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Click to view picture gallery“Nothing adds cachet
  to a car so much as
  a whiff of motorsport.
  In the SEAT Leon FR’s
  case, it’s a lot more
  than a whiff. More like
  a broadside. Which
  makes it hot to trot out
  of the showroom...

CURRENT LEADERS of the British and World Touring Car Championships, SEAT has rolled out a new FR (short for Formula Racing) Series of models to add impetus to their sales, which for the first six months of this year are already up by 12 per cent in a market that, overall, is 4.5 per cent down on last year.

As SEAT's new UK Managing Director, Peter Wyhinny, said at the British Motor Show: "Doing Touring Cars is not cheap, but our sales have proved it's worth it for us and helped put us where we are today, so it's money well spent."

SEAT's new factory-built FR Series comprises of the second-generation Leon FR, the Altea FR and a greater-value Ibiza FR. SEAT says the principal selling points are a distinctive sporty design, fast 'n' fun driving performance and notable value-for-money.

Realising that today's performance-orientated customers no longer have a petrol-only mentality, SEAT has introduced the new FR models with petrol and diesel engine options for all three ranges. However, the new 240PS Leon Cupra — due to arrive in the UK early in 2007 — will be petrol-only.

Mike Orford, Head of Press and Public Relations for SEAT UK, says that, as a brand, SEAT has the youngest customer profile in Europe — with an average age of thirty-eight.

The majority of SEAT customers are retail buyers, with fleet sales accounting for 35 per cent of the overall business. There is a trend for company car users to move away from high-volume vehicle brands, preferring instead to drive more sporting and exclusive models. And there's no doubt that these buyers have certainly been attracted by SEAT's motorsport activities. SEAT expects the FR models to grow their fleet and company car/user-chooser sales to around 40 per cent and increase total UK sales to somewhere in the region of 30,000 cars this year.

In fact, the new Leon range — even without the FR variants — had enjoyed a sales growth of 69 per cent so far this year. SEAT expects to sell over 11,000 Leon models this year, with FR versions accounting for 40 per cent of sales. Of those, 60 per cent of the FR variants are expected to be diesel models. With the Ibiza, they also expect to sell over 11,000 units in total, with FR variants accounting for 10 per cent of sales and diesel variants taking 55 per cent of the FR total. As for the Altea range, SEAT believes 4,000 sales are achievable, with 10 per cent being FR variants and 80 per cent of those being diesel models.

For the Ibiza FR, the petrol and diesel engine options are a 1.8-litre 148bhp turbocharged petrol and a 1.9 TDI 129bhp unit priced at 11,975 and 13,120 respectively.

The Leon and Altea FR models use new 2.0-litre T FSI 198bhp turbo-charged direct-injection petrol or 2.0-litre TDI 168bhp direct-injection diesel units. The Leon FR T FSI model is priced at 16,995 with the TDI at 17,495. The Altea FR T FSI costs 17,295 with the TDI being priced at 17,795.

Performance figures for SEAT's FR models are as follows —

Ibiza 1.8 T FR: 134mph, 0-62mph in 8.4 seconds, combined fuel consumption 35.8mpg. The TDI variant: 129mph, 0-62 in 9.3 seconds, 53.3mpg.

The Altea T FSI FR: 136mph, 0-62mph in 7.7 seconds, 34.4mpg. The Altea TDI FR: 130mph, 0-62mph in 8.6 seconds, 45.6mpg.

The Leon T FSI FR: 142mph, 0-62mph 7.3 seconds, 35.8mpg. The Leon TDI FR: 135mph, 0-62mph in 8.3 seconds, 47.1mpg.

Speaking at the UK media's test drive event held at the Prodrive proving ground in Warwickshire this week, SEAT said that all three FR ranges are quite distinct from other models in the range but they do share design touches that are exclusive to the FR Series. All feature 17-inch alloys, silver-painted door mirrors, twin exhaust pipes, motorsport-style front and rear bumpers, FR sports seats, white instrumentation, FR exclusive design steering wheel and gear lever knob and a generous application of FR badging inside and out.

In the limited space available I will give my driving impressions of the Leon FR models, as it is the Leon that is the 'halo' model for the FR range. This is due to SEAT's impressive motorsport touring car activities with the Leon and, depending upon family requirements, the model most likely to attract buyers who do not want to drive a Ford
or Vauxhall 'hot hatch'. As the Leon is predicted to be the best-selling FR model — particularly the diesel version — this is the one I will concentrate on.

