REVIEW DATE: 18 Sep 2009
What's SEAT's greenest Leon? That would be the Ecomotive. Steve Walker reports.
SEAT's seat on the environmental bandwagon has been booked by the Leon ECOmotive. Mechanical, aerodynamic and weight saving modifications made to the car enable it to return around 65mpg and just 99g/km. It's less rewarding than some Leons to drive but comes with the feel-good factor you get from knowing you're doing your bit.
It seems that green is very much the 'in' colour this season as far as the automotive industry is concerned. It was last season and the season before that and, barring some miraculous reversal of global warming or the sudden discovery of vast untapped oil reserves somewhere under Birmingham, it's likely to be dominating proceedings for some time to come. We're not talking about green the colour here but green the concept. To be deemed 'green', a car must sup lightly on the Earth's dwindling resources and cause as little harmful emissions as possible to enter our planet's atmosphere - and if it can avoid running over any cute animals in the process, so much the better. A responsibly driven SEAT Leon Ecomotive would appear to fit the bill.
Ecomotive is SEAT's eco brand. It wasn't so long ago that no car manufacturer had one of these but now numerous marques with designs on the cost-conscious mainstream market have. There's no 'LAMBOficiency' version of the Lamborghini Murcielago supercar (yet) but motorists are able to choose BlueMotion, ECOnetic, EfficientDynamics and GreenLine versions of more mundane Volkswagens, Fords, BMWs and Skodas. SEAT's Ecomotive, like these others, is in part a marketing department contrivance that presents customers with a convenient handle to grasp. Through these branding constructs, you and I can identify that these are green cars without necessarily having to understand the complicated engineering and aerodynamic factors that make them that way.
The 105 PS 1.6-litre TDI CR engine that now powers the Leon Ecomotive boasts both a DPF particulate filter and cutting edge common rail fuelling technology as standard. It delivers the best of its power over a narrower band of the rev range too which, combined with the longer gearing of the Ecomotive model, makes for a somewhat lazy feel. The low rolling resistance tyres on the car also have fractionally less grip than conventional ones.
"A good-looking and spacious family hatchback, but one that's also capable of driving from London to Barcelona on a single tank."
What's really important though is the way that this second generation Leon Ecomotive improves significantly on its previous already impressive CO2 performance: at only 99 g/km in official tests, this common rail version is a full 20 g/km better than its TDI predecessor thanks to the addition of Auto Start/Stop and energy recuperation functions, allied to the engineering advances provided by the 1.6-litre common rail diesel engine.
Integral to this SEAT's exceptional economy is the Spanish brand's use, for the first time, of Auto Start/Stop technology. When the car comes to a halt, at a red traffic light for example, the driver selects neutral and lifts his foot off the clutch. At this point the Start/Stop system kicks in and automatically switches off the engine. When the driver depresses the clutch again the engine seamlessly starts up, and when a gear is engaged the car can be driven off as usual. This car is also equipped with SEAT's energy recuperation function which recycles energy coming from the alternator when the driver takes his foot off the accelerator or steps on the brake. The engine work is reduced, so fuel consumption decreases.
Modifications to the five-speed gearbox also contribute to improving the fuel consumption figures still further. In addition, there's a handy recommended gear indicator device, located in the instrument binnacle, which displays the most appropriate gear for the driving conditions. And there are special low friction tyres that contribute not just to their economy but also to impressive performance.
The SEAT Leon runs on Volkswagen Golf underpinnings and, surprise, surprise, it's pretty much like a Golf to drive. There's a compliant suspension set-up that offers a decent ride and handling compromise, at least when travelling on smaller wheel-and-tyre combinations. There's good feedback too, through the electric power steering. The long ration gearbox in the Ecomotive is also pleasant to use, with mechanical precision and a lovely slick feel to the action.
The SEAT Leon is a good deal bigger than you might expect for this class of car and this extra space is particularly noticeable in the rear where there's plenty of knee-room, even if you're transporting six-footers. Although there's no armrest in the back and the bench is a little flat, you wouldn't feel hard done by undertaking a longer journey here. The rear tailgate opens wide to reveal a load bay that's a little awkwardly shaped for bulky items but is otherwise perfectly adequate for this class of car. Weight has gone up by a mere 8kg, helped in no small part by innovative panel stamping procedures and an acrylic rear side window that incorporates the door handle. The latest models feature small adjustments to the grille, light clusters and bumpers as will as upgraded materials inside.
Both the front seat and the steering wheel are multi-adjustable and there's plenty of headroom up front even for taller drivers. The nose curves rapidly out of view and shorter drivers may want to specify parking sensors. The windscreen pillars are annoyingly chunky which means that you'll probably be doing a fair bit of see-sawing in your seat as you negotiate roundabouts. One can almost excuse this feature due to the fact that the windscreen wipers park vertically into the pillars - a rather neat trick that helps with the vital showroom wow factor. All-round visibility isn't a Leon strong point, the three-quarter view being hampered by thick pillars and the rearward view consisting of a number of headrests but the latest cars have a larger rear window that helps a little.
The Leon Ecomotive comes only with a five-door bodystyle and a price premium of around £1,000 over a standard Leon with the same engine but without all the efficiency modifications. In other words, you'll need to cover a fair few miles to recover your outlay in fuel and tax savings. However, you will be doing your bit for the planet as well as for your pocket and plots on the moral high ground like that don't come cheap.
The arrival of special economy models like the Leon Ecomotive has shown what the industry is capable of when it puts its mind to it. There's nothing groundbreaking technologically about the car but a series of sensible modifications have produced a family hatchback capable of around 65mpg and 99g/km emissions. One wonders why such measures weren't taken earlier but before the green issue hit the public's consciousness and saving fuel became a method of saving substantial sums of money, there was no consumer demand for cars like this SEAT. The moral of the story; where there's a market, the car makers will find a way.
The Leon Ecomotive forces its driver to make a few compromises to save that fuel but nothing too major. It's a little noisy, the long ratio gearbox takes away some fluidity from the driving experience, and the special tyres aren't the most grippy. Otherwise, it's just like driving a conventional SEAT Leon, a good-looking and spacious family hatchback, albeit one that's capable of driving from London to Barcelona on a single tank.
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