SEATCupra.net were invited to the international press launch of the new MK3 Leon. Syphon was able to get some time off work at the last minute and was lucky enough to fly out to Malaga and drive the car for the first time. He has written this feature on the experience and his thoughts on the car.
SEATCupra.net were kindly offered an opportunity to test drive the new third generation Leon in Malaga. Luckily I was able to arrange some last minute annual leave from work. It was an opportunity not to be missed considering we are still several months away from models being available in the UK.
Having travelled across to Stansted from Bristol on Sunday I stayed overnight with some of the media and SEAT’s press team at the nearest hotel. Over dinner we discussed the new Leon amongst other cars in the range.
Of course, any news about a forthcoming Cupra model was top of my agenda from a personal perspective as well as for readers of the site.
There is no risk of spoiling this review by saying that from what we’ve read already, the Cupra is expected to be shown at the Geneva motor show in early 2014 and will make its way into showrooms later that same year. It will most likely be in available all three body specifications as well; SC, 5 door and ST.
With FR now classed as a trim, we are seeing sporty styling right from launch which can only be a good thing. Many will remember the MK2 launching with the TFSI model 180HP in basic trim (what would later become FR), much to the frustration of some owners I’m sure.
Whilst it has frustrated some forum members that the new FR identity has “diluted” what FR stands for, you can absolutely see why SEAT have done it. They want and need to sell more cars. In a world where sporty, fast, fuel-guzzling models are on the decline, the aim is that people can benefit from the economy while still enjoying the sporty styling. With the range topping Cupra and Cupra R to come, the overall range now appears more balanced.
I was asked to find out what has happened to the TDI FR 2.0 184hp model and why it has dropped off the configurator having been on there briefly. This it was explained is down to production line capacity and priorities and it will arrive in the UK in May with the 180hp petrol in April. The rest of the range will arrive in March and some possibly slipping in as early as February.
A late dinner followed by an early start. We checked in at 6.30am with the flight leaving at 8am. It’s cheaper for SEAT to charter a flight and representatives from the majority of the major publications filled the plane. Chatting to some of them it’s interesting to hear that this is largely how they live; trips to Europe almost weekly for some, different cars on their drive all the time. A petrol head’s dream.
As a SEAT enthusiast this opportunity is something I am extremely grateful for and needless to say the excitement probably contributed to a poor night’s sleep. For the number of the journalists on board it’s clear this is just another test drive that will be forgotten come their next trip in a week or two. On board the plane I consider keeping my SEAT branded paper drink’s coaster as a souvenir but then realized that’s probably going a bit too far.
During the flight Mark from the SEAT team handed us a press pack that included details of the models we would be driving, as well as a detailed document showing the Leon’s history and a lot of comparison charts pitting the Leon against its competitors.
One of the questions I aimed to ask was who do SEAT see as their competitors currently?
The company comparisons are made mainly against the Ford Focus and the Vauxhall Astra. Some of the tables compare prices against the whole hatchback market including KIA, Peugeot, BMW and Honda.
It confirmed what I was told during dinner on Sunday evening, that the SC and ST models of the new Leon will be on sale by the end of 2013, so expect a staggered launch with the complete range of body styles fully rolled out by then. This should include a Cupra specification in all three of the body styles to follow at a later stage.
The flight lasted around three hours and having earlier in the year been to the Paris motor show with m0rk to see the new Leon at its launch event I was excited to be getting behind the wheel of the new model on the Spanish roads.
After making our way through the airport we were taken to SEAT’s welcome desk. Press packs were handed out and some staff greeted us armed with iPads which had all the press cars available for us to choose. I was quite far back so unfortunately all the sporty models had been snapped up. I paired up with a journalist I met on the flight and we chose the 1.4 TSI SE model in a metallic grey.
We walked through to an area of the car park that SEAT had taken over and there were lines of shiny new SEAT Leon’s. The FR models standing out the most striking in a bright red colour. Every car there had the front LED headlight option box ticked. It’s not surprising as they really are one of the stand out features of the car and the whole purpose of this event was to impress.
We made our way over to our car and the staff fitted the in-car cameras for us to use. I took a quick look round and took some photos and then we were all set to go.
I’m not very used to driving on the other side of the road, nor am I used to driving in a left hand drive car so I was grateful my new driving buddy (a seasoned motoring journalist from Scotland called Stewart) offered to take the wheel first.
As we pulled away it gave me a chance to poke round the cabin.
