The MPV that's not an MPV

There wasn’t a mountain bike or a surfboard in sight. Not even a posse of Lycra-clad models miming ‘lifestyle’ activities. That’s often what happens when you attend the launch of a new car with a vaguely MPV-ish profile, but it’s most definitely not the statement Seat wants to make with this Altea. This is not an MPV, it says, this is an MSV. Which stands for multi-sports vehicle.

An MSV is supposed to be a family-sized car with loads of passenger space and a little versatility, that looks and drives with some sporting flair. Not exactly revolutionary stuff but, to emphasise the point, Seat’s design chief Walter de’Silva said ‘the Altea obeys an unwritten commandment in sports-car design which says the proportion of metal to glass must be two-thirds metal and one-third glass’.

That’s why the Altea’s side glass looks so much shallower than that of, say, a VW Touran. So, along with the deeply sculpted bonnet and a character line that sweeps gracefully down the side of the body to the rear wheel arches, the Altea features a steeply raked rear screen – clear evidence that load bearing’s not a priority.

The Altea’s cabin offers a variable-height driver’s seat with a steering wheel that’s reach and rake adjustable. Finding a comfortable driving position is easy and the seats, even on the lower trim-level 1.6-petrol version we drove on the launch, were brilliantly supportive.

The quality of materials and construction is evidently up to VW Group’s high standards, too. And the space available for four adults (there are seatbelts for five, but that would be a bit of a lateral squeeze) is terrific, with room for two six-footers sitting very comfortably one behind the other. Back-seat occupants benefit from a relatively high seating position and excellent under-thigh support, often a problem with this class of car. In short, spending long periods four-up won’t be a hardship.

Otherwise, the Altea’s cabin is pretty conventional, with 60/40 split-folding rear seats and a fold-down centre rest with built-in cupholders. Seat has, however, gone to town with storage space – there are more than 30 individual areas to stash things. These include a large glovebox, two-tiered front armrest storage, large bins on all four doors, drawers under the front seats and storage areas beneath the boot floor. Even the parcel shelf has a false floor with extra storage.

When the Altea goes on sale on 1 July, a 102bhp 1.6 and 150bhp 2.0-litre FSI petrol engine will be available, along with a 105bhp 1.9 and 140bhp 2.0-litre turbo-diesel. A five-speed manual is standard, although the more powerful petrol and diesel engines can be specified with a six-speed ’box. A six-speed Tiptronic-style gearbox will be available with the 2.0-litre FSI engine and, later this year, the most powerful diesel will be available with a version of the DSG ’box used in the Audi TT.

Seat reckons the 102bhp 1.6-litre petrol engine will be the most popular model in the UK. Given that it’s got to shift 1320kg, plus whatever you can find to fill those storage bins, our expectations were low. But punting the Altea around Barcelona’s chaotic traffic revealed a car with a reasonable amount of poke for the urban scrabble. Motorway cruising on anything other than the flat is pretty tedious, though, and progress requires frequent drops down the ’box.

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A better bet is the 105bhp 1.9-litre TDi. That’s not much more power, but it develops its peak torque at half the revs that the 1.6 does and there’s a lot more of it (184 versus 109lb ft). The result is an Altea that’s slightly quicker from 0-60mph, but, crucially, a lot quicker in the real-world 50-70mph performance range.

Then there’s the way it goes down the road. Given its Golf-derived underpinnings – MacPherson struts at the front, multi-link axle at the rear – the Altea has the raw materials to do well. And it does, with well-weighted electro-mechanical steering that delivers fine feedback and a chassis that changes direction with real agility. The ride quality, at least on the Spanish roads we took it on, was also quietly compliant. No question, the Altea will give the class leaders pause, and we can’t wait to try a right-hooker on UK roads.

Seat is still working on the pricing, but expect an entry-level 1.6-litre Altea to cost around £13,000. Equipment levels will be high, too, with items such as air conditioning, electric windows, remote central locking, anti-lock brakes, traction control and six airbags as standard. Just don’t ask how many mountain bikes it’ll take.

Gavin Conway

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