Sunday 18 February 2018

Why I expect more of us to chase the '4WD experience'

Getting to grips: Leon Experience - an estate with 4x4
Getting to grips: Leon Experience - an estate with 4x4
Seat Leon: Lots of spec in slightly raised cabin
Eddie Cunningham

Eddie Cunningham

A FEW years back a colleague, now sadly deceased, complained relentlessly when a car didn't have air conditioning.

It wasn't to keep him warm in the winter or cool in the summer, he'd argue (and he could argue, believe me). No, it was to provide an ambient, or steady, in-car temperature all year round.

Now nearly every new car has air con. I'm sure it was coming but my deceased friend, Lord rest him, is undoubtedly taking partial credit in that great test-drive circuit in the sky.

I wonder if we'll see the same trend with all-wheel-drive or 4WD technology in the years to come.

There is absolutely no doubt there has been a stirring. Quite a few manufacturers to whom I've spoken tell me there is a perceptible increase in demand. While it will probably take a prolonged bout of bad weather to kick it on significantly, I see increased numbers of 'ordinary' cars, such as saloons and estates, with the facility now.

And to be honest I don't know why you would bother with the beefed-up estate I'm reviewing this week if it didn't have 4x4. It, and raised ground clearance, are the raison d'etres of the SEAT Leon X-Perience.

Based on the Leon ST estate but sitting 30mm taller it is, to put it crudely, SEAT's stop-gap answer to the flood of Crossover/SUVs from rivals. They'll have one next year but meantime you'll have to make do with the X-Perience or switch to another brand.

Before you do so, let's have a look at the pros and cons because it raises a few issues, I think.

First off it is an estate, a road-going people-and-luggage hauler that has the sort of room families love. Especially when you fold the rear seats.

The cabin is quite smart - because it is simple. No silly frills but good solid seating. The interactive infotainment screen is a bit small and looks old fashioned. But overlook that for a moment and give it credit for being integrated into the dash as opposed to one of those stand alone yokes, and for trimming back the volume of buttons. Great radio reception by the way - some excellent British stations.

My driving position, in small part due to the car's increased height, was excellent too and my seat had lumbar support.

I did notice a bit of tyre/road noise on rougher surfaces but nothing I'd put down as a black mark. Estates, like SUVs, are more prone to it than saloons whose boot areas are more shut off from the cabin.

Biggest surprise, and I don't know why it should have been because I've experienced (no pun) it several times, was the 2-litre 150bhp diesel engine. Volkswagen-sourced, of course, it gave me a nicely judged blend of gutsy pulling power and thrust. However, I thought there was too big a gap between first and second with an otherwise slick 6spd gearbox.

And so to the 4x4. The Haldex system in this either leaves the front wheels do all the work, depending on conditions, or dispenses power to those with most grip.

It's an excellent system. I've had it off-road in motors where power to just one wheel got me through rough, angular, sticky patches.

The roads I drove over were dry so grip and traction were not an issue but I still say having all wheels driving when you need them is a big plus. Especially if you are towing a trailer or caravan, for example. The 4WD gives the X-Perience an impressive towing capacity of 2,000kg (they also have what they call a 'fit-and-play' tow-bar facility).

So not a bad package overall there, I'd say. It was a really good drive; much better than I expected.

Except it isn't an SUV. It doesn't have the look of one. And its ground clearance is such you won't go off-road in a serious way (same applies to many SUVs, in fairness). For me, it is a slightly disproportionate, over-long, estate.

I've never been a mad fan of its looks, especially in that awful dead-brown colour that I first saw it in. However, this looked really well in red.

And it costs €32,000 or so. You could buy a decent Crossover for that. Only thing is it mightn't have 4x4. And you'll go a good bit of the road to get as much space under the one roof.

The X-Perience is very much for niche tastes: family estate and 4x4. But it makes a good argument for having all-wheel-drive ability. In 10 years I fully expect a high proportion of cars like this, and indeed most mainstream motors of a certain size, to have 4WD.

Just like air conditioning.

SEAT Leon X-PERIENCE: facts and figures

2-litre diesel, 150bhp, 4WD, 129g/km, €270 road tax, 4.9l/100km, 6spd gearbox.

Standard equipment included: seven airbags, electric/heated door mirrors, two-zone air con, rear park distance control, 17ins alloys (space saver spare), media system touchscreen (5ins) with radio, CD/AUXin/USB/SD cars, Bluetooth six speakers, cruise control, electric windows, front sports seats, black roof rails, stop/start, front fogs with cornering function, multi-function steering wheel, X-PERIENCE touches such as chrome doorstep, bumpers, logo etc, suspension 15mm lower, three-year warranty, chrome/double exhaust pipe.

Extras on test car included 18ins titanium alloys, media system plus 5.8ins screen, full front/rear LED lights.

Prices start at €32,495. Optional extras brought total price to €34,762.

Remember: delivery and related charges are extra.

My side of the road

Two or three cars in front of me braked suddenly. For a second there was a high risk of a rear-end shunt. Then the moment passed. We all continued - but much slower.

The funny thing is there wasn't anything in our way; nothing to force us to slow so quickly. We were simply blinded by the late-evening sunshine.

It caught us all by surprise and caused confusion. Sadly, from such simple matters, accidents can occur.

I used to always make sure I had a pair of sunglasses somewhere on board but to be honest I've let the habit slip.

I remember an Advanced Driving instructor telling me that sunglasses are an important safety aid and we should always have one on board.

Just thought it worth mentioning now we're into the sort of weather where you'll get strong, blinding, sunshine. An awful lot can happen in those few unsighted moments.

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