For the record, the Ibiza is the small hatchback in the SEAT range
and the Altea a cross between a five-door hatchback and a tall MPV. The 'go-faster' FR versions within these line-ups will obviously appeal to certain customers within those segments.

The Leon is a five-door hatchback with funky styling as standard, so the added FR sporty design details endow it with significant road presence. The Leon, in standard form, is a sharp handling vehicle with a spacious and classy interior. The FR treatment is the icing on the cake. The only downsides — on all Leon models — are the wide wind-screen pillars (which reduce visibility) and the high rear boot sill which, coupled to the narrow lower section of the rear tailgate opening, makes loading the vehicle awkward.

Which of the two high-performance engines customers choose will be totally down to the sort of mileage they cover. The high-mileage company car or user-chooser customer can go for the 6-speed 2.0-litre TDI 168bhp turbocharged diesel model without fear of being
outperformed. A top speed of 135mph and the 0-62mph dash covered in a little more than eight seconds says it all, but the potential for 47mpg will be a big draw (the official figures are 36.2 Urban, 47.1 Combined and 56.5mpg Touring). The engine is strong; it is quiet and remains flexible to drive in congested traffic — as you'd expect with 258lb ft of torque produced by its 16-valve diesel powerplant with advanced Piezo Pump Nozzle injection system.

Both the high-performance diesel and petrol Leon models impressed me with their ability to get the power down on to the road via their front wheel drive set-up. Normally, 'hot hatches' are renowned for huge amounts of torque-steer and spinning wheels scrabbling for grip during the early stages of acceleration. Not so the Leon FR. Virtually no torque steer, and the wheels grip eagerly on wet or dry surfaces —
a very clever and impressive transmission.

The 2.0-litre T FSI 198bhp turbocharged direction-injection petrol engine should not be overlooked, and is sure to attract lower-mileage users. This engine is regarded as one of the best two-litre petrol engines available today — from any manufacturer. Like the diesel, it
is responsive, refined and when needed, flexible at low speeds.

Having to choose which one I'd go for — petrol or diesel — would call for a very difficult decision. I like both very much, but the petrol unit felt just that bit more eager to respond to the demands of my right foot. However, driving pretty hard over the same test conditions, the petrol model returned 26.4mpg and the TDI diesel variant 32.9mpg. So it might be my pocket that has the final say on which model to go for.

The decision is further complicated because the petrol T FSI version
is 500 cheaper to buy than the diesel Leon TDI. Offsetting this, the petrol model is more expensive to insure and costs more in road tax. There's no easy answer and it hangs on what your annual mileage is. The only certainty is that both of the powerplants are very impressive.

As for handling and road manners, there are no issues. The Leon offers first-rate front-end grip with predictable understeer during really
hard cornering. As you'd expect, the FR's sports suspension is stiff. Generally, it absorbs the bumps and portholes pretty well — although undulating and rippled road surfaces, driven over at high speed, will
get the Leon FR hopping around.

It is really good to see a manufacturer involved in motorsport at the highest levels making their costly racing involvement work for
them with increased sales and brand awareness. And work for their customers too, by providing them with a more entertaining drive.
And you don't just get performance alone — every Leon FR comes kitted-out with dual-zone climate control, racy 17-inch alloy wheels, ESP (Electronic Stability Programme), EBA (Emergency Brake Assist-ance system), alarm with immobiliser, cruise control, four electric windows, remote-control central locking, electrically-adjustable and foldable door mirrors, trip computer, height and reach-adjustable steering wheel with audio controls and CD/radio with MP3-compatibility, to mention the highlights.

The Leon looks good, too, with its added 'FR' motorsport styling touches. Plus it's fun to drive and offers unquestionably competitive performance. Against this is limited visibility for the driver, restricted boot space (and access) and a nervous ride at speed over bumpy roads. But this is a car to stir the enthusiast driver, and he — or
she — will undoubtedly consider the pros more than outweigh the
cons. — David Miles

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SEAT Leon 2.0 TDI FR
| 17,495
Maximum speed: 135mph | 0-62mph: 8.3 seconds
Overall test MPG: 32.9mpg | Power: 168bhp | Torque: 258lb ft

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--------------------------------------------------------------------- SEAT Leon FR