Model: Seat Altea 2.0 TDI DSG
Engine: 2.0-litre diesel
Performance: 0-62 mph in 9.8 seconds, 47.1 mpg
CO2: 160 g/km
Worth considering: Citroë* C4 Picasso, Vauxhall Zafira, Volkswagen Golf Plus
Direct-shift gearbox, or, in the original German, Direkt schaltgetriebe; that's what DSG stands for. Actually, it stands for a lot more than that. In fact, DSG stands for nothing less than the combined advantages of manual and automatic transmissions with few, if any, drawbacks.
The DSG gearbox uses two clutches and a lot of electronic cleverness to deliver lightning-quick gear-changes, which can be executed by the driver or the transmission itself.
The DSG system made its first appearance on the Verdict test about three years ago in the last-generation Audi TT. Paired with Audi/VW's 3.2-litre petrol V6, it performed very well. I've remembered that car and its gearbox fondly ever since, but at the back of my mind I've often wondered whether this particular engine/gearbox combination flattered the DSG set-up.
Since we tested the TT, Volkswagen has spread DSG around its various car operations in a very democratic fashion, so that the advantages of the technology can now be enjoyed in such humble vehicles as the Skoda Octavia diesel or VW Caddy van. While these applications have attracted favourable coverage, this hasn't quite matched the warm praise lavished on that installation in the TT.
This week's test car, Seat's Altea, paired DSG with Volkswagen's 2.0-litre TDI diesel engine, a combination that confirmed my original favourable assessment of the technology, rather than feeding my later doubts. Volkswagen's TDI units deliver a lot of shove, but this tends to be concentrated in a fairly narrow rev band. The DSG transmission works around this characteristic very well, keeping the engine in its sweet zone; the speed of the gear-changes can be read from the rev counter needle which jumps, rather than sweeps across the dial as the 'box does its work.
With the TDI/DSG combination and VW under-pinnings – this is Seat's equivalent of the Golf Plus semi-MPV – the Altea generally performs well. Whether it, rather than some other product from the vast Volkswagen empire is the car for you, depends on what you think of Seat's unusual styling. VW has used its huge resources to revitalise most of the brands in its stable; Bentley, Bugatti and Skoda in particular have benefited enormously.
In the case of Seat it seems to have been less successful – perhaps because the Spanish operation, unlike the others, doesn't have a rich design history that can be drawn upon and reinterpreted for modern tastes. But if Seat's chunky organic forms appeal, you can't go too far wrong with this Altea.
Mark Mackenzie, 32, IT consultant, Weybridge
usual car: Volkswagen Corrado VR6 2.9
Although missing the flappy paddles on the Audi A3 DSG car I'd driven two weeks earlier, this more conventional automatic with sport mode and manual override is flawless and nearly as much fun. I like the concealed wipers, which could help to reduce smearing. I like the storage; the parcel shelf has a cubby ideal for carrying eggs or milk. The rear seats are a bit small even for my wife, who's 5ft 2in tall. It was fun to drive and the engine has enough torque to cope on fast roads and in town. It's not a driver's car, but it turns in sharply and there's little body roll. I'd consider it if I was looking for a big hatch with sporty looks rather than an all-out people-carrier.
Rob Drake, 27, Commercial accountant, Guildford
usual car: Golf GTI (diesel)
It's not the prettiest car in the world. The interior shows signs of styling, with a sculptured dial display, but the main centre console is a large, unsightly slab of plastic. It's clear that this car is not designed for me, but if you have a family and a lot of luggage to carry I'm sure it would be ideal; I'd suggest putting it in a line-up with the Golf Plus and Focus C-Max. The real test here is the DSG gearbox and diesel engine combination. I'm not a fan of automatics and this semi-automatic box of tricks didn't change my mind. On a petrol engine, with paddles, it could be fun, but here you change gear by nudging the stick, making for uncomfortable snappy changes in lower gears.
Michael Turner, 34, Nurse, Shoreham-by-Sea
Usual car: Ford Mondeo
This car seems fairly typical of its class. I like the styling; it's held on to what the original concept drawings might have looked like, although the grey interior is bland. The good visibility is enhanced by the wipers being housed in the front pillars, but this may contribute to the excessive wind noise at speed. As a driving experience, the Altea is quite impressive. It handles well for a tall car, and the diesel engine, together with the DSG, made for a unique driving feel. Gear changes at speed were barely noticeable, very smooth and didn't interrupt the power delivery. Nice to see this sort of technology being provided without a high price premium.
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