Compare & contrast: two warm hatches from different eras.
I’ve recently bought a new car. Well, not actually new, but new to me. It’s a 2007 Seat Leon FR (the 200bhp model) with 64k miles on the clock. As this is a replacement for its much-loved predecessor – a Peugeot 306 XSi that I’d been running for 16 years – inevitably I’ve been finding myself doing a lot of compare-and-contrast analysis over recent weeks. And this experience seemed like an appropriate topic for a post in the ‘Reviewing The Used’ tribe.
Perhaps what has struck me most is just how far things had moved on during the ten years that separate these two cars. My Pug was a 1998 model, although the 306 had originated some years earlier in that decade. I often remarked that it seemed as though the bodyshell was made from recycled aluminium take-away containers. You never really felt that it’d stand up to any kind of serious impact. The positive side of that was that it was brilliantly light, with all the benefits that quality typically affords a car. The Leon is definitely physically bulkier and doubtless that can be attributed to features that would make it a much safer proposition in the event of a collision.
Why did I hang on to the Pug for 16 years? Quite simply because it was just so much fun to drive. And it was a fantastic, feisty, practical little workhorse that could carry huge amounts of bulky kit (which I have to, from time to time), it was pretty (that Pininfarina styling was certainly of its time, but just so right), and you could hustle it down a twisty road with massive confidence, often embarrassing other cars with more obviously sporty intentions. Hmmm … do I miss it? Yes. Yes, I think I do.
But eventually you have to move on. The Pug’s lacquer had begun to peel extensively and it ended up looking so scruffy that I had to reassure occasional passengers that its external appearance was no reflection of its mechanical soundness, and I just needed something more presentable, not least for occasions when I had to visit clients (I’m a freelance photographer, designer and business copywriter ... which, incidentally, is why I can't afford new cars!).
So how do you replace a classic warm hatchback? Well, in my case, with what you hope will be a close equivalent. After much poring over reviews, pondering comparison tests, and generally casting around on the internet, I had produced a shortlist, and the Leon FR sat at the top of it. The search began in earnest to find something suitable within my (modest) budget.
Now, the Mk.2 Leon is a very pretty car, in my opinion. I actually think it's prettier than the more recent model that has superseded it. It was styled by the designer Walter de Silva, formerly of Alfa Romeo, where he was responsible for creating the 156 and 147. It’s clear to me how that influence, particularly the 147, subsequently informed the Leon’s purposeful stance, proportions and flowing lines.
And of course, as Seat is part of the Volkswagen Audi Group (VAG really is a rather unfortunate acronym) what lies beneath that appealing bodyshell is essentially all the oily moving parts from a Mk.5 Golf GTi, and that's certainly a solid recommendation for a car’s performance pedigree. So far as the Leon range is concerned the FR is the ‘warm’ one. Sitting above it is the Cupra R, with near 300bhp, which I can only imagine must make it quite an intense experience, and moreover one all too likely to bring you into contact with the local magistrate in fairly short order.
So there was one of my criteria met. The replacement car had to offer the same aesthetic satisfaction that I’d got from the Pug, and with the Leon I’d say that box has been confidently ticked. I think it looks gorgeous.
On to the engine. Both Pug and Leon share the same 2-litre displacement. The 306 had fuel injection but was naturally aspirated. Although it produced only 137bhp it did so in a way that was perfectly judged for the car. What was always particularly satisfying was its low-down grunt; there was strong torque where you needed it, for brisk launches and to haul you out of the apex of deep corners.
The Leon has a turbo, and in part that would account for its additional 63bhp, but it’s an engine of strikingly different character. Not so much a sense of grunt as a linear surge of forward drive that sees the car gather speed smoothly and effortlessly. In some respects it puts me in mind of my motorcycle’s powerplant; easy and tractable at modest throttle, but with a huge rush waiting to be unleashed once the revs begin to climb. To use an inelegant but descriptive phrase it provides what you might call a ‘point-and-squirt’ kind of performance. I’m still getting the measure of it, but I can see that, once I’m thoroughly familiar, it’s an engine I’ll come to love. Overall it’s a positive gain – another box ticked.
Handling: the Pug steered with the immediacy and engagement of a go-kart. The wheel had a slightly weighty heft and provided masses of feel and feedback, so you could position it with precision and always had a clear sense of the tyres’ interaction with the road. I loved the Pug’s steering.
And it’s here that I’ve encountered the most striking contrast with the Leon, and how clearly this illustrates to me the different eras that produced each of these cars. Now, I can’t claim to fully understand the technical dimension of this, but I do know that the Pug had fully hydraulic power steering. The Leon’s rack is what I believe is electrically-assisted, now almost universally the norm, and widely adopted – as far as I understand – because it saves weight and promotes economy. But the penalty, it’s now clear to me, has been a loss of driver feel and the intuitive wealth of information that the Pug’s old-school 1990s set-up afforded.
I should be clear that the Leon handles excellently. It steers accurately, holds its line, minimises body roll, finds traction easily. But you can’t really feel it doing it. There’s a certain remoteness to the experience. It’s the same remoteness I’ve felt with every other contemporary car I've ever driven. Steering the car becomes a matter of aiming it by judgement rather than through a direct sense of involvement, almost as though operating a gaming handset, and during the first few weeks of ownership I’ve found myself slightly overcompensating on bends, making an irritating little wiggle of the front on corner exits, as my steering inputs are just a fraction off and I have to correct my line. This has proved to be the area where I most need to recalibrate my driving style to bring it into the 21st century. I’ve no doubt that I’ll quickly become accustomed to these characteristics, but I do think this is one area where maybe we've lost something valuable along the way.
There are other things I could comment upon, but these are all aspects covered by the regular road tests you’ll find online. Yes, the interior finish doesn’t exhibit the refinement of a Golf, but it’s still a thoroughly nice place to be. Yes, the combination of low-profile tyres and firm suspension can make the Leon FR a little too jiggly on poorly surfaced roads, but it’s nothing you can’t live with.
Overall I think the Leon is a worthy successor to the Pug and will be a very fulfilling car to own. But I’ll always remember my 306 with immense fondness; it really was one of the great cars of the 90s.
David H. All photos are my own.