Motoring: Seat yourself down and enjoy the drive

Seat may be seen as a budget brand, but its new MPV offers real value for money

THE VOLKSWAGEN Group. What a strange set of brand values inhabits its world.

Audi - prestigious, sculptural; fair enough. Volkswagen itself - the "people's car", but a badge seen on a prototype Ferrari-like supercar which did the motor show rounds recently, and soon to be seen on a V8- engined, high-luxury Passat Plus. Rolls-Royce - owned by the people's car company, in a wicked twist of irony. And Skoda - the budget, high- value, in-from-the-cold brand.

And Seat. Isn't Seat supposed to be the budget brand? It was, but then Skoda usurped the role, leaving Seat as a... a what? A Latin brand, with messages of exuberance, colour, style, fun, frolics. It's the German industrial conglomerate showing that it can do non-German, too. Life is less serious in Spain, is the message, and a Seat (Spain's only current indigenous marque name, albeit one originally formed to build Fiats under licence during Franco's isolationist years) is the car you can be less serious in. "Enjoy yourself," says the Seat slogan.

Seats win rallies. The new Seat Toledo, for launch in September, will be a dramatic-looking car. And Seat UK's favourite promotional vehicle is a brilliantly lime-green Alhambra MPV with blacked-in windows. Now the Alhambra is simply a Volkswagen Sharan or Ford Galaxy with different badges, front grille and tailgate reflector panel. The three cars are all built in Portugal, in a factory paid for and run by Ford and Volkswagen. The cars themselves are a joint Ford/VW design, using parts and expertise from both empires. But only the Alhambra has been seen in near-Day-glo lime green.

The Sharan/Alhambra breed is the best-selling MPV range in the UK, followed by the Renault Espace, but up to now the Seat versions have been the poor relations. They cost the least, as befits a brand that in this case is merely a badge, a marketing tool, rather than an affirmation of industrial and engineering heritage, and the grander engines have not been offered. The pitch, however, is changing. The smooth VR6 motor still eludes the Alhambra, but Seat has now launched a version with the 1.8-litre, 150bhp, 20-valve, turbocharged engine used in up-range Passats, Audi A3s, A4s and A6s, and the new Golf GTI 1.8T. There is a new 1.8T Sharan, too, but the Seat is the cheaper buy at pounds 20,995 against pounds 21,945.

This you would expect, because Seat is still in transition as far as its image and marketing are concerned. But there is nothing remotely cheap- seeming about the Alhambra 1.8 20v T. It has virtually all that a Ford Galaxy Ghia or Volkswagen Sharan Sport has, equipment-wise, or more: heated front seats that swivel round to face rearwards, alloy wheels, automatic air-conditioning, a stereo controllable from the steering column, three pairs of electric windows, headlamp washers, roof rails, twin airbags, anti-lock brakes, a cruise control and more. The only extra option is an electric sunroof. The seat fabrics are cheerful but plush, and there is nothing about the vehicle to suggest that you have bought into the budget brand.

That engine delivers 150bhp, plus a hefty 154lb ft of pulling power that comes on stream from just 1,750rpm. It is not the sweetest or crispest- responding of engines, but it pulls the Alhambra's bulk with ease once the turbocharger has puffed itself up to speed.

The light, precise gear change (a Ford contribution), the surprising agility for something so tall and large, and the usual MPV seven-seat versatility are standard Sharalhambra, but the extra power makes it an enjoyable car as well as a useful one.

Snags? Very few, really, provided your backbone is up to the task of hauling out the heavy rear seats when you are converting your people-carrier into a cargo-carrier. And that's fairly normal for an MPV. Current Sharalhambras are better built than the first ones, too, with the old creaks and rattles banished and the plastic interior trim better able to stay firmly attached.

There's something to be said, then, for buying the Iberian-badged version of the Iberian-built MPV. Brand-driven people will still favour the Volkswagen and Ford versions, though, because they will perceive them as superior. They are wrong, of course, and this Alhambra proves the point.

JOHN SIMISTER

Specifications

Seat Alhambra 1.8 20v T

Price: pounds 20,995.

Engine: 1,781cc, four cylinders, turbocharged, 150bhp at 5,700rpm. Transmission: five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive.

Performance: 120mph, 0-60 in 11.2sec, 23-28mpg.

Rivals

Chrysler Voyager 2.0 LE: pounds 21,195. Bigger than the Seat, but less powerful and more obviously plasticky inside. Proving popular.

Ford Galaxy 2.3 Ghia X: pounds 21,520. Closest equivalent Galaxy uses Ford's own 2.3-litre engine. Costs more, though.

Renault Espace RT 2.0: pounds 20,320. Latest version has truly wacky and versatile cabin, but this model has automatic transmission and just 115bhp.

Volkswagen Sharan 1.8 Turbo Sport: pounds 21,945. More or less the same thing as the Seat, grander badge, higher price.

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