Seat Toledo - First Drive

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Fourth-generation model has a lot of work to do to salvage the Spanish nameplate's prestige

Seat Toledo 1.6 TDI CR
Engine: 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbo-charged diesel
Transmission: five-speed manual gearbox
Power: 105 PS
Torque: 250 Nm between 1,500 and 2,500 rpm
Fuel consumption (combined cycle): 72.4 mpg (steel wheels)
CO2 emissions: 104 g/km (steel wheels)
Top speed: 118 mph
Acceleration (0-62 mph): 10.6 seconds
Price: Seat Toledo prices will start at about £12,500, with 1.6 diesels from £16,640

*figures are for the Ecomotive version to be
sold in the UK, rather than the standard continental 1.6TDI driven

Seat’s Toledo is back – and this new fourth-generation model has a lot of work to do if it’s going to salvage the prestige of one of the Spanish manufacturer’s most famous nameplates. The UK sales figures tell the story. Seat shifted 22,310 examples of the first Toledo here between 1990 and 1998 but between 1998 and 2004 the second-generation model managed only 8,245 sales. The third-generation car fared even worse, with just 3,261 finding a home in Britain between 2004 and 2009.

But the new Toledo marks a return to the formula that made the original car such a success - and that formula is very simple. For the very first Toledo, Seat borrowed the platform of the Golf from its then-new parent, Volkswagen, but gave it a stretched tail. The resulting car was a hatchback, but one with a pronounced notchback shape that gave it the appearance of a saloon. Its luggage-carrying capacity was enormous. Skoda later followed an identical recipe for its own first all-new car under Volkswagen, the 1996 Octavia, except the Octavia used the Golf IV rather than the earlier Golf II as its base. Seat could convincingly have sold that car, or something like it, under its own badge as a successor to the first Toledo but instead chose to strike out in a completely different direction. The second-generation model was a straight saloon conversion of the Leon, its successor a dumpy, awkwardly-styled semi-MPV. Skoda, of course, stuck with the original plan, attracting hundreds of thousands of buyers who found budget pricing and Golf-class running gear and operating economics combined with almost Passat-class space impossible to resist.

Seat has now bowed to the inevitable and returned the Toledo to its roots, describing the new car as a three-volume, five-door lift-back, which is exactly what the original was. The only real difference is that the latest Toledo takes as its base Volkswagen’s Polo, rather than the larger Golf, although thanks to the general upward drift in cars’ external dimensions and the stretched notchback tail, the new model is actually the longest Toledo ever made.

The result is a car that is, in its particular way, one of the most exciting to hit the market in 2012. The excitement is not, it has to be said, the sort that grips road testers confronted by cars that are dynamically exceptional or outstandingly stylish; in fact, the new Toledo offers a fairly standard Volkswagen group experience in terms of the way it goes, stops and steers, and is conventionally handsome rather than being a true head-turner. Instead, the Toledo is going to cause a different sort of excitement, the sort that was probably felt by less wealthy car buyers when they started poking around the first Octavias in Skoda showrooms all those years ago and realised that very occasionally, there is such a thing as a free lunch, that sometimes there really isn’t a catch and that every now and then, something that at first looks too good to be true really does turn out to be that good.

That’s because, like the first Octavia, the new Toledo, by clever stretching of an established Volkswagen platform, appears to offer the buyer an off-the chart price/space/quality trade-off. Near-supermini pricing (the range is expected to start at about£12,500) is combined with an enormous rear passenger compartment and a vast 550 litre (seats-up) luggage space that many far bigger and pricier cars would find hard to match. Quality levels, too, appear to be extremely high, a credit to its makers at Mladá Boleslav in the Czech Republic, where the Toledo is assembled alongside the very similar new Skoda Rapid, even if some of the cabin materials appear to be slightly more basic than those you’ll find in cars from some of the more expensive Volkswagen group brands.

A wide choice of engines is offered, although there’s nothing really sporty at the top end. The petrol range starts with Volkswagen’s normally-aspirated 1.2-litre three-cylinder twelve-valve engine (75 PS) and also includes 1.2-litre turbocharged TSI power units with either 86 or 105 PS, as well as a 122 PS TSI for customers who want a DSG self-shifting gearbox. There’s just one diesel, Volkswagen’s smooth 105 PS 1.6-litre common-rail engine, although that will be joined by a 90 PS version in the middle of next year. Initially at least, the 105 PS diesels will all be fuel-saving Ecomotive versions with features such as stop/start, which is also present on the 1.2 TSI petrol.

Three trim levels, which follow those used for other Seat models, will be offered in the UK market. The entry-level car that’s expected to sell for about £12,500 will have the three-cylinder engine and basic “E” trim, which does without air conditioning. Most buyers will probably go for the better-equipped S and SE models. The S gets features such as air-con, Bluetooth, a split rear bench and electronic stability control, while the SE has 16-inch alloy wheels, climate control and a leather-trimmed steering wheel and gear knob. Touch-screen sat-nav, DAB radio and Bluetooth audio streaming are available on the SE as part of the optional Seat Media System package.

I drove the 105 PS diesel and this did its usual efficient, smooth and quiet work, just as it does in the millions of other Volkswagen group cars to which it is fitted. In this version, the Toledo falls slightly behind the competition in the spec-sheet wars by offering only a five-speed manual gearbox rather than the now more common six-speeder, but in real-world conditions, the extra gear is rarely missed.

Seat seems to be curiously downbeat about its new car’s prospects. It thinks it will sell only one Toledo for every five Leons, and is also playing down the likelihood that there will be more powerful engines or a sporty FR-badged model. Personally, I reckon it should start flying out of the showrooms as soon as recession-hit motorists begin to discover its value-for-money qualities. It’s one of the few cars I’ve driven recently that I would seriously consider buying with my own money – and that’s not something you catch people who review cars for a job saying very often. Its appeal for me? It feels very much like an updated take on the roomy, reliable, dependable Skoda Octavia I use as my day-to-day runabout, and it would make an ideal replacement.

That Octavia-lite appeal may go down a storm with other customers as well, but also presents a bit of a problem for Seat. Volkswagen’s Spanish arm now has a strong range of cars but still struggles a bit to communicate what it’s all about. That’s not helped by the fact that, good as they are, the Mii, Exeo, Alhambra and now the Toledo don’t differ much from models offered by other Volkswagen-owned brands and the burden of defining the Seat brand weighs heavily on the company’s core models, the Ibiza and Leon, where it has more scope to do its own thing. A new Leon is imminent, and for Seat’s sake, it needs to be a success. But however good it is, I can’t see it out-selling this solidly appealing new Toledo five to one.

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