Let Battle Commence

After several years with only cosmetic changes, both SEAT and Volkswagen are updating their small segment models …

In recent weeks, Ford have revealed their new Fiesta model which is a welcome modification of the outgoing car. There is certainly much to admire about this updated model even if the styling continues to be a little on the quirky side. Road handling is excellent and there have been vast improvements to the interior trim but despite British motoring journalists lauding this car in contrast to much of Europe, it still suffers from the use of cheap plastics inside and will depreciate more than many of its direct competitors. Queue the all-new SEAT Ibiza and the soon to be launched Volkswagen Polo, the latter of which will set the benchmark yet again for the small hatchback.

There is little doubt that a replacement for the Ibiza was long overdue. In line with many manufacturers nowadays, the model is effectively a scaled down version of the bigger Leon but that is no bad thing given the sales success of the latter car. The new Ibiza is a handsome car with a grown-up attitude, and is sufficiently light and agile to engage with the driver. The car is built on the MQB-A0 platform which means that it offers considerably more space than its predecessor being 87mm wider and having a 95mm longer wheelbase. Boot space has increased from 292 to 355 litres.

The car clearly identifies as a member of the SEAT family with its triangular headlamp units and is generally pleasing to the eye, exuding poise and precision. For the first time, the Ibiza will come with the new 1.0 litre TSi turbocharged three-cylinder petrol engine in either 94PS or 113PS guise. This is ideal for city driving and general cruising coupled with a six-speed manual gearbox but if regularly fully loaded, then the new 1.5 litre EVO 148PS engine may be a better bet. Compared with the outgoing model, this new Ibiza offers a refined, satisfying driver experience.

In line with competitors, technology abounds, albeit subtly hidden behind a sharp 8 inch touchscreen which is available on most models. This controls most functions including navigation, Apple, Android and Mirror Link, as well as media and vehicle data. There are numerous convenience and safety options available including adaptive cruise control, a seven-speed automatic DSG gearbox with some engines and cameras mounted around the car to assist with parking. Not everything is perfect though … the interior still boasts some cheaper, hard finishes especially on the doors and at the top of the dashboard. However, overall the new SEAT Ibiza is an impressive car with a willing chassis, excellent technology and decent refinement.

The Ibiza will need to impress as waiting in the wings is the all-new Polo from sister company Volkswagen. The Polo, which will officially go on sale in the UK in October 2017, shares the same platform as the SEAT and comes with a considerable growth in size and a more mature design. The car is 81mm longer than the old model, has an increased wheelbase of 94mm, is 69mm wider and boot capacity rises from 280 to 351 litres. This makes the Polo larger than the Mark IV Golf from the late nineties, bar its length!

The design of the Polo certainly mimics that of the very successful VW Golf, following what is now a trend amongst many manufacturers. Where it differs is the increased options of customisation, another development in this model segment. Buyers will be able to choose from 13 different dashboard colour inserts to either match body colour or provide a complete contrast. Additionally, there will be 14 exterior paint finishes, 12 wheel designs, 11 seat fabrics and two styles of interior trim. Other options will include digital dial clusters to replace the conventional instruments, blindspot monitors, adaptive cruise control and rear traffic alert. Touchscreen infotainment will be standard on all models with screen size varying from 6.5 to 8 inches depending upon model specification.

At launch, it is believed the car will come with a choice of five petrol and two diesel units, with diesel losing popularity due to emissions data. The two non-turbo 1.0 litre petrol MPi engines come in 64PS or 74PS guise and are really only best suited for city driving and local journeys. The other three petrol options are the same as those offered in the Ibiza, and the 1.6 litre diesel will come in either 79PS or 94PS form. In addition to these engines, a 197PS turbocharged petrol engine will be exclusively available in the Polo GTi which will launched at the same time as the ordinary model. From information to hand, it certainly looks as though the Polo has again set the benchmark for this model segment as the new model is basically a scaled-down Golf offering all the attributes of that car in a more youthful package.

Prices for a mid specification Ibiza with a 1.0 TSi engine will set you back about €16400 (£14600) at the time of writing. Prices for the new Polo have not yet been published but expect to pay about €1120 (£1000) more for a similarly specified vehicle given its premium quality and image. The forthcoming replacement Audi A1 will share this new MQB-A0 modular platform as will the new Škoda Fabia in due course.

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Škoda Wins Once Again

There can be little doubt that SUV’s are becoming increasingly popular on European roads with a host of new models coming on to the market.

