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Click to view road test review picture gallery“Everybody’s doing it,
  doing it… Adding a 4x4
  model to their line-up,
  that is. SEAT is the
  latest — meet their first
  4x4 car, the Altea
  Freetrack 4...”

SEAT NOW HAS A 4X4 MODEL RANGE in its line-up: the Altea Freetrack 4. In keeping with SEAT
's sporty image — gained from their high-profile involve-ment in the UK and World Touring Car Championships, and the one-make SEAT Cupra Championship — the Freetrack will be available with a choice of two engines: a 197bhp 2.0-litre TSI turbocharged direct-injection petrol unit and a 168bhp 2.0-litre TDI turbodiesel.

Both models have a six-speed manual gearbox and both use a four-wheel drive system that automatically splits the power between
the front and rear axles. In normal road use the drive is to the front
wheels but when extra grip — either on or off road — is required,
the power is transferred to all four wheels.

SUV/4x4/Dual Purpose vehicles now account for 7.5 per cent (175,805 sales) of all new passenger vehicles sold in the UK each year, and is the reason no mainstream manufacturer can afford not to have a 4x4 offering. Hence the appearance of SEAT's new Altea Freetrack 4.

Many manufacturers, conscious of the anti-4x4 lobby, design their SUVs to look like MPVs or multi-purpose people carriers. SEAT has
done the opposite — and made their Altea MPV look like a 4x4, or,
to be more precise, a 'soft off-roader'.

Based on the longer wheelbase XL version from the Altea range, the Freetrack 4 retains the five-seat and large load area configuration. Altea models achieve around 6,000 annual sales in the UK, making them SEAT's third best selling model range behind the Ibiza and Leon, both of which attract around 12,000 UK new car customers a year.

In the UK the SEAT brand is growing rapidly, with sales increasing
by 15.5 per cent last year to 32,839 cars. And the brand has just achieved its best-ever September sales in the UK: up by 12 per cent over September last year. Year-to-date registrations are up by nearly 7 per cent and SEAT is forecasting an all-time UK record year, with 32,000 new cars sold in 2007.

The SEAT Altea, both in its standard and longer wheelbase two-wheel drive forms, is considered to be a smart and sporty looking MPV with flexible seating and with good load carrying space — especially the XL variants. The performance and driveability is also good, being a SEAT. However, the let-down has been the exterior design — high waistline, wedge profile lower rear roof section, small rear side windows and thick front A- and rear C-pillars — limiting visibility.

With the new Altea Freetrack 4 the same comments apply, but with the added 40mm of extra ground clearance, beefier looking front and rear bumpers, protective sill covers and 17-inch alloy road wheels, the car now has more presence. In its added role as a crossover MPV or SUV it looks more substantial and chunky, although it is certainly not 'over-the-top' styling-wise.

In the SUV sector, its pricing is very competitive: £20,495 for the petrol model and £21,395 for the turbodiesel variant. And both have the same interior and exterior levels of specification.

The interior specification is impressive but, strange to say, it is perhaps too much so for many fleet business users or older couples who may not appreciate or need the standard-fit rear-seat multimedia system with its roof-mounted screen and which has links for a DVD player/ video games unit and laptop computer. This may be surplus to require-ments. The added cost of the part-time four-wheel drive system and these entertainment gizmos add between £2,700 and £3,345 to the price of the vehicle over the two-wheel drive Altea XL. However, for family buyers these standard-fit items, including the all-weather security aspect of the four-wheel drive system, may be just the ticket!

Other optional must-have kit includes a navigation system (£1,595),
Bi-Xenon headlights (£870) and there is, of course, a long list of additional extra cost options. However, compared to the likes of fellow new SUVs such as the Honda CR-V, the Land Rover Freelander, the Vauxhall Antara, the Peugeot 4007 and the Citroen C-Crosser, the Freetrack 4 is pretty competitive for price.

The Freetrack 4's standard high level specification includes dual-zone climate control, electrically-operated front and rear windows, rain sensor wipers, automatic headlights, cruise control, heated door mirrors, MP3 compatible CD player, remote central locking, dark tinted rear windows and rear side window blinds, folding tables on the front seat backrests, trip computer, front side and curtain airbags, alloy wheels, roof rails, two-tier boot floor and rear parking sensors.

Technical standard specification items include anti-lock braking, electronic stability control, traction control and automatic two- or four-wheel drive.

Despite its lofty seating positions and extra ground clearance, the Freetrack 4 drives pretty well for such a tall vehicle. Body roll and side wind gusting are minimal, the suspension is firm but not harsh and the steering is well weighted and gives good feedback to the driver. There is more road noise from the more rugged tyres and some wind noise is evident.

Driving off-road over pretty rough tracks and up and down very steep hills proved no problem, with the part-time four-wheel drive and traction control systems performing well. Whilst the diesel engine is marginally better off-road because of its greater torque, really steep hills can cause the engine to 'bog-down' so the best technique is to use the low first gear rather than let the engine torque and second gear pull the vehicle up the gradients.

On-road, the petrol engine is probably the best choice. It is quieter and delivers its power more smoothly. The turbodiesel unit, by com-parison, is not progressive enough for an SUV. It is fine in a sports hatch, but it delivers its power with a rush; and that's not ideal for
an SUV. But, as you would expect, the diesel's fuel economy is much better. During my on-and off-road test drives, the 2.0-litre petrol model returned just 23.1mpg whilst the turbodiesel unit returned a substantially better 34.8mpg.

For customers who plan to use their Freetrack 4 off-road, just a word of warning. The standard-fit under engine compartment tray (which stops mud getting where it shouldn't and also acts as a sump guard) is only made of a plastic type material. A studier and more durable metal one is available as an option for around £180. Why it's not fitted as standard, I have no idea because plastic underbody protection is about as useful as a chocolate teapot!

For the record, the 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged direct injection petrol engine produces 197bhp and 207lb ft of 'grunt' with a wide and flat torque band ranging from 1,800 to 5,000rpm. Top speed is 133mph, 0-62mph is covered in a brisk 7.5 seconds. The average fuel consump-tion is 30.1mpg and the CO2 emissions are 223g/km, giving it a Band F road tax rating that will cost owners £205 a year.

The 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbodiesel engine with diesel particulate filter produces 168bhp with 258lb ft of torque from 1,800rpm. Top speed is 127mph, 0-62mph is covered in 8.7 seconds, average fuel consumption is 41.5mpg and the CO2 figure is 179g/km, giving it a Group E VED rating and a £165 road tax bill.

On the plus side the Freetrack 4 offers MPV practicality (it will also
pull a braked 1,400kg), a big boot/load bay (490-1,562 litres), a high level of specification and good driving manners. It's competent off-
road and it looks smart. The petrol engine is thirsty but fast and the biggest grumble is that plastic underbody engine guard. Obviously
the diesel engine is the best for running costs — SEAT says 70 per cent of sales will be for the diesel model — but the petrol unit is the
sweeter to drive day-in and day-out on-road. You decide — it's your life. — David Miles

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SEAT Altea Freetrack 4 2.0-litre TDI
| £21,395
Maximum speed: 127mph | 0-62mph: 8.7 seconds
Overall test MPG: 34.8mpg | Power: 168bhp | Torque: 258lb ft
CO2 179g/km | VED Band E £165 | Insurance group 13E
Visit SEAT's website Click to go there now

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