So I said to Elvis as I handed him back the keys: “Sorry the car’s so dirty but the roads are really mucky this morning.” “Not a problem,” he smiled, “that’s what we’re here for”, as he reached for the sponge and hose for the umpteenth time that morning.
No, I’m not making it up. This particular Elvis wasn’t in the trademark rhinestone jumpsuit – instead he was wearing more practical winter weather gear, emblazoned with Seat Leon ST, as he and his team gritted their teeth against the winter elements to keep the fleet of brand-new test vehicles looking their best.
I was in some of England’s best-looking countryside in the Cotswolds which after days of torrential rain was left with a lot of its rich farmland spread over the country roads and lanes. They provided a great – if a little messy – testing ground for this latest addition to the Seat range, which in the case of the mid-range Leon, has gone from what the company call a “treasured twosome” of a five-door and three-door coupe to a “tremendous troika” which now includes the estate ST version.
Rather than just bolting on an extra box at the back end, the ST has been redesigned from the front A pillars back to create a sweeping line with the now signature crease along the rear quarter. Externally, it has a longer overhang at the rear but that apart it’s clearly one of the expanding family. This car is designed to make a difference on the inside by creating as much usable space as possible for active lifestyle owners and their families to cram in their luggage and sports equipment whether it’s golf bags, skis or mountain bikes but still provide everyday transport for during the week.
Competing against the likes of the estate versions of the Renault Megane, Vauxhall Astra and Ford Focus, it’s an important sector of the market which is growing all the time. The 587-litre boot space is impressive but that increases by almost three times if you drop the rear seats. A front passenger seat which folds flat for extra space is an option but standard is a mid-rear seat hatch which drops to allow long, thin stuff to be stored through to the cabin. There’s a double boot floor and the rear shelf can be taken out and stored in the car rather than left at home.
What’s very handy (and why don’t other manufacturers all have them?) are the pull handles in the boot which release the catch for the rear seats without having to wrestle with them.
While space is the prime asset of this car, it also has some features new to the Leon range. A panoramic glass sunroof is available only on the ST and the extra light gives a good feeling of open space.
On the road, steering alters automatically when the car is being driven at high speed for greater agility or in town to make parking easier. Adaptive cruise control comes in the SE and sporty FR versions along with a host of other safety and comfort extras. The ST is an attractive addition to the range and will help boost Seat’s ambitions to become a more major player in the market alongside its Audi, Skoda and VW partners in the VAG corporation. Seat’s selling point is the combination of Spanish flair and German engineering and things are certainly going well, with 45,000 cars sold in the UK last year, an increase of 17 per cent compared to the year before. Scotland is especially important to Seat, with more than 4,300 cars taking to our roads in 2013, more than half as much again as Wales and Northern Ireland combined. About half of these were crucial fleet sales to companies and most were diesels.
The ST range starts at £16,675 with a small but lively 1.2-litre petrol engine but I enjoyed throwing the sporty FR 1.8-litre 178bhp with a silky smooth DSG-automatic gearbox round the Cotswold countryside. That was one of the reasons why it came back looking decidedly muckier than it had left and why Elvis and his team had their work cut out to restore it to its previous glory.
By the way, Elvis is not his real name. I don’t know what that is but he’s had the nickname for as long as anyone could remember. Apparently it’s got something to do with the fact that his dad once had a chip shop, a reference to Kirsty MacColl’s song There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis.
Car Seat Leon ST FR 1.8 TSI 180PS DSG-auto
Price £22,485 (£25,830 as tested)
Engine 1.8l, 4cyl, turbo petrol, 178bhp, 184 lb ft
Performance Max speed 139 mph; 0-62 mph 7.7 secs
Economy 48.7 mpg combined
CO2 emissions 135 g/km