Last year, Škoda launched the first of a new generation of SUV called the Kodiaq. This has been admired by motoring journalists for its space, practicality, value and no-nonsense approach to motoring. It is the second SUV in the Škoda model line-up, as the manufacturer has been producing the Yeti for over eight years. The Yeti has stood out from competitors for its rather quirky, rugged, Tonka-toy looks, but offering more space and perceived value than rivals. However, after a facelift four years ago, the model is being replaced in late 2017 and will no longer bear the Yeti name. Queue the Karoq …

This new model aligns itself with its larger sibling, the Kodiaq, and signals the latest design approach by Škoda. The SUV will be both longer and wider than the vehicle it replaces, and also have a more conventional appearance that may disappoint some diehard Yeti fans. Its length is increased by 160mm to 4382mm and its width by 48mm. To give the vehicle a rugged look, lower bumpers and side panels are clad in black plastic. This will, of course, help protect body panels should one decide to take the vehicle off-road! Mechanically, the vehicle will feature current TSi petrol and TDi diesel engines from the current VW Group stable and some models will offer the option of 4-wheel drive. According to the motoring press, the Karoq appears to suffer from less body roll than the Yeti and is surefooted with responsive steering, and benefits from a 58mm longer wheelbase.

Interior accommodation is first class as has come to be expected from the latest range of Škoda models. There will be the usual ‘Simply Clever’ features including practical door bins and other useful storage places. Rear head and legroom are not compromised despite the sloping roof line, and as an option, buyers can specify a VarioFlex rear seating arrangement whereby all three rear seats are separate. These can be configured individually and the middle seat removed completely to enable the outer seats to slide inwards by 150mm to increase shoulder room. Boot capacity with a standard rear seat configuration is an impressive 521 litres, increasing to 1630 litres with the 60:40 seats folded. With the VarioFlex system, basic space ranges from 479 to 588 litres, with a total 1810 litres with all the rear seats removed.

A 9.2 inch high resolution touchscreen infotainment system dominates the dashboard and comes with gesture control meaning that one can navigate menus with a wave of the hand. A 12.3 inch full digital instrument display will be offered which is similar to those available on some VW and Audi models, but will be customised for the Škoda brand. Of course, this display won’t be a standard offering, but one of many fairly costly options. Besides the current 1.6 and 2.0 TDi diesel engines in different power outputs, the Karoq will be offered with the relatively new 113PS 1.0-litre three-cylinder or a completely new 148PS 1.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, which has just launched in the facelifted VW Golf. This 1.5-litre petrol engine is equipped with Active Cylinder Technology that shuts down two of the four cylinders at low speed and aids overall fuel consumption.

The Karoq will offer excellent passenger and luggage space with a simple, clean interior layout that will appeal to many buyers. Whilst it has to exceed the expectations of the Yeti within a more mainstream package, it has the pedigree to do so given advances in technology, design and practicality. Prices are still to be confirmed but it’s unlikely that Škoda will want to deviate far from the Yeti’s current starting price of £17700 (€20200). This model has every chance of becoming a best-seller at the expense of competitors’ offerings.

Finally, some readers may be asking the question: where have I seen the Karoq before? Technically, you haven’t although it does share the same platform and many body panels with its sister car, the highly-acclaimed SEAT Ateca, as shown above. In a time of rising development costs and the necessity to adopt economies of scale, it was to be expected that certain models would bear close resemblance to each other. However, each model has sufficient design and styling tweaks to differentiate them as well as completely different interiors meaning there is still real choice for the consumer. Just as Škoda is sharing the SEAT Ateca body, the same will apply when SEAT introduces a larger SUV akin to the Kodiaq!

Mid-Life Crisis?

In order to breathe new life into existing models, many manufacturers give mid-life facelifts to some of their cars.

As loyal readers of my blog will be aware, I have a penchant towards cars from the VW Group. I am not saying for one minute that other manufacturers don’t produce fine products, but personally I like the understated styling of VW Group models which don’t date at the alarming rate of some design offerings available today. Take the styling of the current Ford Fiesta as an example. This model compares directly with the Volkswagen Polo and Škoda Fabia yet depreciates some 7% more in value over a three year period. Most Japanese manufacturers appear to have lost the plot where styling is concerned, having adopted aggressive front ends and protruding tail-light clusters. This is simply the trend of the moment and avant-garde designs fast lose their appeal with the buying public. Whilst some would say that many VW Group products are rather staid, they continue to hold their value over the years and rarely look out of place amidst more futuristic offerings.

