Regular readers of my motoring blogs will undoubtedly know that I’m a devotee of Škoda cars but here is a review of two alternative marques from the VW Group …
In a world whereby most average family cars look very similar, making an informed choice on which car to buy can be a daunting task. Some people demand every conceivable gadget and gismo available, no matter what these may cost, whilst others are content in having a vehicle that delivers a solid driving experience without too many trimmings. Nowadays, most manufacturers offer products that are light years away from their models of fifteen years ago so ultimately it comes down to individual preference or even bias! Yes I am somewhat biased as I’m a firm believer in value for money rather than paying simply for an upmarket badge.
If you exclude premium names such as Bentley and Bugatti for example, then Audi is at the upper end of VW Group marques with Škoda and SEAT holding more lowly positions. Of course, that in no way derides these makes and they more than compete with both their cousins and other manufacturers. The VW Golf made its first appearance in 1974 and has been a world best seller for most of its life, now being in its seventh generation. A Mark 8 version is scheduled for the 2018 model year. As with most models, the car has grown from its original size back in 1974, with the current VW Polo about the size of the Mark 1 Golf. Sharing the same MQB platform as the current Golf is the latest SEAT Leon and this blog will compare the two models which are virtually identical in size.
There can be little doubt that the VW Golf offers a solidly built, quality-engineered car, coming in three-door, five-door and estate guises. Virtually every new incarnation of the model improves upon its predecessor, but in so doing, the price has reached what some might describe as epidemic proportions. As with nearly all manufacturers, the model offers far more standard equipment and safety features than at the start of this century, so these will contribute to higher prices. However, the danger is that the car falls outside the affordability parameters of the family market at which it is aimed. Performance comes from a range of proven petrol and diesel power units, all of which are turbocharged, and one even has a fuel-saving device that shuts off two cylinders when they’re not needed. The Golf excels in its riding and handling capabilities and few cars within the category can equal it. This is achieved through sophisticated suspension settings although smaller engined models have to rely upon a more traditional set up. Over the years, VW have refined their engines to the point that most offer an exceptionally smooth travelling experience.
The dashboard is well put together with all controls readily to hand and plenty of soft touch material. Switchgear is well damped and the overall ambience is one of functional comfort rather than an array of gimmicky buttons found in some manufacturers models, notably Ford and GM. As one would expect, the Golf is a safety-conscious zone boasting seven airbags (including a driver’s knee airbag) and stability control. Mechanical parts are marked to deter thieves and the car achieved a 5 star Euro NCAP rating in crash tests. Basic equipment includes Bluetooth, a DAB radio and air conditioning, but opt for a mid range specification to get adaptive cruise control, automatic sensor-driven lights and wipers, plus alloy wheels. The higher spec models also offer full climate-controlled aircon which is worth considering as an option on other models if made available as it keeps the interior at a pre-set temperature. A touch screen infotainment system sits in the centre of the dashboard, from which many features can be controlled. The Golf will seat four adults in comfort and five at a pinch. Boot space is about par for the segment and benefits from a height adjustable floor which is useful for eliminating a step up to the rear seats when in their folded down position.
Sitting directly alongside the Golf is the Leon from sister company SEAT. This car can be looked upon as the equivalent of a Spanish holiday, offering fun, flair and affordability. Whereas the Golf is very conservative in design, the Leon is more stylish and distinctive, yet shares the same platform, engines and technology … so basically a Golf in disguise! It offers both style and substance in a package comprising German engineering, Spanish flair and a build quality to virtually match its cousin. As with the Golf, there is a comprehensive range of engines including high powered derivatives for the FR and Cupra models at the top end of the model spectrum. Handling is generally good thanks to the suspension and damping set up, but some may consider the ride to be slightly on the firm side. Personally, I find this advantageous as it eliminates some of the sickening motion encountered in some vehicles. Overall refinement doesn’t quite match that of the Golf primarily because of more wind noise and models fitted with larger wheels suffer excessive road noise. Safety and security features are plentiful including seven airbags, stability control, tyre pressure monitoring and emergency brake assist. To help deter thieves, all models have an alarm fitted and the Leon also achieved a 5 star Euro NCAP rating.
Interior switch gear largely mimics that fitted in the Golf. Obviously, the sharing of common components is more cost effective and if they’re good enough for a VW, that is a compliment to the Leon! The dashboard is angled slightly towards the driver and is generally a match for the Golf in terms of refinement. The model also has a touch screen infotainment system with sensory response, and whilst this serves the purpose, it would benefit from being somewhat larger. Standard equipment includes basic air conditioning, Bluetooth and an MP3 compatible CD player whilst higher spec models get alloy wheels, cruise control and bright trim on the dashboard. The FR models add dual zone climate controlled aircon, sports seats and leather trim. The Leon easily accommodates four adults but there is enough room for a fifth. The model comes in three derivatives, namely a three-door SC, five-door and estate, and rear head and legroom is slightly reduced in the coupé model. Luggage space can only be described as average offering 380 litres with the rear seats in place, and as with the Golf, there is a step up when the rear seats are folded. The Leon does not offer the adjustable floor height to compensate for this and the boot area offers no useful storage facilities unlike the ‘simply clever’ features of Škoda models!
This latest incarnation of the SEAT Leon makes it one of the best family cars around, with its blend of practicality, performance and style. It is a rewarding car to drive owing to comfortable seats and an airy cabin. Opt for one of the lower-aspirated engines to yield the greatest economy. The Leon undercuts the price of the Golf across its range but the downside is that residual values will not be as great. However, for many people, the deciding factor when purchasing a car is the upfront price, and in this respect the overall package offered by the Leon is hard to beat. A VW Golf 1.6TDI 5-door Bluemotion with climate control and metallic paint currently costs €30400 (£22420). A SEAT Leon 1.6TDI SE 5-door with similar specification has a current list price of €27500 (£20255) so it’s clear to see that the Leon offers very good value for money.
Little doubt then that it’s a choice between brand and style!