When you head out to buy a new family hatchback, there’s a handful of default choices from Ford, Vauxhall or, if you’re a little more well-heeled, Volkswagen. There’s a reason these brand’s hatchbacks are all in the top five of the UK’s best selling cars – they’re all very well-rounded, do-it-all cars.
But look a little further afield and there are some excellent choices from the smaller manufacturers that are not only as well rated but better equipped, cheaper and better looking too. SEAT and Mazda are two such manufacturers and we’re looking at their Leon and 3 hatchback offerings to find out which of the two you should buy instead of the more usual options.
In a market sector where safe styling is the buzzword, both SEAT and Mazda’s offerings are a startling breath of fresh air. Both are strong, bold designs that stand out from the crowd in different ways.
There’s no angle from which the Leon looks bad – it’s a pretty remarkable effort considering that the Leon is SEAT’s interpretation of the Volkswagen Golf. It’s not overstyled either – there’s just the right amount of bumps, bulges and creases to break up the overall shape. In a rare outbreak of design continuity, every point where two major lines meet (windowline corners, light clusters) has roughly the same angle. It’s pretty neat.
Mazda’s look differs in details. It’s broadly based on the same concept as Mazda’s previous new-generation models (CX-5 and Mazda 6) and seems to have translated well to the smaller car. The front end is nothing short of the boldest in the sector and the squat rear no less purposeful. There’s a nice line that dips midway down the side of the body that deserves a strong colour to show it off, so it’s perhaps the major downside to the 3’s styling is that it isn’t available in more exciting hues.
The Leon is also available as a three-door hatchback (dubbed “SC”) and three-door estate (the ST), which both look just as sharp, and the Mazda 3 comes as a pretty stunning Fastback model too.
The SEAT comes straight from the Volkswagen Group’s build quality playbook and it’s fair to say that it’s absolutely beautifully made. It’s not quite up there the group’s other products when it comes to materials, but it does join its stablemates in being a little on the dull side. It’s still better than the previous model and a more interesting place than the Golf though.
Inside the Mazda is a very clean and contemporary place. It’s not button heavy, though the seven-inch touchscreen seems somewhat incongruously stuck at the top of the centre console. It’s well equipped though and the optional head-up display is a cool and unusual feature for a car at this price point.
While head and legroom is largely fine for all occupants in the Leon, taller rear passengers won’t thank the stylish sloping roofline in the Mazda 3 – it encroaches on headroom.
The two cars trade blows just as effectively when it comes to practicality too. The Leon takes the honours on raw bootspace, by 380 to 364 litres, but when the rear seats go down it’s the Mazda that wins with 1,263 litres to the Leon’s 1,210.
It’s worth noting that neither car’s seats fold flat, though the Leon’s boot has a large ridge where the back rests sit. The Mazda’s boot is also more uniformly shaped, but there’s significant wheelarch intrusion on the SEAT – though SEAT has added small, netted cargo pockets behind these bulges to make for handy stowage space for little items.
The origins of the two cars somewhat dictate the driving experience of each. SEAT is still part of the Volkswagen Group and that means the Leon is still directly based on the Golf.
Of course the good news there is that VW has been updating its chassis range to a new platform dubbed “MQB”. This gives the car a cultured and refined drive, particularly on the lower end models. The fruitier, more powerful models have completely different rear suspension which lends a sporting touch, though they’re also a little bit more jiggly when the surface gets bumpy.
Mazda has gone to great expense to divorce itself from former masters Ford, so the 3 is no longer the Focus-based offering it once was. Even so, Mazda has a long reputation for being the Peugeot of the East when it comes to making cars ride and handle brilliantly at the same time, and the 3 is no exception.
Indeed reviewers put it above the Ford when it comes to driving fun and, though larger wheel options can make things less comfy, it has a stellar reputation for ride quality too. There’s minimal road or wind noise, so it’s good on motorways too.
Oddly, Mazda doesn’t yet back up this driving prowess with a meaty range of engines and the 3 is limited to a trio of its eco-friendly SkyActiv engines. Petrol choices are a 99hp 1.5, or a 2.0 with 118hp or 163hp, while the 2.2 diesel (also found in the CX-5 and Mazda 6) is available with 148hp only.
Performance from the top petrol and the diesel is about equal – both are close to 8.0 seconds on the 0-60mph run and top out at 130mph – but the diesel shows a remarkable 68.9mpg combined, the best fuel economy of any engine in the range.
This gives the Leon a chance to land a few blows because not only does it ship with the latest version of Volkswagen’s frugal 1.2 TSI petrol and 86mpg 1.6 TDI diesel, you can have it with some teeth too. There’s a 178hp 1.8 petrol, a 182hp 2.0 diesel and, flying the flag for the hot hatch sector, the Cupra 280. This will hammer the Mazda to 60mph by 2 seconds, has to be limited to 155mph and, until Renault came up with a £40,000 Megane, was the fastest way around any racetrack of your choice in a front wheel drive car.
This is only of marginal use on public roads, but it’s an appeal that the Mazda used to share with the MPS model and is now sorely lacking.
Value for Money
The Leon makes a great case for itself by being a better looking Golf for 10% less money. Prices start at £16,115 for the base spec 1.2 S model but it has to be said that, next to the Mazda 3, the toys and trinkets are a bit hit-and-miss at this level.
It’s an advantage the 3 keeps all the way up the range and, while the Mazda starts a little more expensive at £16,995, you’ll always have to pay around a thousand pounds more for a roughly equivalent Leon.
Running costs between the two are broadly comparable where models are equivalent, though the Leon holds the outright advantage on fuel economy and tax with the super-frugal 1.6 diesel Ecomotive version, for which there’s no Mazda alternative. Neither are likely to be strong performers for depreciation though.
When it comes to the specialist models for outright speed or green credentials, the Leon posts benchmarks than the 3 cannot match – the Cupra 280 will out-perform most hot hatches and the 86mpg Ecomotive is one of the most parsimonious conventionally fuelled cars around.
The majority of sales will be in the middle of the range though, and the Mazda 3 has the SEAT Leon well-covered here. It’s better to drive, rides better, nicer to be in, better equipped and, on equal footing, cheaper.
Importantly though, both are stunning lookers and with the breadth of talent on display they should both be considered as primary choices in the sector, while their more boring mainstream rivals ought to be the alternatives.