Seat's first-generation Alhambra people-carrier, a close sister to the original versions of the Volkswagen Sharan and the Ford Galaxy, is one of the oldest mainstream models on sale. It wouldn't have survived for so long if it didn't do the basics well, but the world into which the first Alhambra was launched in 1996 was very different to that which greets its successor in 2010.
The Euro NCAP system of safety ratings, for example, had yet to be introduced and most drivers probably didn't know what CO2 was, or have a view on whether it was killing the planet; now it forms the basis of much of the UK's system of vehicle and motoring taxes and CO2 emissions figures feature prominently in car manufacturers' advertising and customers' buying decisions.
The new Alhambra has been a long time coming, so the question that naturally arises is whether it has been worth the wait; the answer, broadly speaking, is yes. Today's preoccupations with safety and emissions have been fully addressed with, among other measures, generous helpings of airbags and a range of strong and economical engines. People-carrier fundamentals such comfort, ease of access, and passenger and luggage space, have received a lot of attention as well.
The Alhambra has grown somewhat in the process. It is longer than its predecessor, at 4.85 metres but its most notable dimension is its unusually generous width - 1.9 metres. This makes itself felt in terms of interior space, in particular in the ability of the second row of seating to accommodate three adults in relative comfort. The third, two-seat row is also much more suitable than most for carrying adults. That's as much because the Alhambra provides for comparatively dignified access – the second-row seats have 16cm of fore-aft movement - as because it is fairly spacious. Sliding rear side-doors, one of the big changes over the original model, help, although these will apparently only be electrically powered on the more expensive versions. The second and third row seats can be folded down using a single hand (Seat calls the system EasyFold) to form a flat surface – an effect that could only be achieved with the previous model by removing the seats completely.
Seat says that the second row of seats is raised slightly to provide a better view to the front; I sat in the back of two Alhambras and only noticed this in one, when I sat on the middle of the three separate seats. That provided a slight feeling of sitting on, rather than in, the car that wasn't noticeable on the second example I tried, which had what felt like softer leather-clad upholstery – and in which I was sitting on one of the outer seats. Overall, though, this Seat performs very strongly on the practical side, helped by neat touches such as the ability to programme the tailgate opening height in order to avoid scrapes on low garage ceilings.
The new Alhambra reflects fourteen years of progress out on the road as well, although it presents an interesting comparison with one of its competitors, Ford's Galaxy. While the first Galaxy was part of the joint programme that also produced the original Sharan and Alhambra, Ford broke away to develop its own successor model, which appeared in 2006. The second-generation Galaxy probably tries to follow more closely the tradition, if it can be called that, of the original Sharan/Galaxy/Alhambra as something of a "driver's MPV", while the Alhambra feels a bit more comfort-orientated – a difference of emphasis between the two cars that runs through much of the wider Ford and VW group model ranges.
The most interesting Alhambra engine option is likely to be overshadowed by the diesels which tend to be the most popular choice for this sort of car but it is certainly worth a look; it is a 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol unit, badged TSI, which produces 150 horsepower (PS). The first buyers of the 1996 Alhambra would scarcely have been able to believe that Seat might eventually produce a larger successor that relied on such a small petrol engine to haul it around. If you'd told them that it would do a good, rather than merely adequate job, and that it would be the only petrol engine offered on a future Alhambra, at least in the UK (a 2.0-litre TSI option is available in some markets) they would probably think you had taken leave of your senses. And yet it is true.
The 1.4 TSI Alhambra is an effective performer; it has a top speed of 122mph and can accelerate to 100km/h (62mph) in 10.7 seconds. CO2 emissions on official tests start at 167g/km and combined cycle fuel consumption, helped, as in all Alhambras, by stop-start technology, at 39.2mpg. Only a very slight characteristic turbocharger wheeze gave any clue to the nature of engine was providing the smooth, refined progress the 1.4 TSI achieved during my test. Just one caveat; my driving was done with two occupants rather than with the full load of passengers and luggage that might be more typical of the sort of use to which Alhambras are likely to be put.
The two diesel options, 140 and 170 horsepower versions of VW's 2.0-litre common rail engine are equally impressive. Both are smooth for their type, leaving the roughness of the old 1.9 litre Volkswagen diesels behind, and buyers who opt for the less powerful version shouldn't feel short-changed – it's still pretty quick.
The diesels I tried used quick-shifting twin-clutch DSG gearboxes, which come close to offering the best of both automatic and manual transmission worlds. The 170 horsepower Alhambras have a top speed of 127mph (121mph for the 140 horsepower model) and can accelerate to 62mph in 9.8 (10.9) seconds. CO2 emissions start at 167g/km (143g/km) and fuel consumption is as little as 47.9mpg (51.36mpg) in official combined cycle tests. In all cases, it's worth checking again later for definitive numbers for UK models, which go on sale in November and differ slightly from their continental equivalents in terms of trim levels (expected to be generous) and configuration (all UK cars will be seven-seaters, whereas a five-seater will be available elsewhere).
The Alhambra is a handsome car, although its people-carrier proportions and close relationship with the new Volkswagen Sharan mean that Seat has had a bit less scope to provide the sort of visual dash that characterises the latest versions of its big-selling core Ibiza and Leon models; these have helped to sharpen up the Spanish brand, which previously struggled to define itself as clearly as, say, Skoda. It is, nevertheless, a strong addition to Seat's range.
Seat Alhambra (second generation model)
On sale: November 2010 (UK)
Price: from about £21,000
Top speed: 122 mph (1.4 TSI)
Acceleration: 10.7 seconds (1.4 TSI)
Fuel consumption: 39.2mpg (1.4 TSI)
CO2: 167g/km (1.4 TSI)
Also worth considering: Ford Galaxy, Volkswagen Sharan