The question that one must ask is why models are given a facelift. Surely there would be no need for change had the designers got the product right in the first place. In reality, car makers want to keep their products in the forefront of the market place, and it is a constant battle to keep up with new and improved products from competitors. Facelifts therefore inject new life into existing models, extending their life for 18 months up to three years. In recent months, facelifts have been announced for the Audi A3, SEAT Leon, Škoda Octavia and VW Golf. The modified A3 is already available but buyers will have to wait until early 2017 for the updated models from the other marques.

To look at the aforementioned facelifted models, it is quite difficult to spot what is different. External changes include new or tweaked grilles, restyled bumpers, improved lights and new wheel designs. Most improvements are not visible from the outside as they centre around upgraded infotainment systems and enhancements to the power output of engines on offer. None of these are a bad thing and if they generate new life into a three or four year old product, it’s good news for the manufacturer. Limited changes to the exterior are also good news for the owners of pre-facelift models as only the diehard discerning buyer will be able to spot the differences.

Let’s start with the SEAT Leon. A reshaped front bumper now features a grille that has been stretched by 40mm, and the car is offered in three additional exterior colours. Interior trim has been upgraded and an electric handbrake and ambient lighting have been added. The new 115bhp 1.0 three-cylinder turbo petrol engine, already available in the Audi A3, Škoda Octavia and VW Golf; is now offered and the 1.6 diesel engine has had a power boost to 115PS. Add-on options include wireless phone charging, Traffic Sign Recognition and Traffic Jam Assist.

Next the Škoda Octavia. This boasts a new front end which has already divided opinion. It features split headlights with LED daylight running lamps and a wider grille that more closely resembles the new Kodiaq SUV. The lower bumper section has been tidied up with crisp horizontal lines designed to emphasise the car’s width. The rear bumper has also been restyled and the tail-lights tweaked. Inside, it is the infotainment systems that boast the biggest change. All systems now come with capacitive touchscreens which are larger in size. Optional features include a customised key that can store multiple driver preferences, a heated steering wheel, folding tables in the backs of the front seats and new cup holders that are moulded to the shape of bottles allowing them to be opened with one hand.

Now for the VW Golf which has a re-profiled bumper, slightly modified grille and air duct styling, minor restyling to the front wings and revised headlights with LED daytime running lights and a new full LED main beam function. The rear receives full LED tail-lights and a newly designed bumper and the model benefits from new wheel designs and exterior colours. Inside, there are revised trims for the doors, dashboard and centre console and some models can be specified with an Active Info Display with 12.3in high-definition monitor in place of standard analogue instruments. Infotainment systems are enhanced with larger displays across all models together with new or updated driver assistant systems including  Traffic Jam Assist, Emergency Assist, Lane Assist and an updated City Emergency Braking system. Needless to say, most of these options come at a price!

Finally the Audi A3. Key updates include styling tweaks with Xenon or LED headlights as standard. The front grille has had a minor restyle along with the headlights meaning the car now more closely resembles the larger A4. As with the other marques, the Audi also boasts new exterior colours and wheel designs. The main technological enhancement is the option of a virtual cockpit display in lieu of conventional analogue instruments.

Prices for the revised models are unlikely to deflect far from existing prices although uncertainties over exchange rates may ultimately have an impact. It’s fair to say that the improvements and enhancements across all these models are good for the consumer as they reflect the latest developments in technology. They should also reap rewards for the manufacturers as they either retain or attract new customers to their product range whilst remaining competitive in a fierce marketplace so it’s hardly a mid-life crisis!

For comparison pre-facelift photos of these models, please refer to earlier blog posts.

The Rise Of SUVs And Crossovers

The last few years have seen a dramatic rise in the number of SUVs on our roads …

Sports Utility Vehicles, more commonly known as SUVs, are now a very familiar sight on the world’s roads. From humble beginnings in the hands of one or two manufacturers, almost all main carmakers now offer at least one SUV in their range. Many companies now make SUVs in all their model segments meaning that the buyer can choose according to size as well as budget.

