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The first-generation was the hatchback version of the SEAT Toledo, was based on the Mk IV Golf floorpan, and drew from the VW parts bin sharing many components in common with the Audi A3 and Volkswagen Golf. As SEAT's best selling car, the León Mk I was marketed as a sportier and cheaper variant of the Golf. To reinforce the sporty image, the vehicle has aggressive looks and is equipped with firm suspension to improve handling. The more expensive versions are equipped with powerful engines.

Available engines were the 75 PS 1.4 litre 16 valve petrol, 105 PS 1.6 litre 8 valve petrol (quickly replaced with a 16 valve unit) and included two variants of the Volkswagen Group's 20 valve turbocharged 1.8 litre powerplant, (with some countries also getting the 2.8 litre V6 delivering 204 PS (150 kW). The original León Cupra (which became know as the Cupra T) had a 1.8 litre Turbo with 180 PS (132 kW), and the León Cupra R 210 PS (165 kW), later becoming 225 PS. A range of TDI Diesel engines was available, including a 150 PS (110 kW) version of VW's 1.9 TDI engine, originally sold as a Cupra, then later rebranded as the FR (Formula Racing). Lesser diesel versions were available with 90, 110 and 130 PS outputs.

In some countries, a León was available equipped with four-wheel drive, which is based on the same Haldex differential as the VW Golf 4Motion. All engines over 130 PS (96 kW) have a standard manual 6-speed gearbox.
 
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