There is still an old, ingrained perception out there that an estate car has to be big, square and just a little bit ugly. We just can’t seem to help it. The silhouette of old Volvo, Ford and Opel estates is just burned onto our collective memories, leaving a slab-sided chunk of carry-all in the slot where estate cars live.
Which really couldn’t be more wrong. After all, sporty estates have been with us for a very long time. Remember the Reliant Scimitar? Or the Aston Martin DB5 Shooting Brake? No, you probably don’t, but I’ll bet you will remember the slinky Alfa Romeo 156 Sportwagon, which was such a slave to good looks that its boot was actually smaller than that of the saloon version…
No such problems here with the SEAT Leon ST. ST is no relation, in this case, to Ford’s sporting hot-hatch brand, but is instead Spanish (or more accurately Catalan – Seat’s home is in Barcelona after all) for estate and what we have here is a rather perfect example of how modern car making techniques have been able to move the estate car out of its square shape without sacrificing its usability.
I think SEAT should be applauded for making a compact family estate that looks this good (there’s really only one angle where you can spy the colossal rear bumper and overhang) yet is this useful. Under the conservatory extension at the rear, there’s a very handy, flat-floored 587-litre boot that even manages to stash a full-size spare wheel underneath. That’s no small advantage when you consider (a) the state of Irish roads and (b) how much hell the kids will put you through waiting for the AA to come and save you if you didn’t have one and you got a puncture.
Up front, it’s all standard Leon and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. You could accuse the cabin of being a bit too plain, but it’s comfy (helped on our SE-spec test car by the optional addition of lovely Alcantara-swathed seats) and little touches like the handsome instruments and the sweet-to-hold three-spoke steering wheel really help to lift the ambiance. Better yet, the build quality seems to be as utterly excellent, as SEATs tend to be (my family has variously owned four SEATs and counting since 1999 and one failed alternator is the sum total of bother we’ve suffered).
The 105hp Volkswagen Group 1.6-litre diesel is as familiar as your fingernails, so it hardly bears repeating that it’s smooth, decently refined and very economical. I don’t think you’ll match SEAT’s 74mpg official figure without resorting to some extreme hyper-miling, but mid-sixties seems realistic if you use a slightly light right foot. The five-speed manual gearbox seems a bit old-school these days, but it shifts cleanly and sweetly and fifth doesn’t seem too under geared on the motorway. Straight line performance is also fine – it’s no GTI (sorry, Cupra) but it’s brisk enough.
Better yet is the chassis. We’ve noted before that even basic Leons seem to have sharper, sweeter steering than other Volkswagen Group products (yes, even the Golf GTI) and that’s carried over here. If you’ll excuse the phrase, it really does have a terrific rack to go with that shapely bottom. The suspension is up to the task too. It fidgets a bit firmly over poor roads, but big obstacles, especially speed bumps, are washed away in great comfort.
Pity the refinement’s not so good. It’s not terribly noisy or anything, but it’s noticeably less refined than the inside of a Golf (Volkswagen laying down the law to keep some separation between the brands?) and conversations with rear-seat passengers especially have to be conducted at elevated volumes.
It seems a small price to pay though for such a good-looking, versatile car. And it won’t stop with just this 1.6 TDI version either. There will be a sporting 2.0 TDI FR version, which will combine 150hp and 180hp power outputs with incredibly modest price tags and running costs and there’s even going to be an insanely quick 280hp 2.0-litre turbo Cupra version. Imagine how scrambled the weekly shopping would be after a quick spin home in that! At a more sensible level though, the Leon ST perfectly encapsulates just why estate cars (and not MPVs, SUVs or anything else) really are the perfect capsules for your family life.