So what exactly is a SUV? It’s a vehicle designed to carry passengers in a traditional front and back seat configuration, whilst also providing increased luggage capacity. The vehicle sits higher above the road affording both driver and passengers greater all round visibility. Some of the larger, upmarket models offer various seat configurations to either preference passenger-carrying or luggage holding. Vehicles may be adorned with more rugged outdoor embellishments and also offer the option of four wheel drive. Early models were very much of a traditional box design and based upon light commercial vehicle chassis but nowadays, most models are closely based on their related car brethren and often described as crossovers.

It will come as little surprise, therefore, that the modern day SUV and crossover is far more than a utility vehicle. One of their main attractions is their increased ground clearance for on and off-road ability, although few people are likely to avail themselves of the latter. They have fast become something of a status symbol as they command greater road presence whilst still retaining the styling cues of a traditional car. Manufactures such as BMW and Audi offer an almost complete range of SUV models to meet the needs of most buyers whilst others provide a more limited choice or are only just entering what has become a very lucrative market.

A complete newcomer to the marketplace is SEAT who have just launched their first SUV to be called the Ateca. This will be a direct competitor to the revised Volkswagen Tiguan from their sister company. Currently, Škoda only make the Yeti which has been a success for the company but is now showing its age. In a few months time, Škoda will be unveiling their new model, the Kodiaq, which will sit at the upper end of the model spectrum both in size and price. A new Yeti is due within about eighteen months plus a small SUV based upon the Fabia. As their only existing SUV does not directly compete, this article is comparing the SEAT Ateca and VW Tiguan as both share the same MQB platform architecture.

As one would expect from SEAT, the new Ateca offers Spanish design flair. The car is derived from the current Leon, a model that is undoubtedly one of the best looking hatchbacks on the road. Delays in this car seeing the light of day mean that the company has been able to study the competition and, hopefully, get the product right from launch. First and foremost, the entry level model undercuts almost everything else on the market, and even the top specification models undercut the likes of the Renault Kadjar and Kia Sportage. Modifications to the proven VW 1.4TSI petrol engine enable two cylinders to shut down when driving at lower speeds although this is undetectable by the driver. The dashboard closely resembled that of the Leon, albeit with some improvements, one of which is an increased infotainment display. In SE trim, the car boasts 17″ alloy wheels, climate control air conditioning, rear parking sensors, cruise control and a driver profile select system. Whilst sharing the same wheelbase as the Leon, the Ateca is taller, wider and longer than its sibling, meaning there is more space all round for  passengers and 510 litres of luggage capacity with the rear seats in place.

The VW Tiguan has been around for several years and the previous model underwent a midlife face lift. The new model more closely resembles the family image and has sharper styling, better performance and efficiency than its predecessor. As with the Ateca, it sits on the ubiquitous MQB platform so offering similar accommodation to its cousin. Overall, the car is longer and this translates into boot capacity of 615 litres with the seats in place. In SE trim, expect to find 18″ alloys, an 8″ infotainment display, DAB, Bluetooth, climate and cruise control. The dashboard is typical of cars from VW, being exceptionally well assembled using soft plastics and ergonomically designed. It shares a broad range of petrol and diesel engines with its stablemates but compared with rivals is on the pricey side and lacks the special design flair making it appear rather anonymous.

There is a considerable price differential between the SEAT Ateca and VW Tiguan. In almost identical SE trim level, the Ateca costs around £21015 (€25300) whilst the Tiguan commands £25260 (€30320). Neither model comes with satnav as standard so expect to pay £525 (€640) and £725 (€880) respectively for that convenience. Whilst VW are always more expensive, reflecting their image and refinery, an additional £4200 is a lot to pay for what is essentially increased luggage capacity. The Ateca has been priced to sell, and with its more aggressive styling, is the preferred choice … that is until the all-new Škoda Yeti arrives in 2018. The battle may then begin!,

Battle Of The Giants

It’s not often that I review large or executive class vehicles as I’m very much in favour of economy and being environmentally friendly. Fortunately, nowadays, it is becoming easier to blend both these qualities as engineering and design advance in leaps and bounds …

Following my penchant for cars from the Volkswagen Group, mainly because of their more classic designs and overall reliability, this review is comparing two relative giants from both Škoda and VW in the guise of the Superb and Passat. The original modern-day Superb utilised a 10cm stretched version of the Passat model at the time, and was launched in 2001. Whilst never being a huge seller, it gradually commanded a larger slice of the market owing to its passenger and luggage capacity, not to mention overall reliability. It has therefore been popular with taxi drivers who opted for a larger car than the ever-popular Škoda Octavia.

