The VW Golf 7 was a great car. There was precious little wrong with it, and as it went out of production not so long ago, we couldn’t help but wonder if there was a whole lot of room for improvement with the next-gen version.
Now the Golf 8 is here, though, we have our answer. VW hasn’t really advanced it to a significant degree in any area. In some ways, including the fiddly infotainment screen you have to use to change the climate settings, it’s a little worse.
At the time, we still thought it was the C-segment hatchback to go for. And then we reviewed its platform-mate, the Skoda Octavia. Which was superior. Not long before we tried the new Seat Leon, and guess what? It’s better too. Awkward.
As soon as you get behind the wheel, there’s much more of a sense of style to the cabin. There are neat little touches like the triangular pattern for the speaker grilles, which blend into a textured surface for the whole bottom end of the door card. There are still elements that feel a little low rent, as in all the new MQB-Evo cars (pricier Audi A3 included), but that doesn’t detract from a cabin that’s more likely to lift your spirits than the Golf’s.
The annoying arrangement of climate controls within a not-especially-responsive touchscreen remains, but the layout of the system is marginally better here. As with its cousins from VW, Skoda and Audi, you do get shortcut buttons to change the temperature.
Our test car was fitted with the same 1.5-litre TSI inline-four petrol engine as the Golf we had, albeit in a lower state of tune. It makes 128bhp rather than 148, and although decent forward momentum is inevitably more laboured, it’s fast enough for most. 0-62mph happens in 9.4 seconds, and the top speed is 130mph.
More relevantly, it’s a quiet, refined engine, and one that’s economical - you’ll get over 50mpg on a run without even trying.
Although a seven-speed automatic gearbox is available, the standard car has a six-speed manual. And it’s a good one - it’s not the last word in mechanical engagement, but the shift action is reasonably short and precise-feeling. The only company better at making ‘normal’ cars change gears in a nicer fashion than the VW Group is Mazda.
This FR-trimmed Seat Leon rides a little firmer than the Golf, but it’s not uncomfortable. It’s certainly preferable to the setup in the Octavia, which is much too wallowy. There’s a distinct lack of serious body roll, plenty of lateral grip and great traction from the Goodyear Eagle F1s. All of this bodes well for the pokier versions of the Cupra Leon.
Although I do think it’s not quite as attractive as the old one, and despite finding the italicised ‘Leon’ script on the boot moderately upsetting, I reckon it’s the best looking of its Group siblings. The 17-inch alloy wheels of the FR trim certainly help, and given the extra stuff you get (including sportier suspension), it’s the derivative we’d go for. Cupra aside, of course.
Ultimately, it comes down to practicality. If that’s your number one concern, the bigger Octavia is the way to go. If the badge is really important, it’s the VW or the Audi. Otherwise, The Leon is the pick of the litter, and thus the best all-round choice of hatchback there is at the moment.