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The Seat Altea may be getting on a bit now, unveiled in 2003 and able to trace its roots right back to the Salsa concept car from the 2000 Geneva show, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less relevant

The Seat Altea may be getting on a bit now, unveiled in 2003 and able to trace its roots right back to the Salsa concept car from the 2000 Geneva show, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less relevant. Even the introduction of the excellent Alhambra full-size MPV doesn’t detract from this car’s appeal.

Much like the Renault Scenic which started the compact MPV craze, the Altea is available in both standard and XL variants – though unlike its rival the larger Altea still only has five seats. Instead it simply offers much more boot space – 123-litres extra in fact. It’s could be seen as a strange decision, but in reality not many compact MPV’s are employed to transport more than four passengers regularly, and customers with busy lifestyles will appreciate the extra room for luggage. 

Altea is difficult to tell apart from the Leon at a glance

As part of the Volkswagen group Seat has somewhat lost its direction in recent years, but the Altea was conceived at a time when the Spanish brand was destined to be the youthful and sporty arm of the organisation. And it shows in the styling of the Altea, both inside and out, sharing plenty of its DNA with the smaller Leon model

Admittedly it’s not quite as flexible as some of its rivals on the inside –only having five seats does hamper it somewhat - but a wide range of excellent engines and low running costs ensure that despite the advancing years the Altea still has plenty of appeal.

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DESIGN & STYLING

17in Seat Altea alloy wheels

The Altea was developed under the directorship of then head of Seat design, Steve Lewis, and made a bold impact when it arrived on the compact MPV scene. The ever-widening radiator grille and ‘S’ logo, peeled-back headlights and aggressive air intakes create a recognisable face. Heading backwards it is more conventional MPV, the bonnet sweeping upwards into a flowing roofline and ending with a steeply raked rear screen.

It’s the Altea’s signature styling line that flows from the headlights over the wheelarch and down the flank in a graceful arc that stands out the most though. Not only does it help to disguise the XL model’s extra bulk in particular, but makes the regular Altea one of the best looking in the MPV sector. It was certainly like nothing else in its class upon release, and while it now has some more modern rivals it still manages to hold its own in terms of visual appeal. 

Seat did a short-lived four-wheel drive Altea XL Freetrack model. Short-lived for good reason.

That’s not to say the design isn’t without its criticisms. Many would level the similarity between the Altea and the smaller Leon a lazy styling decision rather than the clear lineage between models it was clearly intended to be. And while the dramatically curvy bodywork and shallow windows do wonders for its sporty image, they undoubtedly play their part in the less than flexible interior – both in perception and practice. 

But all things considered, the Altea still looks as fresh and modern now as when it was released, which is testament to the quality of the design. 

INTERIOR

Seat Altea interior

If you’re familiar with the Seat Leon then the Altea’s cabin will appear very similar. Which means up front, occupants are treated to a curving dashboard with deep set instruments and an excellent range of steering-wheel and seat adjustment. 

Getting comfortable behind the wheel is certainly easy, and the seats themselves are firm and supportive. Unfortunately, despite being part of the Volkswagen group, the interior plastics don’t stand up to closer scrutiny like its more modern brethren. 

Weirdly, you can spec alloy sports pedals. Can't think of a less appropriate car for it.

That driving position can’t make up for the poor visibility though, the scuttle is high and the bonnet all-but-invisible. And like many MPV designs, the oversized and far stretching A-pillars mean extra consideration is required when approaching junctions or roundabouts. 

It’s a mixed bag in the rear as well. On the one hand, leg and headroom is generous and passngers benefit from a particularly supportive bench seat positioned slightly above those in front. However, apart from a 60/40 split-fold the interior has no MPV like trickery often seen in direct rivals. Seat says there are over 30 different storage areas, but even this can’t mask the lack of flexibility on offer for occupants.

Boot space on all models is actually pretty good, with the standard Altea boasting a load area of 409-litres. However, as the XL resists from adding an extra row of seating it increase this figure by 123-litres, and by sliding the bench seats all the way forward this can be expanded to a whopping 635-litres with ease.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

2.0-litre Seat Altea diesel engine

It wasn’t that long ago that the thought of a compact MPV like the Seat Altea with a 1.2-litre petrol engine under the bonnet would have been laughable. But thanks to the excellence of the VW group’s turbocharged four-cylinder, with 105bhp, it’s actually quicker and more refined than the 1.4-litre naturally aspirated model. Not only that, but the power is spread across a wide rev-range and delivered with a smooth linearity often missing in small-capacity turbocharged engines. Even more impressive is the 1.4TSI, which uses the same technology to provide an example of how well a petrol-powered compact MPV can actually work day to day. 

But regardless of the petrol models excellence, it’s the two diesels that make the most sense, their extra torque coming in especially handy if you plan to drive your Altea fully loaded. You’ll also have to stick with diesel power if you decide that you want the excellent twin-clutch DSG automatic gearbox, as it’s not available on any of the petrol models. 

