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SEAT Altea

Test venue: Hertfordshire

SEAT's Altea - the Spanish marque's new entry into the Multi Sports Vehicle (MSV) sector - goes on sale in the UK on July 10th and the manufacturer sees this crucial brand as the start of a change of direction for future design and build policy.

SEAT cars went on sale in the UK back in 1985 and it took 10 years for annual sales to reach the 11,000 mark. Since then sales have improved threefold and SEAT increased the annual figures to 34,000 in the following nine-year period. The company hopes that Altea will attract young families to a segment where the Peugeot 307 SW, Vauxhall Zafira, Ford Focus and Fusion and Honda Civic are listed as possible competitors.

~We hope that this car will improve the desirability of the brand, rather than label it as a brand with merely value for money,~ said Mark McKenna, SEAT's Head of Marketing. ~This car is a change of the brand positioning within the Volkswagen Group. We see the Altea fitting into a slot between the hatch and MPV, giving potential customers the best of both worlds.~

Altea is the first SEAT to be wholly-developed within the VW Group and was created by Walter de Silva and his team at SEAT's Tehcnical Centre. It is fitted with numerous technological features and is available with one of four engine derivatives. Petrol models are fitted with either the 102 bhp, 1.6-litre or 150 bhp, 2.0-litre unit, with diesel options available with either the 2.0 TDi or 1.9 TDi powerplants.

The 2.0-litre petrol engine is SEAT's first ever direct injection petrol unit and delivers a punchy 200 Nm of torque at 3,500 rpm and claimed fuel consumption figures of 36 mpg. The 1.6-unit was a little sluggish on a test run around Hertfordshire on the UK launch, although SEAT personnel claim the all-aluminium unit is the most frugal of the petrol options.

Smaller models are fitted with a manual five-speed transmission, although the 2.0-litre models come equipped with six gears and a new dual-clutch six-speed DSG gearbox is available with the 2.0 TDi model. The DSG system is a combination of two, three-speed transmissions with two clutch systems.

When you are pushing hard in second gear and nearing the peak of the rev band, for example, the second clutch begins to engage third gear, improving fuel consumption, efficiency and performance.

Altea is fitted with a new front suspension and multi-link rear axle and new gradual power steering, which is particularly effective in tight parking situations in inner London. Driver and passenger climate control is fitted as standard and there is a strategic windscreen wiper system, where the blades are actually hidden behind the A-pillar when not in use.

The Altea is a stylish and attractive combination of a hatch and an MPV, although it handles far more like a conventional hatch than any of its MPV rivals. From the exterior you can't help but notice the striking double headlamps, the smooth lines of the front end and the aerodynamic side profile.

In the UK the car is available with the Reference, Stylance or Sport specification levels. The entry level Reference featues standard ABS and TCS, twin airbags, side and curtain air bags, air conditioning, a CD player, remote central locking and one-touch electric windows.

The Stylance adds electric door mirrors, cruise control, 16-inch alloys, leather trim and various other minor improvements. The Sport offers either the six-speed or Tiptronic transmission, racier wheels, sports seats and uprated suspension.

The driver's seating position is comfortable and all-round vision is ideal. Dials and instrumentation are clearly visible and the front seats offer excellent lateral support and head restraint. Rear leg room is ample for a six-footer and there is plenty of rear space for golf bags or family luggage. For increased boot capacity, the rear seats can be folded down easily and SEAT claims that skis can be transported by lowering the rear armrest.

SEAT chose the sumptuous surroundings of the ultra-modern and chic Grove, near Watford, to launch their ground-breaking entry into the MSV sector, with a brief stay at the delightful privately-owned Skywood House, home of award-winning architect Graham Phillips en route. It was a subtle way of introducing a new styling and design era for SEAT in the automotive industry.

All Altea test models offered an excellent driving experience on the nearby motorway and dual carriageway network and the punchy 2.0-litre diesel engine gives that extra performance for the enthusiastic driver. Personally I felt the smaller-engined cars were a little sluggish, althouigh SEAT claims a top speed of 112 and a 0-60 time of 12.8 seconds for the base model. The range-topping 2.0 FSI model will reach 128 mph and the speed limit in under 10 seconds.

The Altea has been given a generous insurance rating, with the Reference and Stylance models falling into Groups 5E and 8E. The Sport 2.0 FSi fits into Group 9E. The company hopes to sell a modest 2,500 units this year, this figure rising to 5,000 in 2005.

Mark McKenna admits that those figures are modest and easily achievable. With prices ranging from 12,850 to a little over 17,000, it is easy to see why the Spanish manufacturer may be on to a winner, as it begins a roll-out of several exciting models over the coming months.

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