened or shortened almost at will by the constituent companies in the Wolfsburg empire, SEAT of course its Spanish outpost. So in this period, the Barcelona brand was able to easily lengthen its Leon family hatch to create the ST estate version. Or shorten it to bring us something sportier like this three-door SC.
Could we go as far as to call this a 'coupe' rather than merely a three-door hatch? Interestingly, SEAT's marketing material from the time didn't do that, but then went to great length to emphasise this variant's quite distinct lower-slung dynamic character, before listing as direct rivals pretty much every affordable little family hatch-based coupe on the market. There wouldn't have been a dilemma if, like Renault, Peugeot and Hyundai, SEAT had decided to trade sensibility for style in creating a car of this kind. But the Spaniards weren't prepared to do that, preferring the idea of an affordable yet smartly sporting three-door practical enough for family people yet potentially stylish enough to get the odd admiring glance. Which is what we have here. It sold until 2017, when it was quietly deleted from the Leon range and not replaced.
What You Get
SEAT say this Leon SC was one of their best-looking cars ever, a statement the Spanish brand would have been unlikely to have been brave enough to make had this Leon SC been merely a constricted version of the ordinary five-door hatch with a couple of fewer doors. But it wasn't. You wouldn't know this by focusing on the front end which encapsulates the brand's distinctive 'arrowhead' design approach with a familiar Leon look. So there are beady-eyed angular Audi-style headlamps flanking the usual trapezoidal SEAT grille. Move towards the rear and you'll find a shape than in comparison to an ordinary Leon five-door hatch is completely redesigned from the A-pillars backwards, with the sleeker bodywork sitting on a wheelbase platform shortened by 35mm. That gave this model more of a squat, sporty appearance than the five-door version - and a bit more driveway cred.
Which you begin to better appreciate up-close. Though the so-called 'linea dinamica' line down each side is a familiar Leon trademark, in this form the car got much more pronounced rear wheel arch blisters, a roofline 13mm lower than a conventional Leon and a more rakish look thanks to a rear screen inclined by an extra 19-degrees. Stylist Alejando Mesonero-Romanos' idea was to create a more aggressive 'hunkered-down' appearance further emphasised by rear three-quarter windows that slope downwards in parallel with the line of the C-pillar.
The clean, crisp, racy look is especially eye-catching when dressed to kill - as in this model's more dynamic FR guise. This was a trim package offered on all but the entry-level petrol and diesel engines and is enough to give the look of this car real coupe credibility, including as it does lowered sports suspension and sleeker bumpers that complement small but important touches like dark tinted rear windows and twin chromed exhaust pipes sitting below LED tail lights. Without such tinsel, the SC seems a little plain, so try and stretch to the 'FR' package if you can.
And inside? Well apart from sports seats that sit you slightly lower in the car, the at-the-wheel experience is the same as it would be in any other Leon. The best that the Volkswagen Group can do in terms of chromed highlights and soft-touch plastic is naturally reserved for rival upwardly mobile three-door versions of the Volkswagen Golf and the Audi A3 but by the same token, this is in many respects a more interesting place to be. There are more charismatic touches like the unusual trapezoidal shapes for things like the door handles and the air vents. And you don't have to put up with arguably pointless features like push button starters and electronic handbrakes.
We also prefer this car's higher placement of the infotainment touchscreen - or as SEAT likes to call it, the EASYCONNECT operating system - dominating the centre part of the dashboard and far more in your line of sight than it is in, say, a Golf. It's there to reduce button clutter by dealing with stereo, onboard computer, phone, navigation, parking and, if specified, Drive Profile system functions, all operated via a screen that comes in two sizes, with carousel-style graphics also replicated on the additional display you'll find in the centre of the instrument cluster. This is a practical place to be too. The big glovebox is one of thirteen cubby holes dotted around the car.
Access to the rear seat is aided by wide-opening doors and easy-to-reach seat levers which both fold the seat back forward and slide the base towards the dash before returning it to where it was before, this SEAT's so-called 'Easy Entry' system. Once installed at the rear, you'll find a space that the Spanish brand rather ambitiously claims is large enough for three: three children perhaps. Two adults should be quite comfortable though on all but the longest trips - providing they're not basketball players: inevitably the roof height's a tad lower than it is in an ordinary five-door Leon. Impressively, the legroom's almost as good though - actually 14mm better than it was on the previous generation five-door model. As a result, if we are to think of this car as any kind of compact coupe, then it's a class-leadingly practical one.
An observation that also holds true when it comes to the boot. The good news is that it shares the same 380-litre boot capacity with its five-door sibling. That's also the same as you get in rivals from this era like Vauxhall's Astra GTC and Kia's pro_cee'd. Even with the 60/40 split-folding rear bench pushed forward, only 60-litres of the standard Leon's capacity is lost, the total being a 1,150-litres.
What to Look For
As a whole, Leon SC buyers seem to be a pretty satisfied lot, though we did come across a few issues in our survey. There were quite a few gearshift issues, so check that out on your test drive. One owner we came across had had trouble selecting first; another with selecting 2nd and 3rd; and yet another with selecting 4th, 5th and 6th. Whilst you're on your test drive, look out for any signs of sluggish running - a few owners reported that. Oh and listen out for suspension rattles, another reported issue.
One problem that SEAT are apparently aware of is the occasional tendency for a few rogue 2.0 TDI diesel models to suffer an occasional loss of power when cruising on constant throttle. One owner we came across had a door seal leak, another had a dashboard lighting issue. Bear in mind too that headlight bulbs are very expensive to replace.