1.4 TSI SE (Monsoon Grey)
Our car came equipped with full leather in cream and it certainly brightened the cabin. Personally I prefer the darker trim of the sportier models, but it was still a very nice place to be. Of course most options had been ticked and the car had sat-nav included as well as the “SEAT sound system”.
Minor details showed the extra care that has been taken with this interior. Small things like the much roomier glove box having a soft opening mechanism, and no skimping on an interior light either.
Soft touch plastic/rubber runs throughout the cabin. There are still some hard bits, but these are not in critical areas.
Forward visibility is greatly improved on the new model with much smaller A pillars. Something the outgoing Mk2 really falls down upon, but speaking as an owner something you learn to live with.
The arrow-head mirrors are striking and feature side indicators. Our car had the auto dimming mirror which above it houses the forward facing camera for all the trickery such as lane guidance (more on this later).
SEAT provided us with a route book, which took us through some challenging roads that would ultimately end up with us arriving at the first stop by mid-afternoon.
After a couple of missed turns (thanks to my poor navigation skills as passenger) and having to double back on ourselves we earned some angry Spanish beeps. If only I’d of had a flag to wave out the window that said “Sorry, we’re British”.
We headed up a very steep mountain road with a winding climb for many miles. After overtaking a couple of struggling vans, Stewart was able to really open up the car, and give it some real enthusiasm into each corner. If I’m honest I started to feel a bit sick after a while, a combination of being chucked hard from side to side relentlessly and not being in the driving seat.
We stopped near the summit and swapped over. A quick adjustment of the driving position and I tried to rewire my brain to the gear stick being on the other side. That bit I managed, but then pulled off straight onto the wrong side of the road, thankfully my passenger quickly pointed this mistake out to me and thankfully road was quiet. I’ll probably include this in the blooper reel.
I took it easy at first to get my confidence level up. As we reached the top of the mountain the view was amazing. Looking down over Malaga and seeing more mountains of a similar height far away in the distance with clouds around them made for a breath-taking vista. We weren’t there for the scenery though and I had to really concentrate on staying on the correct side of the road while not banging my left hand on the door looking for an imaginary gear stick.
Luckily I could pretty much stay in third gear as we began to snake our way back down the mountain. As my confidence grew, I started to push the car faster into the corners and it handled it well. The ride was comfortable, obviously helped by the quality of the Spanish roads, which were excellent, give or take the odd landslide we had to dodge from some earlier flooding.
The first “Cube”
Our first leg concluded at the first of two “SEAT Cubes”. These “Cubes” are a large cube shaped (hence the name) white structure, which are branded with the SEAT logo on the outside. Inside it was like a mini motor show presentation with trim samples, colour combinations and artwork highlighting parts of the car. In the centre was a mini presentation area complete with studio lighting and large screens that were running looping promotional videos.
We missed the first presentation and sat out in the sun and tucked into lunch. Some more journalists arrived back having taken a few wrong turns themselves and before long we were inside waiting for the presentation to run again for our benefit.
We were introduced to Tony Gallardo from the design team and he took us through the details of the design on the car. He compared the lines on the side to the tension of an arrow before flight, the rear haunches were described as being as wide as possible and showing a muscular stance, while the front of the car showed stability and poise like a sprinter on the starting blocks. It is clear that SEAT has put a lot of thought into the design of the car and it is certainly their most striking model to date.
Luc Donckerwolke (previously of Lamborghini fame) has now left SEAT to become the Director of Design for Volkswagen but has left SEAT with a strong legacy to build upon. Being the SEAT geek I am I have watched the full 15 minutes of the design video on SEAT’s media site and it is clear anyone who still accuses SEAT’s cars as “coming from the VW parts bin” couldn’t be more wrong. This is a 100% SEAT design and in fact from speaking to the press team, the other members of the VAG group apparently take quite a lot of innovation from within SEAT themselves for their own products.
After the design presentation we were introduced to Fermin Soneira who is a senior engineer. He started by explaining that this is the best SEAT model they have ever designed and built. He took us through highlight features, firstly focusing on the front lights. For the geeks amongst you the lights are running at 5500 kelvin, the closest they could get to natural daylight, which is 7000 kelvin. The rear LED brake lights are also able to respond 0.2 seconds quicker than their halogen alternatives.
The “infotainment” system was next and the interface has been designed specifically for SEAT including a layout and design that feels integrated into the styling of the dash. It is also been made very intuitive to use (more on this later).
