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SEAT Leon 1.8 20v T Roadtest

I'm not a great whistler, nor was my mother. But I have just spent a week in a car that had me piping away to myself like a kettle on heat. Pronounced correctly, even the name belongs to soul music. Hey, sister! Come lay on me. Im yo man . Or brother, if you live in the Fens.

Seldom do I encounter a car that I drive above and beyond the call of duty. A car that I take out and drive about aimlessly, just for the pleasure of it. But the SEAT Leon was like a cat with nine lives - almost impossible to put down.

Of course, they sent me the one that was bound to impress. The 20 VT Sport, a penny packet of testosterone that will have Golf GTi buyers wondering if theyve been done. At just 15,995, the Leon Sport has to be the hottest property at knock-down prices currently available on the UK market. The only Golf to surpass its performance is the new V6 4Motion at 22,610. Relatively speaking, the V5 Golf at 19,540 is a non-starter.

I kid you not. The 20VT sprints to 62 mph in just 7.7 seconds and will top more than double the UK legal limit. Thats Audi TT Coupe territory for the price of a Daewoo.

OK, so the TT has looks that would wilt a vegan, but what price the extra panache? About 11,000 more at the last count, and both cars have exactly the same engine a 4-pot turbo-charged affair producing 180 bhp at 5500 rpm. The German 2-seater is marginally quicker off the mark, but the 5-door, 5-seater Leon is a shade faster at the far end. And, of course, a great deal more practical.

But there the comparison ends. As totty magnets, they are in a different league, unless the love of your life is particularly fecund and cant wait to fill the back seats with Ribena and biscuit crumbs. Apart from the Land Speed Record version, the Leon is also offered in a number of more pedestrian guises and the styling tends to reflect its alter ego.

Slightly less boxy than the Golf, the blunt end has slopes and angles reminiscent of the long-lamented Alfa Sud and the front-end treatment is pocket-Beema. The side view might be described as its Korean aspect, with rather too much metal above the rear wheel-arch, accentuated by the rising waist-line.

Years ago, when I was a coach driver, I used to take British athletes around Europe and we would sometimes bivouac at some remote Alpine training camp. Clearly the athletes were not meant to enjoy themselves and a Trappist monk would have described the facilities as basic. In hindsight I would describe them as neo-Wofsburg. There is a classic simplicity to Volkswagen interior design which allows function to dictate form and the result can look either austere, or business-like, according to how much you paid for it.

Let us say that the Leon interior tends towards the austere. Nothing showy, nothing more than is strictly called for, and nothing to induce an ecstasy of tactile pleasure. The trim is a sort of anthracite Vagimite that does service in most of the groups products and is both smart and what my mother would have called servicable. I actually like the effect and much prefer it to the pavement pizza inspirations that abound in cars from manufacturers with less confidence in their brand values.

Before you jump to the wrong conclusion, let me point out that the 20VT Sport is not bereft of must-have goodies. Its just that they are functional rather than ornamental so what you get is worth having. Apart from the Recaro-style front seats, which contribute much to the driving pleasure, the Sport also boasts height- and rake-adjustable steering column, height-adjustable front seats, Climatronic air-conditioning, twin and side air bags, ABS with traction control and electronic brake differential, sports suspension, six-speed box, front fog lamps, immobiliser and alarm. I feel I should remind you again of the price - 15,995. Thats on the road, over the hill and far away.

Which is the best thing you can do with the 20 VT. Dont waste it on city streets amongst the urban gorillas. Find an open road, point yourself towards the sun and dont come back til you get bored. Say about three years.

I have frequently waxed lyrical about the 5-cylinder Bravo HGT, a touch of understated sportivo that I would dearly love to own. But at the risk of waking up at seven thirty alongside something that came in at five to two, on, I will admit a certain shift of opinion. The Leon lacks the seductive sound signature of the Fiat but, con brio, the Spaniard has the legs on the Italian job.

As you might expect, the Golf platform is a good place to start if you intend to whistle up the wind. Stable under pressure, the rigid floor and torsionally stiff body allow safe exploitation of the turbo-power, which reaches the front wheels through a rather remote six-speed box. Only the top ratio is an overdrive gear and the close-set third, fourth and fifth gears encourage a bit of cog swapping although, if you feel lazy, the torque-rich engine will pull strongly from under 2000 rpm.

But if you do use the intermediates and allow the engine to sit up on the cam, the performance assumes heroic proportions and simply outclasses anything else at the price. And many other things at almost any price. And it doesnt just bend the needle on a stop watch. Straight-line speed may be the only bit thats printable but unless its quick as well as fast you might as well stay in bed. Let me explain what I see as the difference. A car that is fast will accelerate rapidly and attain a high speed. If you can safely drive it fast along a twisting road I would define such a car as being quick. One is a function of power, the other is determined by the handling and roadholding.

So the Leon 20 VT Sport is both fast and quick. Lowered and stiffened suspension, with anti-roll bars front and rear, contributes to handling and roadholding precision that allows the prodigious power to be exploited with confidence. Although traction control and the electronic brake differential step in to mop up any indiscretions, their presence is not intrusive, and they do not eclipse the natural feedback that committed drivers rely on for empathy with the outside world.

The Leon is not exactly mean-looking - it also has to satisfy the taste of happy shoppers who pace themselves in granny knots. But the faster models squat nicely on the sports suspension and the 16-inch alloys fitted to the 20 VT hint at the potential otherwise obscured by the family car configuration.

All Leons come with a full complement of doors five in all and giving access to a cabin and loadspace that will meet the expectations of the market sector. Headroom is generous thanks to a roof-line that barely dips as it sweeps over the B-post. But two-up and with the rear seats folded flat, there is ample room for a fortnights luggage and a pan-European holiday in the traditional Gran Turismo style. Even with all the seats in situ, the Leon will swallow a useful 12 cubic feet and thats with the parcel shelf still in place. The tailgate aperture is the only limiting factor as the curving C-posts reduce the width of the hole.

Even if you dont have time to be an innocent abroad, you will still be able to enjoy the relative parsimony of the blown engine. I say relative because compared with the normally aspirated 1.8-litre version, the turbo version delivers an almost identical set of fuel consumption figures. On the urban cycle, the 20 VT returns 23.5 mpg, just 0.2 mpg less than the atmospheric model. The extra-urban figures are 42.8 and 43.5 respectively and at 32.8 mpg, the combined cycle reveals a difference of just 0.4 mpg. This is clear evidence of the improvements in thermal efficiency brought about by blowing in the wind.

In medieval Spain, Leon was always considered to be more progressive than its neighbours and is therefore an apt choice of name for a car described in the SEAT brochure as uncompromisingly modern . The copy then goes on to invite you to consider the harmonisation of the design. All together then Hey, sister! Come lay on . Scratch that. I think Id sooner go for a drive.

Posted on 29.10.2000 by Graham Whyte
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