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Click to view road test review picture galleryGarnished with a
  dash of motorsport
  197bhp Altea FR
  offers family
  motoring with a
  sporting pedigree...”

SPANISH MOTOR COMPANY SEAT'S INVOLVEMENT WITH TOURING CAR RACING both in the British and World championships seems to have drawn in a younger audience of car buyers, whether private retail customers or business user-choosers.

It's an expensive business, motorsport. So the justification to go racing has to be success on the track and in the showroom. In the UK last year, SEAT sold 34,790 new cars — a 5.9 per cent increase over 2006 and almost an all-time sales record. But will the upcoming motorsport exposure give their 2008 sales campaign a lift? As the credit-crunch starts to bite, sales in the UK for the first two months of this year dropped by 7.29 per cent.

SEAT has already started their 2008 World Touring Car title chase and this coming weekend (30 March) at Brands Hatch their attack on the BTCC championship begins with drivers Jason Plato and Darren Turner. The brand-new green-and-yellow colour scheme of the team's new sponsors — Holiday Inn — will be seen bashing doors with the best of them, namely Vauxhall, BMW and Honda, at the front of the field.

This year the SEAT UK works team will be competing for the first time with two diesel-engined Leon TDI cars, following the lead of the SEAT WTCC team which introduced racing diesel cars mid-way through the 2007 season. SEAT will be the first manufacturer to enter a diesel-powered car in the 50-year history of the BTCC.

'Win on Sunday — sell on Monday' is a well used saying in the motor industry. To support this theory, SEAT's motorsport involvement has resulted in them adding FR (Formula Racing) derivatives to their Ibiza, Leon and Altea ranges. Each FR model range features a petrol and a diesel version, and the Altea and Leon FR models also have — as an option on the 2.0-litre TSI petrol models — the Volkswagen family DSG Direct Shift twin-clutch, automated manual gearbox.

Here are some more nuggets of FR information: The FR variants are
the best-selling versions in the Leon range; all three FR ranges have distinctive styling features inside and out — exterior tweaks include motorsport-inspired front and rear bumpers, stainless steel twin exhaust tailpipes, 17-inch alloy wheels and silver-painted door mirrors. Interior modifications include a re-styled dashboard with white inst-rumentation, sports steering wheel and gear lever with FR logos on
the front sports seats.

But, second only to price, it's what's under the bonnet that matters most. The mid-sized Altea five-door hatchback-cum-MPV has, in FR guise, 2.0-litre TSI petrol and TDI diesel direct injection turbocharged engine options. The petrol unit produces 197bhp; the diesel 168bhp.

The Altea FR TSI does 136mph, 0-62mph in 7.7 seconds and averages 34.9mpg; CO2 is 194g/km, road tax 210 and it costs 17,595 (with DSG it's 18,595 to buy). The Altea FR TDI does 130mph and 0-62mph in 8.6 seconds, fuel economy is 45.6mpg with CO2 of 167g/km and a year's road tax will set you back 170.

The increases from 1 April in Road Tax and Benefit in Kind company car tax have not been kind to sports models, and are quite likely to drive down the demand for the higher CO2-emitting and the more costly models. So whether financially hard-pressed customers are willing to pay the extra for enhanced good looks, higher specification and more performance in the family car market sector remains to be seen.

The SEAT Altea FR — costing from 17,595 — falls into this category. This model is a cross between a five-door mid-sized hatchback but with its higher roof, fairly clever seating arrangements and lots of storage space, it also can be classed as a medium-sized, five-seat MPV — typical family transport, but the heartland of where the new tax penalties will be felt most.

I see the Altea FR with its extra performance still appealing to the younger business car users during the working week. But it will have more appeal at weekends when it doubles as sporty transport for active families. If it's just for family transport or a second car with no sporting intent, then Altea models other than the FR variants will be better suited and their prices start at a very reasonable 12,695. The longer and even more family-friendly Altea XL range can be had from 13,250.

I like the image of SEAT; I like its sporty family face. The brand is certainly visually different from the vast majority of commonplace mid-sized family cars. Due to SEAT's motorsport and sponsorship activities, SEAT appeals to a younger family audience and, generally, all their cars offer really good value for money. They also handle and drive very well and — being part of the VW family — their build quality and reliability is pretty good as well.

As a refresher to the brand I recently tried the Altea FR 2.0 TSI with the DSG automatic transmission priced at 18,595. Now I admit that this is no mainstream Altea model. But if you want to try a sporting version, this is the one to go for although if I was covering high mile-ages I would probably choose the TDI diesel FR model instead.

It still suffers from the usual Altea issues such as poor all-round visibility — blame the styling and thick front A-pillars. It's not as flexible to use as a proper mid-sized MPV, and on models with the sports sus-pension the car has a pretty firm ride so comfort is not great. But the steering and handling are needle-sharp — and that will at least please the driver.

I would describe the interior as user-friendly and the added FR styling touches smarten up the dark interior no end. The 30-plus storage compartments are ideal for family use but trying to remember where you or the children might have put things is 'family fun' on its own.
The rear seats fold and slide, so the load space varies between 510 and 1,320 litres. Again, user-friendly.

The list of standard equipment is high and includes tinted windows, twin headlights and front foglights, electrically-operated and heated door mirrors, electric windows, FR badging, dual-zone climate control, cruise control, sports front seats, stereo radio and CD player, front, side and curtain airbags, electronic stability programme (well done SEAT!), sports suspension, anti-lock braking with traction control, immobiliser with remote central locking and deadlocks.

All very impressive — but it is the engine which sets this Altea apart from its fellow stablemates. The four-cylinder 2.0-litre TSI combines the best attributes of petrol and diesel engines — there's lots of power and lots of 'grunt'. The direct injection with turbo technology makes this unit highly responsive from low to high speeds, reasonably fuel efficient and relatively clean due to exhaust gas recirculation which burns away many harmful exhaust particulates.

This responsive sports engine combines really well with the six-speed DSG Direct Shift Gearbox. DSG offers the attributes of a manual trans-mission with an auto, but thanks to its twin clutches the gearchanges are faster and seamless and there is no torque converter to sap the engine's power. This unit can be used in fully automatic mode or as a tiptronic unit via the gearlever or steering column-mounted paddles.

If family transport with a sporty style and performance to match at a relatively affordable purchase price are the main requirements, then the Altea FR 2.0 TSI is worthy of serious consideration. Plus points include the FR motorsport image, stylish looks, a powerful and res-ponsive engine, fast and smooth transmission, good road manners and positive handling, a high specification allied to a roomy cabin and, best of all, it's keenly priced.

Yes, there are some 'Nays': poor visibility, a very firm ride, high road tax and the fact that it's not a true mid-sized MPV. Overall, it's still an appealing model and, with SEAT moving to TDI diesel engines for their touring cars, perhaps the FR TDI version is now a more obvious choice for many would-be Altea FR owners. — David Miles

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SEAT Altea FR 2.0 TSI DSG | 18,595
Maximum speed: 136mph | 0-62mph: 7.7 seconds
Overall test MPG: 26.7mpg | Power: 197bhp | Torque: 206lb ft

CO2 194g/km | Insurance group 13E
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