Fermin continued by describing the improved aerodynamics over the previous model (10%) and the significant weight reduction that the new platform provides as well as introducing a higher level of agility. He made reference to the previous model’s chassis being a bit too stiff, particularly for our roads in the UK.
Next year more technology will be introduced in addition to technologies like lane assist and tiredness recognition that are already available. These include a special braking system to minimise impact during a multi-collision pile up, traffic sign scanning to identify speed limits connected to the sat-nav system and self-adjusting cruise control that will slow the vehicle down if you get too close to the car in front.
The Cupra discussion
The presentation drew to a close and we were told about our next leg of the journey to Cube Two, but I took the opportunity to speak with Fermin. I’m glad I did. He is involved in the testing process of the new Cupra and the new Leon with the Mk2 Cupra R wheels, which was captured recently during testing, is the test mule as we had suspected.
He said the drive is significantly better than the Mk2 and indicated the mule is running higher power than we are likely to see in the release version. One of the UK team told me later that they had been there when the car had driven past and he said the sound from the dual exhaust was awesome!
As previously mentioned we are unlikely to see the new Leon Cupra until 2014, but if Fermin has his way we may see something towards the end of next year. Fingers crossed.
It was clear from our discussion the importance the brand still place on the Cupra which is reassuring they aren’t going to go completely ECO on us just yet.
1.6 TDI 1SE 105HP DSG (White)
It was time for a car swap before we left. Again all the FR’s had gone so we took the 1.6TDI. This model is expected to be the biggest seller in the UK (minus the DSG) and my driving buddy was most interested in this for his review. Our next route would take us on a reasonable journey to the next cube which was located at the heart of Malaga’s port.
We began our journey with our usual approach of turning the wrong way taking about 10 minutes to realise we’d need to double back on ourselves again. Yes I was navigating again (if you can call it that) from the passenger seat.
The interior of this car was a more familiar black and dark grey affair and it really is a nice place to be. I know I said that before, but it’s worth repeating… The interior really is brilliant, and I don’t think the Mk2 interior was as bad as a lot of people made out either.
This second route had us mainly travel on motorways to see how the cars performed on long journeys.
About half way through the journey after passing through a tollbooth we swapped places so I could have a drive. Slipping into the seat I had to again rewire my brain, not only to drive on the right hand side as well as sitting on the left hand side, but also getting used to an automatic and not slamming my clutch foot on the brake. I’m a man, I can’t multitask!
Luckily we weren’t doing anything particularly challenging route wise at the start so I got used to it pretty quickly without taking us down the side of a mountain.
The engine delivered more torque than the previous car and it was certainly a good cruiser. The gear changes were smooth and I can see it being a very popular model as SEAT expect it to be.
Whilst driving I took the opportunity to explore some of the driving assistance gadgets, I found it was easy to switch on lane assist from the centre console. This function was a new experience for me, having not driven a vehicle with these features before.
The front camera looks for the markings in the road to show where you are in relation to the lanes. If you are nicely in the centre the virtual indicator shows green lines. If you start to drift towards one of the lines it changes colour and you can feel the wheel making very slight adjustments to move you back to the centre of the lane.
I didn’t notice this when I was indicating to change lanes so I would assume the system realises you are intending to take this action so backs off. The technology is clearly there to help drive for you and with Google’s innovating steps in this area of technology (see Google’s self-driving car) I don’t think the future of vehicle automation is that far away.
The controls for the system were easy to use on the move and not distracting. The cruise control stalk sits on its own below the indicator and gives you more control than the previous integrated option on the previous Mk2 models.
As a gadget lover I would find it hard to resist ticking the options boxes for this modern wizardry. Some will say it is taking the fun out of driving, but on a long cruise I would find it kind of reassuring that there’s a front facing camera keeping an eye out just in case.
The second “Cube”
As mentioned earlier the second cube was located in the port of Malaga and we arrived late again to hear the tail end of the next presentation. Thankfully another one was due a bit later on.
Neil Reeve from Communications introduced an overview of the second briefing and introduced Richard Harrison from SEAT HQ who is the group sales director for Euro 5 (the biggest target European Countries, of which the UK is one).
Each trim level was explained to us and it was made clear that “boy racer styling” is not where they want to take the brand. This is one of the reasons I like SEAT. I don’t think I could live with a full on bling car like the Focus RS. A nice sporty not too in your face Cupra will do the job just nicely, especially as I’m supposed to be older and more responsible nowadays.
The FR trim will see more colour variation. I did notice the colour palette on the configurator seems a little subdued from previous colours we’ve seen in the past. Hopefully this will improve quite soon. The production run sounds like it’s still getting into the swing of things.
