Why the Seat Altea Freetrack packs a punch in the rough

Tricia Wright finds the crossover SUV an ugly bug, but she still has a ball
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Seat's latest offering, the all-wheel drive Altea Freetrack, may not look the part of a full-blown four-wheel-drive SUV, but it certainly acts it. It's also one of the new breed of "crossover" models, cars that take on the characteristics of two or more distinct types. In this case it's an MPV (tall, one-box shape) crossed with an SUV (chunky looking and equipped for more difficult terrain). So Seat's Altea Freetrack blends off-road capabilities with the practicality of the family-oriented Altea. That's the idea, anyway.

The Freetrack is based on the Altea XL – the extra-long version of that model – but Seat have done their best to distinguish the two. Unlike the XL, the Freetrack has black plastic cladding, 17-inch wheels fitted with larger diameter tyres, and brown hues incorporated into the interior colours, intended to evoke the type of forest track the car i s made for.

On looks alone, the Freetrack hasn't done much in the way of crossing over. Or, at least, its attempt is very half hearted. It's a little like those ill-fated attempts to beef up family hatches – the Rover Streetwise, Renault Mégane RX4 and Citroë* C3 XTR, and the granddaddy of the type, the Chrysler Ranchero. It also bears a resemblance to its VW Group cousins, the Skoda Scout and Audi all-roaders. But the Altea's immediate crossover competitors are the Dodge Caliber and the Nissan Qashqai. With their heavy-set appearance and muscular styling, you're visually convinced they can tackle any terrain (even if they can't – some variants only run on front-wheel drive).

But with the Altea Freetrack, somehow you're not taken in (even though its Haldex all-wheel drive system is capable). The Altea does not look the part next to "proper" compact SUVs such as Toyota's RAV/4 or Honda's CR-V. The Altea Freetrack is, frankly, somewhat egg-like in appearance. So you are not inspired with confidence in the car's off-road capabilities.

This is a shame, as the odd looks belie an extremely satisfying driving experience, both off-road and on. The driving dynamics are impressive, thanks to sporty 200hp petrol and 170hp diesel engines plucked from the Altea FR, combined with four-wheel drive. The 2.0 TSI petrol – 133mph and 0-62mph in 7.5 seconds – is rather more spirited than the diesel at 127mph and 0-62mph in 8.7 seconds. The steering is responsive, the gear-changes smooth, and the minor controls are VW-Group-like in their precision. All Alteas are basically Golfs underneath.

I was off-roading in a dry rock-quarry in north-west Spain, Seat's chosen test-territory, so I wasn't able to gauge quite how it would react in a typically British waterlogged environment such as Glastonbury. But I came away impressed. Obstacles that a standard car would baulk at, the Freetrack found easy. It was unflinching, and with a sound suspension set-up, gave a very comfortable ride. On pebbles , it didn't scramble for traction, and from a standing start on a steep, rocky incline, it pulled extremely well. All in all, I felt I was in safe hands.

So, with its strong off-road capabilities, and with its roomy interior, the Seat Altea Freetrack should be ideal for a family skiing holiday, say, or a trip to the country cottage. This is the niche audience Seat is aiming at – a particular segment of the family car market.

From a practical point of view, the Freetrack ticks all the boxes for them, offering 490 litres of boot-space, which can be expanded to 593, and an in-car multimedia system. But the looks – only a mother could love them. Seat say they want to double their market share in the UK. If they're serious, they'll have to make models such as this a little easier on the eye – especially at around £20,000 a pop.

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