This model was replaced in 2008 with the second generation Superb, which boasted a unique ‘twindoor’ arrangement with an innovative rear opening that could double as a regular separate saloon boot and full hatchback. The car was larger than its sister Passat derivatives and continued to attract new customers to the marque. Now, after over seven years in production, this model has now been replaced with the mark III Superb, a car that effectively takes Škoda into new territory.

It would be fair to say that the styling of the outgoing Superb was somewhat dowdy despite the car offering exceptional value for money with its passenger and luggage space. The Passat has always upstaged it in the design stakes, and whilst only coming in conventional saloon or estate form, has been the VW Group’s market leader in the segment. However, this could be all about to change with the new Skoda incarnation. The Superb is now an exceptionally classic-looking car and gives the equally attractive Passat a run for its money. The ‘twindoor’ rear opening has been ditched in favour of a traditional hatchback opening, but the car gives the impression of being a traditional saloon. Once again, the Superb is built on a stretched platform some 80mm longer than the outgoing model, weighs about 75kg less, and is 47mm wider thereby providing more elbow room. Passengers also benefit from increased headroom, especially in the rear. A major factor of all Škoda cars is their luggage capacity compared with comparable models from other manufacturers, and the new Superb boasts 625 litres with the rear seats in place, increasing to a massive 1760 litres when the seats are folded. It is therefore likely to swallow almost anything one cares to put in it!

The car will offer a choice of seven fully turbocharged petrol and diesel engines depending upon the model derivative. The excellent DSG automatic gearbox will be available with selected engines so it should be possible to tailor-make the ideal package. Living up to the Simply Clever features offered by Škoda, the car comes with a built-in umbrella in each of the front doors and a rechargeable torch that also serves as a boot light. Even the basic model is well-equipped, boasting alloy wheels, DAB radio, Bluetooth connectivity and an infotainment touch screen. Better specification models have larger wheels, climate-controlled air conditioning, cruise control and rear parking sensors. For the ultimate in motoring, opt for the expensive Laurin & Klement spec with heated front and rear seats, adaptive dampers, powered tailgate, a TV tuner and more luxuries besides. These specifications apply to the UK market where models are generally better equipped as standard than in some other European markets. The interior layout is clearly designed for ease of use and driver comfort and avoids the gimmickry found in many competitor cars. Overall, the car is very well assembled and offers a comfortable and quiet driving experience, and with the entry level Superb S 1.4 TSI 123bhp engine currently costing £18640 (€25500), it will take a lot of beating in the value-for-money stakes!

More than ever before, the Superb is a real challenger for its cousin, the VW Passat. This model recently underwent a major facelift to become even bigger yet lighter than its predecessor, but at the same time becoming far more fuel efficient. Some top spec models command a premium price meaning that VW are targeting customers of smaller BMWs and Mercedes, but it has to be said that the car is of premium quality. Whilst the Passat is not the largest saloon car in the VW stable, it is the largest in terms of sales as the Phaeton is a super luxury saloon competing with the likes of the Audi A8 and Lexus LS. At first glance, the new Passat looks very similar to its predecessor, but actually boasts a 79mm extended wheelbase in a car that is slightly shorter due to reduced front and rear overhangs.

Specification across the model range has been improved and the car offers a sleeker look than before. As with the Škoda, the interior layout is conventional, with all controls readily to hand. Astute readers will note common switchgear used across many models in the VW Group. All models come with a 6.5 inch touchscreen, Bluetooth, DAB radio, curtain airbags and a driver’s knee airbag. Higher spec models feature sat nav, adaptive cruise control and other optional extras including the much-publicised Driver Assistance featuring, amongst other things, automatic full beam dipping, lane assist and side scan radar. Like the Sperb, the Passat is based on the MQB platform that has been discussed in previous model reviews. This platform underpins popular cars like the VW Golf, Škoda Octavia, SEAT Leon and Audi A3, so reliability should be taken as read. Luggage capacity is 586 litres with the rear seats in place but these can be folded top increase space. Remember, however,. that access is restricted as the Passat is a conventional saloon with a boot rather than the hatchback versatility of the Škoda Superb.

