ACCORDING to SEAT, there is a group of drivers who want razor-sharp handling, German quality and Latin flair in their hot hatches.
I am prepared to trade a bit of that handling sharpness for extra room for my family, so the SEAT Altea FR would be on my list of cars to look at. But isn’t this whole mini-MPV, MAV, MSV business a bit dubious?
What, exactly, is the multi-purpose/activity/sport proposition of the Altea and its ilk?
To stretch the appeal of the hatchback to consumers who fear it might be a bit of a squeeze.
Fair enough, but it’s with the high-performance car in the range that the compromise is most obvious.
Add a few millimetres to the height and rump of a ‘cooking’ 1.6 petrol Leon and nobody will really mind that it might be a little bit more ponderous – do the same to the FR (Formula Racing) models and it becomes a bit of a shame.
Where is all this leading? It’s leading to the SEAT Altea FR 2.0 TDI in front of me, and the case for the defence.
It’s a good-looking car, make no mistake. Only the rear view looks dumpy and slabby compared to the sharp looks of the Leon.
On the five-door Leon the rear door handles are built into the C-pillar but the Altea uses colour-coded traditional handles set into the door panel.
The deep door panels are beautifully complemented by the styling ‘crease’ (known as a swage line when I was a lad) which flows from the headlight to the rear wheelarch.
Front and rear quarterlight windows provide lots of light and I’m delighted the designers beat back the accountants and put glass, not a panel, in that little triangle in front of the mirrors.
I sat in the back first and the seats felt quite high. I pulled the front seats back as far as they would go and still had decent legroom. Obviously, this will be reduced when the rear seats slide forward to expand the boot capacity. This can add an extra 100 litres of storage space and the whole system, including the drop-down second tray under the parcel shelf, is a versatile arrangement.
Over in the front, there’s a bespoke FR steering wheel and gearshift to make you feel a bit special. The radio/CD will play MP3 tracks and is hooked up to an eight-speaker system. The centre console has a clean, no-nonsense layout with dual-zone climate control at the top and audio below. I like the styling. It’s neat and functional and, although there is rather too much hard plastic around the cabin, SEAT has made it a little more bearable by applying a faux carbon-fibre finish to it. But is the pretence a metaphor for the SEAT? Are the ‘Latin’ passion and sporting claims just an extension of the emotive advertising and marketing? Join me behind the wheel to find out.
Behind the wheel
THE front seats feel only slightly lower than the rear ones, giving the higher viewpoint that distinguishes the Altea from the Leon. Those seats are firm but not hard and hug that surplus flesh above my belt. You like that image, don’t you?
Turn the key and the sound is not obviously diesel. Blip the throttle and there is a quiet whirring noise which builds to a whine on the move. It sounds like the wailing police sirens they used after the ‘nee-naw’ but before the ‘wow, wow, wow’ noise. I got used to it and then liked it.
The six-speed gearbox has well-spaced ratios. Sixth feels high enough to let the torque of the diesel hold motorway speeds at economically low revs. The 2.0-litre engine has a very distinct power band. I wouldn’t say not much happens before 2,500rpm, but a lot more happens after 2,700rpm. You can feel those 170 horses and that’s what you want from an FR.
There’s a great feel to the steering but it isn’t as nimble as the Leon. You’re aware of those extra centimetres and 30kg, but you’ll choose an Altea because you have a use for them.
THE SEAT Altea FR 2.0 TDI is £1,000 cheaper than the less powerful but slightly larger Volkswagen Golf Plus TDI 140. I’d choose the SEAT.
|Model||2.0 TDI 170||2.0 T FSI|
|Max power (bhp/rpm)||170/4,200||200/5,100|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm)||258/1,800||207/1,800-5,000|
|Max speed (mph)||130||136|
|Fuel consumption (mpg)||45.6||34.4|
|CO2 emissions (g/km)||167||197|