Motoring: Road Test - Germans turn Seat around

The Toledo combines Latin brio with VW quality

Had BMW sorted out Rover as decisively as VW did its Spanish subsidiary Seat (and Skoda, its Czech one), Munich's British wing might not now be haemorrhaging quite so badly. There are surely lessons for BMW in the elevation to international respectability, via German intervention, of VW's once downtrodden, down-market underlings.

Not so long ago, Seat (once in bed with Fiat) was struggling to establish a brand image. Things have changed. Seat now knows where it is going, and how to get there.

The swap of corporate colour from blue (cool, conservative, soothing) to red (bright, dashing, in-your-face) indicates the new direction. So does its big-budget attack on international rallying.

It would have you believe, with some justification, that the Toledo unites the brio of an Italian Alfa Romeo with the quality and dependability of a German VW. Let's face it: that is an appealing union. And it has been achieved at prices which uphold the old notion that you get a good deal with a Seat, especially when generous equipment and a three-year, unlimited-mileage warranty are taken into account.

It is hardly necessary to drive the new Golf/Bora-based Toledo to appreciate that it stacks up pretty well on most counts against rival four-door, medium-size saloons. On price, safety, warranty and running costs - never mind on build quality, style and panache - it is at the very least competitive.

Even on depreciation, once a Seat bugbear, the new Toledo is looking good, according to independent forecasts. In a table of resale values issued by Seat, only the BMW 318, Audi A4 and Honda Accord - classy cars, all - are ahead of the Toledo 1.8. The big-selling Ford Mondeo and Vauxhall Vectra are well-beaten.

Prices range from pounds 14,295 for the 1.6S to pounds 17,595 for the 2.3 V5 (yes, that's VW's oddball five-cylinder engine) - the first Seat to get more than 2.0 litres and four cylinders. The two most popular models, however, are expected to be the petrol 1.8 and the diesel 1.9Tdi. I drove both.

Although it goes briskly and is frugal, I was disappointed with the diesel's refinement. It sounded gruff (more so than the Golf Tdi with the same engine) and felt tingly, especially through the pedals. Apart from this flaw and poor rear leg-room (some of it sacrificed, it seems, for a whopping boot), the Tdi is a pleasant, even entertaining family hack that steers responsively, handles well and rides the bumps smoothly. It has a nice cabin ambience and the sort of finish you would expect of a car from the VW group. I liked it.

The 1.8 petrol is quieter and sweeter than the 1.9 diesel but barely quicker - in fact not even as quick when high-gear lugging: the diesel's turbo-charged muscle then really shows. At SE level, you would not have to drive very far to justify the pounds 100 premium for the diesel, which is capable of over 50mpg.

This is the car that will spearhead Seat's attack on the lucrative business sector.

Specifications

Rivals

Make and model: Model: Seat Toledo 1.8S

Price: pounds 14,995 (pounds 15,995 for SE)

Engine: 1781cc four-cylinder 20-valve petrol

Transmission: five-speed manual, front-wheel drive

Performance: max speed 124mph, 0-60mph in 10.2sec, fuel consumption 33.6mpg combined cycles

Alfa Romeo 156 1.8, pounds 17,997 Quick, refined and desirable. Price and performance compete with pounds 17,595 Toledo V5.

Ford Mondeo 1.8LX, pounds 15,680 Lacks sparkle but not ability. No-joke Ford is even better to drive after revamp. A refined, easy-to-own family saloon/hatchback. Pay extra for 2.0.

Nissan Primera 2.0GX,pounds 15,725 Though revised in 1996, still under-rated. Bland looks camouflage well-made, good-handling British-made car with no major weaknesses.

Rover 400 2.0i, pounds 15,545

Last of the Honda-based Rovers is pleasant, smooth-riding and refined. Trouble is, it's over-priced for a Focus-sized car.

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