The Passat is a very well-engineered vehicle and now offers the complete package … a refined, comfortable, sporty saloon in a classic design that will retain its value better than many of its competitors. As with many things, the final choice between these two cars will be the price. As mentioned, the Superb actually offers more room than the Passat, and whilst it may not be right at the top in terms of overall refinement, it isn’t far off and offers exceptional value for money. The entry level Passat S 1.6TDI costs £22215 (€31000) which is over £3500 (€5000) more than the Superb … a lot of dosh! Both cars will offer estate derivatives at greater cost but offering even more carrying capacity making it a true battle of the giants!

Brand versus Style

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!

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VW Golf Estate
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SEAT Leon Estate

Budget Conscious

A brief look at two other super mini models from the VW Group stable …

In addition to the super mini models offered by Volkswagen and Škoda, namely the Polo and Fabia, the group also offers direct competition from Audi and Seat. Recently, the Audi model, known as the A1, has undergone a minor mid life facelift whilst the Ibiza from Seat is now in need of a major update or even replacement.

The main difference between the A1 and the Ibiza is on price. Whilst Audi carries a premium associated with its badge, the Seat is priced at the lower end of the market although their sporting derivatives do command a relatively high price.

Both models share the basic platform of their sister cars from VW and Škoda although the new Fabia does benefit from modular improvements to the platform which contribute to a reduction in kerb weight. The A1 has been modified after four years of availability but retains its smart looks, build quality and handling capabilities. It benefits from a restyled radiator grille, new headlamps, front and rear bumpers, plus improved interior trim and in-built safety features. However, the main changes are a modified platform and the introduction of a 1.0 litre three cylinder turbo petrol engine providing power output of 94bhp. This engine will replace the less powerful 1.2TFSI unit whilst also offering increased fuel economy. It should be noted that this three cylinder unit is available in both the Polo and new Fabia but not currently offered in the Ibiza.

Besides this new engine, the model also offers three more petrol units plus two diesels, all of which Audi claim have been heavily modified for the revamped model. Availability of these engines will depend upon which model derivative is chosen as not all are available across the model range. Specification for all models includes alloy wheels, air conditioning, remote central locking, electric front windows and door mirrors, iPod connectivity and a 6.5″ retractable display screen.

There is little doubt that the A1 is a premium car at the upper end of the super mini price spectrum. It is reassuringly safe in all weather conditions and the interior trim is first class. The model is available in both 3-door and 5-door styles, but I think it looks best in 5-door form which carries a £620 price premium over the 3-door. Prices are estimated to start at £14315 for the entry level 3-door to a whopping £26110 for the S1 5-door when the revised model becomes available next spring!

Desirability is the key word with regard to the Audi A1 and most buyers won’t be budget conscious, thereby happy to pay over the odds for the badge! As with the new Škoda Fabia, the A1 can be customised with a different coloured roof and rear pillars, helping the car to further stand out from the crowd. At the other end of the price spectrum is the Ibiza, which has been the best seller in the UK for the Spanish manufacturer until recently. The model has now been usurped by the Seat Leon!

The Ibiza is offered in three distinctive body styles, namely a 3-door sport coupé, a 5-door hatchback, and unusually in the super mini category, an estate variant. However, Škoda also offer an estate derivative of the Fabia which is considerably more practical than the Seat offering. The Ibiza offers a touch of design flair, especially in the coupé version, and handles well overall. Currently it doesn’t offer the latest engines from the VW stable, instead relying upon older but trusted units. The entry level model is sparse and powered by a 1.2 litre 12v engine proving a lacklustre 69bhp. There are considerably more powerful engines available as one moves up through the range of model derivatives on offer.

The car was revised in 2012 with extras fitted as standard, thereby increasing its appeal. Suspension is quite firm compared with the Polo which does contribute to its general sportiness. It is well built although there are cheap plastics inside, has a good driving position, and in lower priced models offers excellent value for money. Luggage space is about 290 litres with the rear seats in place, increasing to 847 litres with the rear seats folded. This is far less than the space provided by the new Fabia though. The Ibiza estate offers a total 1164 litres of luggage space with the seats folded. At the time of writing, list prices start at £9910 rising to £18980 for the top of the range Cupra model.

As can be seen, the Audi stands out in a class of its own price-wise. Whether or not the car is worth so much extra money is a matter of personal choice but much more spacious and equally reliable cars are available for the money commanded by the A1. Whilst the lower specced Ibizas should be avoided, the model offers a very attractive financial proposition in mid range. It will be interesting to see what the model replacement is like once the manufacturer announces a replacement.

SEAT Ibiza Estate
SEAT Ibiza Estate
Skoda Fabia Estate
Skoda Fabia Estate