Leon is seen as the second pillar for SEAT with Ibiza taking the first spot. SEAT want to sell as many Leons as Ibiza’s and this car had to be just right. They are already getting close to that ambition in some countries with the Mk2, but the new three model Leon line up should give them the final boost they need to achieve that aim by giving the customer greater choice.
SC will arrive in the middle of next year and the ST towards the end as previously mentioned.
There have been 1.2 million Leon customers (Mk1 & 2). SEAT admits they have been too dependent on Europe, which has its vulnerabilities hence the move into other markets, such as China and now Russia.
Their goal is to get a 3% market share across Europe. They are on target to achieve this in the UK. The magic 3% is based on research showing that is the point when customers actively notice a significant number of the cars on the road which builds that key brand awareness.
Next to speak was Peter Whinney, Head of SEAT UK. He explained SEAT has been doing well in the UK with a total of 36,089 cars sold in 2011. In September this year they had their best ever-sales month of 8000 cars, which is a 2.2% market share. They are well on course for a record sales volume and market share by the time 2012 is finished.
SEAT currently has a 124 strong dealer network within the UK, which Peter said is the best they’ve had in the UK to date.
131,000 Leons have been sold in the UK overall to date making up 31% of SEAT’s sales. In 2007 the Leon unusually outsold the Ibiza by 500 cars.
In 2012 there have been over 13,000 Leon sales driven by strong run out models such as the FR+ and finance offers.
The FR, Cupra and Cupra R models have totalled 37,000 sales since 2000. That is 28% of all Leon sales.
After the end of the presentation I was in no doubt how important this Leon launch is for SEAT and they really are pulling out all the stops in terms of quality, model coverage and promotion. They are off to a flying start with the praise the car has already received from the motoring press.
Dinner and a chat with the Head of SEAT UK
We left the second cube and were taken back to the hotel in a fleet of Alhambras. Dinner was at 8.30pm and we were transported, again by Alhambra to the restaurant. SEAT staff were seated at each table amongst the journalists and I sat next to Juliet, SEAT UK’s Head of Public Relations.
Tony from SEAT design was also seated at our table and I asked him how much of the new Leon was Luc Donckerwolke’s and if the new Head of SEAT design Alejandro Mesonero-Romanos had made much of a mark on the new car. Tony explained that 98% of the car is Luc’s vision. I also asked about the Facelift Ibiza Cupra and he expressed that was also Luc’s as well. It is clear we have yet to see Alejandro’s influence. Personally I hope he doesn’t deviate too much from the course Luc has set. The new SEAT breed are stunning in my (slightly) biased view.
I had asked Juliet if I would be able to grab some time with Peter appreciating he’s busy and the media would be vying for his time. She said she would make sure I had some time to speak to him. Luckily I managed to grab him after the meal and I was able to share the trip back to the hotel with him. I have met him before at the EXEO launch in Gloucester a few years ago (see review here: http://www.seatcupra.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1079&Itemid=9)
He appreciates the SEATCupra.net forum and its membership and through his leadership he’s allowed his team to support us in a variety of ways over the years with exclusives such as the Mk2 Leon Cupra R unveil before any journalist was shown the car (see here: http://www.seatcupra.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1212&Itemid=9) and invitations to launch events such as this one.
I had a list of questions I wanted to ask him, some of which had already been answered during the day and we talked about his love of performance sporty cars and how he keeps coming back to a Cupra R as his own company car.
He’s been through quite a few, as the mileage has to be kept down quite low. You may be surprised to hear he’s even driven a REVO tuned Leon Cupra round the track as well as a REVO tuned Ibiza Cupra. He’s fully aware of what’s out there and he shares many of our readerships’ love for fast cars and motorsport.
One of the questions I asked was does he think the three year warranty is enough in the face of five and seven year warranties. He said they have no indication this is an issue with many of SEAT’s market choosing three year PCP plans and when the car’s go on re-sale the warranty is extended for a further period. He feels a different demographic are buying the cars with longer warranties and intend to keep them much longer. So in short, he didn’t see it as an issue or threat.
Naturally we talked Mk3 Cupra and I had some further questions to those I’d had answered already.
Firstly on the race to 300HP. His view is the cars should remain balanced and he’d like to see improvements in handling possibly with suspension adjustments and more work in that area to get round the track quicker. Many will know that the Mk2 Cupra R beat rivals including the Focus RS round a track test a couple of years ago. So it’s not all about power. Considering that the Mk3 chassis is quite a bit lighter than the Mk2 as well.