Nice to see a good old-fashioned manual handbrake in a world increasingly filled with terrible electric examples

The 1.6-litre may only muster 103bhp but it can still sprint from 0-60mph in 12.2 seconds, all while returning over 60mpg. And if you can afford to sacrifice a few mpg, the 2.0-litre TDI with 138bhp makes for the consummate all rounder – especially in the heavier Altea XL.  And despite the boost in performance on offer from the 2.0-litre, CO2 emissions are only 10g/km higher and combined economy just 5mpg lower than the much tardier 1.6 TDI. It’s a sacrifice worth making. 

RIDE & HANDLING

Seat Altea rear cornering

One area where the Seat doesn’t disappoint is with the handling characteristics, demonstrating much of the appeal also found in the Leon which shares its MKV Volkswagen Golf platform. Admittedly enjoying a favourite stretch of road from high-up in the Altea’s cabin initially feels slightly bizarre, but there’s genuine poise and enjoyment on offer. The Altea is firmly suspended and exhibits fine body control, if not quite the same effortless flow as a Ford Focus C-Max can muster. It does muster a keenness to change direction though, with little body roll and a resistance to understeer right up until the limit of grip is eventually breached.

As is unfortunately the norm with such systems, the electro-hydraulic power steering offers very little feedback, but the weighting is well judged and the rack is precise off the dead-ahead, allowing the Altea to be easily placed on the road.

Optional winter pack brings heated seats and screen washers for around £300

Overall, driving the Altea is an enjoyable experience, offering considerably more entertainment than many of its traditional MPV rivals, and indeed some family hatchbacks too. The pay-off is a ride that can verge on the harsh, especially around town. How you view this depends on your priorities as an MPV buyer and driver. Overall, the Altea’s good body control helps keep the cabin level and relaxed over road surface undulations, but around town it can fidget over broken and rutted surfaces although never to an annoying degree. And even when driven back to back, the extra bulk of the XL is all but unnoticeable.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Seat Altea

Prices for the Altea start at only £15,095 for the basic S trim 1.4 naturally aspirated petrol models, but this engine is best avoided. However, Seat offers the 1.2TSI in S level trim for only £16,295 – and its lower emissions and higher fuel economy make up for any extra purchase cost. The range finishes with the post-£21k SE spec 2.0 TDI with DSG gearbox, though you can save over £1000 by opting for the manual gearbox instead. 

Those keen to look after their cash and the environment should look towards an EcoMotive model. The SE 1.6 TDI CR model emits only 119g/km, so annual road tax is only £30, while the start stop and energy recovery systems mean it can return an average economy of 63.0mpg and it costs under £19k. 

Standard Altea looks substantially smaller than the XL, though it's actually not much smaller at all

All Altea’s come with six airbags as standard and in general equipment levels are pretty comprehensive including air conditioning, electric front windows, ESP and an MP3 compatible audio system. Opting for the mid-spec S-Emocion trim will bring with it 16inch alloy wheels, while SE adds dual zone climate and cruise control. There’s plenty of packs available to help customise the Altea’s specification too, such as the £850 Media System pack with sat-nav DAB radio and Bluetooth audio streaming. Other options don’t come quite so cheap, such as the £1400 leather seats or £700 electric sunroof.

However, thanks to the VW group sourced engines and parts maintaining your Altea shouldn’t break the bank, with servicing for much the same price (and often cheaper) than the equivalent-engined Volkswagen Golf

VERDICT

3 star Seat Altea

When Seat launched the Altea they referred to it as a Multi Sports Vehicle rather than the more traditional MPV moniker, suggesting it was more dynamic, more exciting and more interesting than rivals. Are we convinced? 

We weren’t at launch, and we’re still not almost ten years on. However, that doesn’t mean the Altea is without merit. If you want plenty of storage space and excellent cabin room (for four adults, at least) but still want a responsive drive then the Altea is worth investigating. It’s not as flexible as a traditional MPV, and plenty of more contemporary rivals have come along to eclipse it in the intervening years, but the Altea still appeals. For a start it still looks great, and it actually works quite well as a conventional hatchback, delivering a genuinely entertaining and competent drive, despite its full body. The recently introduced TSI petrol engines and revised diesels make it more efficient and fun to drive than ever and the large boot, and option of an even more practical XL model, only adds to its appeal as an all-round family car. 

We'd like to see a full-size spare tyre as an option, at least, in a car like this

Most important of all that though, is the Altea still feels like a proper Seat rather than a rehashed VW and was the first car in the Spanish maker’s arsenal to do so. Finding a character all of its own, it came across as fresh, stylish and interesting - attributes that still shine through to this day. 

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Seat Altea 2004-2015 First drives