Improving the handling and appearance of the Leon
Iâ€™ve owned my 1.6s Leon since September 2001 and although Iâ€™ve generally been very pleased with it, Iâ€™ve long thought that the handling could do with being improved. Now donâ€™t get me wrong, the standard set up is undoubtedly very good, giving high levels of grip and a comfortable ride for the occupants. Unfortunately, however, the provision of comfort is accompanied by a significant degree of body roll and a â€œfloatyâ€ feel to the ride, which has frequently resulted in my wife and kids feeling car sick after even relatively short journeys. Furthermore, Iâ€™ve always felt that the standard 6â€ x 15â€ alloys shod with 195/65R15 tyres are out of proportion with the rest of the car, which even in standard guise has a purposeful look that deserves to be better heeled. So, faced with these issues, I recently decided to improve both the handling and appearance of my Leon in one fell swoop, by fitting an aftermarket sports suspension kit and bigger alloys shod with low profile tyres. The details of these modifications are outlined below, along with my thoughts 6 weeks onâ€¦
The tasks and Costs involved
The choice of aftermarket suspension kits for the Leon is somewhat limited, the two main players being Koni (http://www.koni.uk.com) and Spax (http://www.spax.co.uk). Both companies offer a choice of products for the Leon, ranging from budget non-adjustable spring/damper kits through to premium coilover kits that offer race car levels of performance. After phoning a number of specialist tuning companies, I opted to go for a Koni kit, since I was told that Koni have a strong track record of producing products which perform well whilst retaining a good degree of ride comfort. Of the kits available, I opted for the adjustable sports suspension kit (SSK60), which comprises 4 Vogtland lowering springs (-35mm), 4 adjustable Koni sports dampers (matched to the springs) and a set of bump stops. Why this kit? Well, at an RRP of Â£440 it offers good value for money (I paid Â£345 at Larkspeed), plus itâ€™s fully adjustable (front dampers on the car, rear dampers off the car) and the springs are matched to the dampers. This latter point is important. Far too many people fit lowering springs without upgrading their dampers, which improves the appearance of the car but often ruins the handling. If you are upgrading your suspension because you want to improve the handling of your car, always opt for a kit that features matched components.
The choice of aftermarket alloys for the Leon is huge, so itâ€™s all down to whatever floats your boat. I went for the new Matrix Energy alloys, mainly because their design makes any given size appear bigger than they really are. An added bonus is that are relatively cheap (~Â£120 each for 8â€ x 17â€s). A couple of points about sizes â€" (i) donâ€™t go for anything less than 8â€ wide (they wonâ€™t fill your arches and youâ€™ll be forever after wishing they did) (ii) if you go for 17â€s youâ€™ll need 225/45R17 tyres and if you go for 18â€s youâ€™ll need 225/40R18 tyres (bigger is possible, but youâ€™ll end up with a harsher ride). These sizes will preserve the correct rolling circumference of your wheels, thus ensuring your speedo remains accurate. Again, far too many people fit the wrong size, either through ignorance or because they want the skinny tyre look. I opted for 8â€ x 17â€s, mainly because of a limited budget, but also partly to help preserve ride quality and thus decent handling. For tyres, I opted for Toyo Proxes T1-Sâ€™s all round, since they offer fantastic performance in all conditions at a reasonable price (~Â£95 each for 225/45R17s). Make sure you phone around for the best deals â€" I paid Â£865 all in at Wheelbase for the wheels and tyres (including a free set of McGard locking wheel nuts). Other retailers were quoting as much as Â£990 for the same combo!
Not being an ace mechanic, I opted to have my kit professionally fitted at Star Performance (http://www.starperformance.co.uk) in Fife (Scotlandâ€™s leading Seat tuning company). I would strongly recommend that anyone upgrading his or her suspension take a similar approach, since itâ€™s not just a case of bolting everything on and away you go. Lowering a car significantly alters the geometry of the suspension setup, which then needs to be carefully reset to the recommended manufacturerâ€™s settings if decent handling is to be achieved. The only way of doing this properly is to use a digital four-wheel alignment jig, such as a Bessparth system (you may be surprised, but places like Kwik Fit and even your local Seat dealer donâ€™t have the facilities to make really precise suspension adjustments). If you want a really good setup, take the time to seek out a tuning company with a Bessparth system or the equivalent â€" for folk down south the obvious choice is AmD (http://www.auto-amd.com) in Bicester). This whole process isnâ€™t as expensive at it sounds â€" I paid Â£165 to have the kit fitted and the geometry reset (plus I got a free ride in a 350 bhp Mitsubishi Evo!).
So, after all the spending, was it worth it? You bet! The combination of lowering the car by 45 mm (although the kit says â€"35 mm I measured the highest point on the rear arch before and after and itâ€™s actually -45 mm) and fitting the wider alloys has given the car an aggressive stance which compliments the purposeful body styling perfectly. However, the improvement in handling is even better, and way beyond what I expected. The ride is still very supple around town, with speed bumps and potholes offering no problems or undue harshness. However, out on the open road body roll is virtually gone and safe cornering speeds have increased massively (helped no doubt by the Toyo rubber gracing the new alloys). I've got both the front and rear dampers on one full turn of adjustment, which seems ideal for progressive driving on roads that are less than perfectly surfaced. My wife and kids have also commented that they no longer feel sick so often and that the ride now feels like a car should, rather than â€œfloatyâ€. I have to say, the performance is a revelation and continues to impress me on a daily basis.
Luckily for me, within a week of having the kit fitted I had the chance to blitz the Lecht (a high level mountain road in the Cairngorms that features endless hairpins, crests and sweeping bends). It was simply the best day I've ever had in a motor - confidence inspiring is an understatement for the new setup. The hairpins revealed a slight tendency towards oversteer (helped by dabs of left foot braking!), which contrasts with the neutral setup of the standard Leon. The only problem I encountered on the day was brake fade (never happened before on the same road, so the increase in speed must be significant), so now Iâ€™m saving for a brake upgrade! As a final point, if youâ€™re looking for performance modifications for the Leon, this kit is second to none. I've cut an average of 5 minutes off my daily commute to work (down from 35 mins to 30 mins), which features a mix of fast A roads and twisty B roads. I'm pretty sure that even increasing my engine power by 20 % wouldn't make me ~15 % quicker on average. Awesome!
So, to summarise - the total cost of these modifications was Â£1375 and the improvement in ride quality and handling is amazing. So, all Leon owners (yes, even the Cupra boys, I know youâ€™ve got body roll issues too) check out this kit! (Thanks to the folks at Star Performance for fantastic service and advice).
Contacts and thanks to
Rich aka WX51 TXR
Matrix Motorsport wheels http://www.mswuk.com
Star Performance http://www.starperformance.co.uk