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Click to view picture gallery“SEAT’s Altea now
  comes in XL size,
  which makes it ideal
  for those who want
  a little bit more...

SEAT'S WHOLE BRAND philosophy is sporty fun models with plenty of 'auto emoción'. Part of the VW Group and making good using their technology the Spanish arm of the family says they pitch their products at customers who like cars with flair, passion and spirit and who want to stand out from the crowd.

And the message must be getting through, because nearly 33,000 people in the UK bought SEATS last year: that's a 15 per cent increase over the previous year. Their high profile involvement in tour-ing car racing, both on a world and UK level, has appealed to younger buyers and perhaps to older purchasers as well who want to inject some 'emoción' into their lives.

They certainly have a distinctive and interesting range of models, from superminis to family hatchbacks, compact and full-sized MPVs and saloons and probably — if you saw the pictures from the Geneva motor show — an SUV in the not too distant future.

Until now the Altea crossover models — which are high-roofed hatch-backs and not quite MPVs — have been my favourite SEATs; so the bigger new Altea XL, which went on sale in January, was of particular interest to me.

SEAT describe the Altea as a family estate and XL, I presume, stands for Extra Large because it adds 7.5 inches to the overall length.
Good news because this gives it more luggage space with all five seats in use and more rear seat legroom. Again, this 'XL' Altea is not quite an MPV or a hatchback and because of its 'coupe' side styling treatment for the windows and clamshell back, it is not really an estate car either — at least, not in conventional terms.

Consequently it should sell well to people who do not want to be pigeon-holed as hatchback, estate or MPV users. Physically it's about the size of the Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra estate and the Peugeot
307 SW. But the SEAT is more distinctive to look at.

The standard Altea offers 409 litres of space which is not really enough for family holidays, whereas the XL models have 532 litres. Believe
me, that is a considerable improvement. Fold down the rear seats and if you want to go load-lugging, there is an impressive 1,604 litres of cargo room for you to fill with whatever you wish.

The new Altea XL is available with six engines — three petrol and three diesel — and two specifications: Reference and Stylance. All models boast a high level of equipment including air conditioning, four electric windows, folding tables on front seat backs, cruise control, MP3-compatible CD player with aux-in socket, anti-lock braking and traction controlled front-wheel drive, twin front airbags, side and curtain airbags and remote central locking.

The Altea XL also features a multi-link rear axle, electro-mechanical power-assisted steering and wiper blades concealed within in the windscreen A-pillars when not in use. In addition, the 2.0-litre TDI Stylance I tested also came, as standard, with 16-inch alloy wheels,
a six-speed manual gearbox, individual driver and passenger climate controls, electric door mirrors and rear parking sensors.

Naturally, as a family car, the Altea XL has to have a high level of passenger safety. Comprehensive active safety systems include ABS anti-lock braking, a TCS traction control system and an optional ESP electronic stability programme with a built-in EBA emergency braking system. As a member of the Altea family, the XL, under Euro NCAP tests, is rated with 5 stars for Occupant Safety, 4 stars for Child Pro-tection and 3 stars for Pedestrian Protection. Impressive and desirable features for any family driver.

The best selling model is likely to be the 1.9 TDI Stylance, priced at £14,995, which as it is diesel rather suggests that quite a number of these cars will double up as company cars as well as family transport. Prices start at just £12,995 for a 1.6-litre petrol model, which is a
real bargain. Top of the range is a 2.0 TDI model with 168bhp. Priced at £18,045, it will be a minority seller in the expanded Altea line-up.

The Altea XL's 'face' features a bold radiator grille, bonnet and head-lamp design, while the SEAT 'Dynamic Line' is clearly visible from the side. Starting at the front wheel arch and descending gracefully over the doors to the rear wheel, this line highlights the newcomer's bold profile and is the recognisable characteristic on all of SEAT's new generation production models.

The interor is smart, but above all practical. It does not follow the com-pact MPV route with seven seats, so for some customers it will not measure up to their requirements. In truth, in most medium-sized people carriers, the rear row of seats is hardly ever used because it does away with luggage space. A praiseworthy feature found in the XL is the fact that legroom for the split/fold rear seats can be increased by sliding them backwards while preserving really good load space.

Just as in the standard Altea, the front seats in the XL are notable
for their lofty positioning — a plus point for those who prefer a superior viewpoint. Despite the Altea XL's higher centre of gravity compared with an estate car, the chassis set-up is tuned to appeal to enthus-iastic drivers and bodyroll is no more pronounced than a conventional estate, but it does give a firm ride.

In common with the 'ordinary' Altea range, the most prominent feature of the XL's dashboard is the large central console which, slightly curved towards the driver, houses the audio system as well as the optional navigation and climate control systems. In this way, the instrument cluster and the console form a unit which surrounds the driver, and each control switch or instrument is perfectly visible and within easy reach.

On the down side I found the navigation system mounting pod posit-ioned to the right of the driver's field of view further obscured the visibility of the front right-hand quarter. A significant negative point about all Altea models has been the thickness of the front A-pillars, and so the front quarter visibility is not very good and is made marginally worse by the vertical parking facilty of the wiper blades.

The three-spoke steering wheel has a sporty design and adjusts for both height and reach. It includes, on the Stylance model, multi-function controls for audio, telephone and navigation options.

The design of the Altea XL's seats is both comfortable and supportive. The sliding driver's seat is reclining and height adjustable, and on Stylance versions adjustable lumbar support is also provided. Up to three passengers can ride on the rear seat, which becomes a com-fortable two-seater when the central armrest is in use.

My test model was the £16,895 2.0-litre TDI Stylance 138bhp high-pressure turbodiesel which benefits from considerable torque: 236lb ft at 1,750. However, I suggest that a discount might well be in order
if you bargain hard, although I think the 1.9-litre TDI Stylance with 104bhp, priced at only £14,995, is a better bargain for family use. Whichever model you choose, you will have to live with the restricted front visibility and firm suspension that doesn't cushion you from potholes or noise from poorer road surfaces.

There are, however, lots of plusses: the distinctive styling, a roomy and well-equipped cabin and — depending on the engine chosen — good value for money. Most important of all, the Altea XL drives like
a car rather than an MPV. — David Miles

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SEAT Altea XL 2.0 TDI Stylance | £16,895
Maximum speed: 125mph | 0-62mph: 9.9 seconds
Overall test MPG: 43.1mpg | Power: 138bhp | Torque: 236lb ft

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