Why the comparison?
Hot hatches are back in fashion and none is more defining that the Volkswagen Golf GTI. It has set the tone of the hot hatch brigade since the day the first version rolled off the production line more than 30 years ago. However, the Golf's supremacy is no longer a given in a talent-packed class where the very best can give supercars a hard time on real roads. For this contest, we've picked the Golf GTI's nearest rival for performance and practicality, the SEAT Leon FR, which has been steadily building a reputation and following of its own as a superb performance hatch.
How are they similar?
Volkswagen offers the Golf GTI with three doors, but for this test we've opted for the five-door model so that it and the Leon are on a level field for practicality. The Leon only comes with five doors, though it's styled to look more like a three-door coupé thanks to the rear door handles being hidden in the pillars. Open the rear doors of either the Golf or Leon and you'll be pleasantly surprised by how much space is offered in both. Those in the back of the Golf are afforded a better view out as the Leon's high waist means limited sideways vision, which is not good for kids on long trips. Up front, the recently revised Leon recovers ground with its classy dash that manages to have a little more style and pizzazz than the Golf's. VW has kitted out the GTI with tartan seat cloth and a leather steering wheel, but it just misses the sporting intent of the SEAT, which can be attributed to the Leon's more hip-gripping front sports seats.
Under the bonnet, this pair uses the same 2.0-litre turbocharged engine from the VW Group warehouse. Each has a six-speed manual gearbox as standard, though both can be ordered with a six-speed DSG twin-clutch automatic as an option. This costs £1,200 for the SEAT and, curiously, £1,305 for the Golf GTI. Other standard kit includes air conditioning, electric windows, CD stereo, alloy wheels, six airbags and ESP traction control in both cars. In manual gearbox form, each covers 0-62mph in 6.9 seconds to feel quick, if not outright fast, while emissions of 170g/km in each is reasonable for a hot hatch. They both also return 38.7mpg, so they're decently frugal when driven gently.
How do they differ?
For two cars that share the same engine and performance figures (though the Leon is marginally quicker overall with a top speed of 148mph to the Golf GTI's 145mph) this pair are markedly different to drive on the road. Volkswagen offers a £730 optional Adaptive Chassis Pack that gives a choice of Comfort, Normal and Sport settings for the suspension - though we found Normal to be the best bet for all but the most challenging conditions. No such choice with the Leon FR. Instead, SEAT has set up the FR to be a firmly suspended hot hatch that lets the driver know its leanings on every journey. Which you prefer is down to what sort of driving you do most of the time. For us, the extra comfort and sophistication of the Golf GTI wins for everyday comfort.
The Golf also serves up superb handling with no vices or any nastiness to scare unwitting passengers. It's all very precise and secure, though ultimately a little bland in feel and not helped by steering that is little short on delicacy. In the Leon, it's a rawer ride but all the more engaging for it when you want to make the most of its handling and performance. It loves to be taken by the scruff of its neck and wrung out. Driven in this way, the Leon is the more enjoyable and it serves up the same amount of grip as the VW but with more sensation through the steering and suspension so the driver feels much more in charge of events. That said, the Leon FR's very firm ride can see it deflected off course on bumpier back roads.
So which one would we have?
The SEAT Leon FR and Volkswagen Golf GTI are very evenly matched hot hatches, with both sharing much the same performance, practicality, equipment and running costs. This holds true right up to the point where you compare their list prices. At £19,050, the SEAT Leon FR is a whopping £4,550 cheaper than the five-door Volkswagen Golf GTI. Any advantage the Golf has in its more supple ride and strong retained values in the used market are washed away by that kind of price disparity. The Leon FR may have a hard ride, but it's a hard charger too and for this kind of price saving it's our pick of the practical hot hatches.