But Spanish carmaker SEAT is hoping for a bigger slice of the market with the launch of its new Leon, on sale later this month.
The manufacturer plans to sell 2,500 second-generation Leons in Britain before the end of 2005 and 10,000 units in a full year.
The new car aims to sit between the Toledo and the bigger Altea MPV – but concerns have been raised that potential customers may be confused by the line-up as the Leon and Altea are very close in looks and in concept. However, SEAT is confident the differences will be clear enough to company car drivers: fleets account for about 40% of sales of the outgoing Leon and the company expects to increase this to a 50% share with the new version.
To help this along, a budget of £1 million has been set aside to promote the cars to fleets. Normal spend for SEAT on this type of promotional activity to draw in user-choosers and leasing companies would be a quarter of that figure.
The company also recently announced the appointment of Nigel Wright as national business sales manager. He will lead the business sales account managers and the business sales support team, which has responsibility for driving the Leon on to fleet, corporate and business lists.
But in the route to higher fleet sales, SEAT stresses it won’t simply be offering large discounts.
SEAT’s head of marketing, Mark McKenna, said: ‘The car is priced fairly and we’re not going after business just to increase registrations. This in turn will serve to protect residual values.
‘The new Leon is a benchmark car and it’s aimed at people who believe in driving.’ The majority of new Leon customers are likely to already own a SEAT but the percentage of customers new to the sporty brand is expected to be about 40%.
At launch, the Leon will be offered with a choice of four engines: 1.6-litre 99bhp and 2.0-litre FSI 147bhp petrol models and 1.9 TDI 102bhp and 2.0 TDI 137bhp diesels, both of which are Euro IV compliant. A high-performance 2.0-litre 181bhp T FSI will go on sale in November.
The 1.6-litre and 1.9-litre are mated to a five-speed gearbox and the 2.0 TDI and 2.0 FSI to six-speed boxes as standard. There is also the option of a Tiptronic automatic gearbox for the petrol and a direct shift DSG for the diesel.
The manufacturer says it is able to offer more powerful engines further down the range at the expense of gadgets such as cruise control, steering wheel-mounted stereo controls and electrically-operated rear windows.
Five rather confusingly-named trim levels are offered, starting with the Leon Essence. Standard specification for this model includes six airbags, tyre pressure monitoring, tinted windows, electric front windows and a six-speaker CD stereo system.
The Reference trim adds air conditioning and gets the choice of a the 1.9 TDI unit while Reference Sport has extras like front fog lights, six-speed gearbox, sports suspension, 16-inch alloy wheels, sports seats and leather-trimmed steering wheel and gear knob.
Drivers choosing Stylance get ‘coming home’ headlamps, electric door mirrors with park function, dual zone climate control, an eight-speaker stereo system, illuminated sun visors, cruise control, ESP and EBA and trip computer among other standard goodies.
Engines offered in the Stylance range are 1.6-litre, 2.0-litre FSI (available with Tiptronic) and 1.9 TDI.
At the top of the trims is Sport, which has the most powerful engines – the 2.0 T FSI petrol and the 2.0 TDI, both with six-speed gearboxes.
The diesel has the option of DSG transmission. It also gets Stylance specification and adds 17-inch alloy wheels, sports suspension, sports seats and its own distinctive interior styling.
The range starts at £11,295 for the entry-level 1.6-litre Essence rising to £17,295 for the top-of-the-range launch model, 2.0 TDI Sport DSG.
Hot FR (Formula Racing) variants are lined up for next June and a blistering 240bhp Cupra should go on sale in early 2007. For a brand that prides itself on its sporty image, that seems a long wait.
There are also currently no plans to offer fleets the all-inclusive service packages favoured by some car manufacturers now, but McKenna said it was something SEAT may consider in the future.
He said: ‘They haven’t worked with fleets in the past but it’s always an area we could look at.’
Behind the wheel
A MIXTURE of country roads and dual carriageways provided the setting to put the new SEAT Leon through its paces.
We tested the 2.0-litre FSI petrol model as well as 1.9 TDI and 2.0 TDI diesel variants. User-choosers would be best opting for the punchy 2.0 TDI, which is the much better performer, particularly in mid-range, and noticeably quieter.
In contrast, the 1.9 TDI engine feels tighter and suffers from an initial lull in acceleration along with significant turbo lag through the early revs. At motorway speeds both diesel variants cruise in a relaxed manner.
The new model is bigger than the outgoing Leon – cabin space is generous and the interior has an airy feel. There’s enough room in the rear to comfortably seat two adults. The boot is also marginally larger but it’s still not hugely spacious.
As a family car, the Leon does have some sporty elements – particularly its snug seats, which provide a low sitting position, and its thick-rimmed steering wheel and muscular gear knob.
Steering is light and cornering feels safe and predictable on winding rural roads. The brakes are excellent.
NOT as sporty as we had hoped but still a good-looking car with Volkswagen family handling characteristics. Competition from the likes of the Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra, Renault Megane and Volkswagen Golf will be tough, but the new Leon’s handsome lines give it a fighting chance. It’s just a shame that these lines weren’t so similar to the Altea mini-MPV.
|Engine (cc):||1,595||1,984 FSI||1,984 T FSI||1,896 TDI||1,968 TDI|
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||100/5,600||148/6,000||182/6,000||103/4,000||138/4,000|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||109/3,800||148/3,500||199/1,800||185/1,900||236/1,750|
|Max speed (mph):||114||130||137||115||127|
|Fuel consumption (mpg):||37.7||35.8||34.9||57.6||50.4|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||178||190||194||132||151|
|Transmission:||5-sp man||6-sp man||6-sp man||5-sp man||6-sp man|