(approx based on a 2013 Leon SC 1.6 TDI) A set of brake pads are between £13-£15. Brake discs cost around £30 - or between £60 to £70 if you want a pricier brand. Air filters are in the £17 to £20 bracket. Oil filters cost around £8-£10 and fuel filters between £15 and £22. You'll pay around £10 to £25 for a wiper blade. A timing belt would be around £45. Bash one of the wing mirrors and you're looking at paying between £27 and £33 for a replacement (or up to £66 for a pricier brand).
On the Road
You probably won't be too surprised to hear that this Leon SC offers a very similar driving experience to that of its five-door stablemate. And fortunately, that's a very good thing. In this, the Spanish engineers were helped immeasurably by the fact that like its Volkswagen Group cousins, the Audi A3, the Volkswagen Golf and the Skoda Octavia, this car rides on the organisation's hi-tech MQB platform, underpinnings upon which billions of euros were lavished. It shows too, this car able to handle even the poorest surfaces with supple confidence, yet hold its own on the twisty stuff, where body roll is well controlled.
This is proper 'sportiness', complementing the agile, eager feel that's always epitomised Leon motoring in its pokier guises. Yet even if you choose one of the more firmly-specifed 'FR' models with their lower, stiffer suspension and wider tyres, it's a dynamic recipe you'll still be happy to live with in the traffic jams, urban jungles and motorway mileages of real life. There's an extra dash of spirit in this car which for some reason, we just don't feel in an apparently identical three-door Volkswagen Golf or Audi A3. Perhaps the sportier styling and more dynamic brand image that this SEAT has lead you to push it that little bit harder, revealing unexpected handling talent that its Wolfsburg group stablemates could also offer if only given the chance. Maybe. But somehow we doubt it.
But if we can't explain to you why even an entry-level version of this Leon can offer a reasonable enthusiastic drive, we can at least elaborate on the reasons why the pokier variants further up the range really relish a good flogging. Go for a model with more than 150PS and it'll also come with multilink rear suspension. It's a set-up more suitable for high performance driving, with five links per side allowing greater lateral movement for improved contact with the road, particularly during high speed cornering when the tyres are at the limit of their grip. It's a pity more Leon SC variants don't get it. After all, Ford fits such a set-up to even the humblest versions of its three-door Focus.
Still, at least most Leon SCs do get the clever XDS electronic differential lock, there to help you get the power down more quickly out of tight corners, dialing out understeer and firing you from bend to bend. Something you'll feel minded to enjoy pretty often in the sportiest variants, the 265PS Cupra - which offers a 2.0-litre TSI turbo petrol engine in a form even pokier than that used in the VW Golf GTI - and the FR 2.0 TDI 184PS, a car able to match 67mpg economy with 140mph performance.
Of course most Leon SC buyers will be looking at much humbler variant - like the 150PS 2.0-litre TDI diesel we'd recommend. Mind you, this car still has a pretty good turn of speed, a beefy 330Nm of torque making possible 62mph from rest in 8.4s on the way to a maximum of 134mph. This is one of the least powerful routes into one of the sportier 'FR' (or 'Formula Racing') models which, along with the top Cupra variant, get SEAT's 'Drive Profile' system which promises to change your car's dynamic character at the touch of a button - or, as in this case, at the touch of a touchscreen.
Want to see how it works? Well, you press this 'mode' button on the dash and up it pops on the central infotainment screen here. There are three main settings - 'Sport', 'Comfort' and 'Eco' - which appropriately tweak steering feel, throttle response and, on DSG auto versions, transmission change points. Select 'Sport' and you also get a couple of red mist-inducing additions: the cabin and instrument lighting changes from white to red, while a sound actuator emphasises the engine note. All the 'Drive Profile' elements can also be individually fiddled with via an extra 'Individual' mode.
If you're not buying this car with driving dynamics as an over-riding priority, you might well conclude that all of this is nice to have perhaps but hardly of crucial value in ordinary day-to-day driving. That's the kind of motoring you'd very happily complete at the wheel of the Leon SC variant that'll be Britain's biggest seller, the 105PS 1.6 TDI diesel. Like the 105PS 1.2-litre TSI entry-level petrol unit, it makes 62mph from rest in about 10s on the way to around 120mph. If that's really not fast enough, then two other petrol options remain, a 1.4 TSI with 140PS and a 1.8 TSI with 180PS. For the 1.4, the option of ACT (or 'Active Cylinder Technology') was developed to seamlessly cut out two of the four cylinders for greater efficiency under low or medium throttle. And talking of hi-tech, most Leon SC variants offered original buyers the option of a twin-clutch DSG auto gearbox, the clever kind that pre-selects the next gear even before you've left the last one.
You'll rarely get a better or more credible excuse to own a coupe than this. The Leon SC doesn't even claim to be one but spec it properly and there are all the feelings of fashionable indulgement that ownership of this kind of car can bring. Without the usual downsides of high pricing, cramped rear seating, restricted cargo capacity and a compromised day-to-day driving experience.
This SEAT suffers from none of these issues - but of course you can't have everything. There are lower-slung, slinkier coupes. And there are more practical three-door hatches. Finding a reasonably priced car better able to combine these two attributes though, could take you a very long time. So this three-door Leon emerges as that most appealing of things: a sensible car that makes you feel special. Which in turn, makes it, in its own sensible, affordable way, a very special car indeed.
SEAT Leon SC (2013 - 2017) review by Jonathan Crouch