Live from the launch: SEAT round up
Not content with inviting us to try out the Alhambra and Ibiza Sports Tourer on UK roads for the first time, Seat brought along its entire range for the day as a refresher on what the brand has been up to over the past six months.
Studying the car park it's not difficult to identify the duality in Seat's line up. On one hand the company wants to be the sporting, red-blooded brand within the VW Group, on the other it needs to appeal to produce the ultra-economical, affordable models that people will actually want to buy in numbers at the showrooms.
Hence the introduction of the new E Ecomotive badge which, like Volkswagen's Bluemotion tag, lets buyers know that they are buying a car with all the latest fuel-saving tech aboard.
At the top of the eco scale is the three-cylinder 1.2 TDI which is already found in the VW Polo, and can now be specified with the new Ibiza Sports Tourer. Downsized diesel engines aren't exactly our cup of tea, but with 80mpg in the offing and no road tax to pay thanks to CO2 emissions of just 92g/km, the car certainly has its benefits.
Unfortunately, refinement and performance aren't among them. That the 73bhp Ibiza is slow is no surprise, but the tiny oil burner really does make you earn that mega mileage – any impatient flooring of the throttle in a futile search for more speed will see the fuel consumption plummet to around 50mpg. Still, twinned with the Sports Tourer estate shell, the car offers an awful lot of practicality for those who base their car buying decisions on frugality alone.
As an antidote to the painfully sober 1.2 TDI, we couldn't help pinching the keys for the Ibiza Cupra sitting in the next parking bay. The compact hot hatch has been around for a little while now and is often overlooked as it shares a segment with the phenomenal Renault Clio 200, but the car has several strong features, not least that it is more comfortable than its French rival and, thanks to its 7-speed DSG gearbox, can be driven in a slightly more relaxed style.
Of course the familiar 1.4 TSI will locate some pace if you ask it to, and while the controls and feedback are little underwhelming, the Ibiza will cover ground at a decent lick without missing a beat. It looks the part too, but our real appreciation for the Seat aesthetic is reserved for the next car on the list – the Leon.
We've always had a lot of time for the brand's reskinned VW Golf, and with the 1.2 TSI petrol engine beneath the bonnet the model makes a lot of sense. Inside it's miles behind the Golf's exemplary interior, but the equivalent VW doesn't get anywhere near the same amount of kit and it retains all the practicality and most of the pleasure behind the wheel.
This is helped along by little engine that punches well above its weight. Unlike the 1.2 TDI the TSI doesn't simply jettison its responsibilities in the performance department. The petrol unit's 103bhp isn't earth shattering, but the 129lb ft of torque is delivered so low in the rev range that the engine always feels keen and responsive, which consequently makes the car a pleasure to drive around town. With 52mpg on the cards, the 1.2 TSI is a great example of how downsizing can be achieved without the need to dilute customers' behind-the-wheel expectations.
Finally, there's the Leon Cupra R, the most powerful Seat ever built. We've seen the hot hatch before of course, but the 260bhp range topper is always worth revisiting.
Following on the heels of the 1.2 TSI the Cupra R feels incredibly rapid. The 2.0-litre engine delivers its power in long, linear bursts of old-school turbocharged spurts. In fact, the whole car has a very endearing charm to it.
The five-door Seat is a sister car to the Golf R, but it doesn't share in the Volkswagen's detached, ultra-refined version of fast. The hot Leon is lighter and looser thanks to its front-wheel drive chassis, and while it is certainly not as quick as the Germanic effort, it does possess the kind of rabid edge that continually makes you want to poke it with a stick.
From a purely practical vantage point, the model doesn't make much sense, though. The standard Cupra isn't much slower, looks almost exactly the same and is £4k cheaper. But if Seat is adamant that it remains the swashbuckling brand in VW's portfolio it needs to keep balancing its economical efforts with cars like the Cupra R.