Secondly, 4WD Cupra? Peter explained that he doesn’t know of anything in the pipeline and said that with 4WD obviously comes a couple of thousand pounds worth of cost. Would people be prepared to pay that? There is also the extra weight issue to contend with. He said don’t rule it out, but there’s nothing he’s heard of at the moment.
Thirdly Cupra DSG? Nothing he’s aware of at the moment, but could be an option if the potential demand is there.
Finally, a cheeky one, Ibiza Cupra R? His response was “give us a chance!” having of course only just announced the face lifted Ibiza Cupra.
New Leon and Options
I was introduced to James who is the Leon Product Manager for the UK and we discussed options for the forthcoming Leon, specifically Cupra. James sounds really busy at the moment with lots of meetings in Spain with his counterparts from around the world planning and prepping for the launches and roll outs of the car.
He said that they are planning to try and offer the options as packs bundled together which offers better value to the customer, something they can negotiate with Spain and that potentially can add value to the car on resale and separate it out (think EXEO Tec vs just EXEO, or ST1 ST2 and so on). This sounds like a smart move and a good way for people to tick some more options without the current situation where to get the things you want you are spending thousands more on things that count for next to nothing come resale.
I made a plea that the Cupra comes with the front LEDs as standard, like the Mk2 originally did with its HID xenon headlights. Fingers crossed!
It was getting late and I stopped pestering SEAT staff as people headed off to bed.
Final day, FR time - 2.0 TDI FR, 184HP (Red)
I had managed to reserve the FR the night before. I didn’t want to leave without getting a good drive in one of the current flagship models.
After breakfast the car was waiting outside the hotel having been cleaned from the night before. It really looked stunning in red and was drawing lots of attention from passers-by.
Stewart was happy to let me drive the car the whole time as he’d had a good run in the car he was really interested in.
The car, like the others was fully kitted out and had leather with the red stitching on the wheel, gear stick etc. The interior is dark and looked great.
We had been given another route that would keep us within range of the airport and we would then be able to make our own way there when we were ready.
After 2 minutes we had gone the wrong way of course and were driving around the busy streets of Malaga at the start of rush hour so we decided to just make our route up.
We must have gone round in circles a few times and finally escaped from the city’s hustle and bustle with not so much as an aggressive gesture from the local commuters.
We hit a stretch of motorway and decided to keep the airport tower in view but head for the biggest mountain we could see. It seemed to have roads going up it so that surely would be a good bet.
We travelled for some time until we were at the foot of the mountain. The roads were there but so were busy residential houses (clearly quite expensive ones) that twisted up the hill at regular intervals, but with a 20Kph limit and the roads all ended with dead ends at the top.
We carried on but the situation didn’t really change and we didn’t want to stray too far from the airport.
Frustrated I headed up stretch that wasn’t as busy as the others and I had a chance to feel the immense torque of the car effortlessly pulling us up the hill, but it was short lived.
We stopped to take a few pictures but decided we had better make our way back to the airport.
Disappointedly I didn’t get to put the car through its paces and compare the better rear suspension to the models from the day before, but it was our own fault for getting lost.
I know the potential is there and from the short bursts I had in the car it was impressive, but I’ll have to imagine the rest. Hopefully we’ll get the chance to test the cars on UK roads next year.
We made our way back to the airport car park we started in the day before and handed over the keys.
The car had real presence in the car park in FR trim as we walked away and headed for check in.
The flight back gave me a chance to write a lot of this feature and reflect on the previous two days.
I am very grateful for SEAT’s hospitality and allowing SEATCupra.net to see the car well before its UK debut and drive it.
It is clear that the new Leon is extremely important to SEAT. It represents a turning point and one that they have to sell well. They have a great product and I am sure that it will do well.
The early press reviews sing its praises. I don’t remember ever seeing a SEAT getting a five star review, and its been muted that the car has the potential to take prestigious motoring awards in the coming year.
The new arrow design is striking in the flesh, even more so than in the pictures you’ve seen.
The interior has vastly improved over what we’ve seen before on a SEAT, the quality and attention to detail is clear to see and feel.
The drive, even on the lower spec models is first class, an involving and exhilarating experience.
For all the Cupra fans rest assured, the Cupra when it arrives will blow the previous generations away, I am 110% confident of that.
I am back home and really excited for the future of SEAT and it is clear they are too.
More pictures in the gallery