The Alhambra's toughest test: converting an MPV-hater - 9 August 2012
My desire to have a family had always been tempered by the fact that people with families are often to be found traipsing around in MPVs, heads bowed under the burden of it all. God they looked miserable in their ugly, ungainly big boxes, I thought. Wouldn’t want to be them. I can’t even get a rear-wheel drive one. Awful.
I’ve been a family man for almost four years now, and we’ve been a family of four for just over one year of that time, but I’ve resolutely resisted the logic that an MPV could be logical for us. My idea of sensible was getting the longterm M5 and as my family didn’t know any better, I wasn’t about to go educating them.
Then the other day I was forced to take our longterm Seat Alhambra home for the weekend. I drove home perched up high, had a moan to myself about the strangely inconsistent off-centre steering response, then parked it up outside my house and felt almost ashamed, like I’d given up on life. The neighbours usually see the M5, or a Porsche or a hot Merc glistening on the drive, but here I was waving an automotive white flag. I’ve got a family! Game over!
But, you know what, as time passed I found life with the Alhambra absolutely liberating, and I had myself an MPV epiphany. I embraced throwing in the towel and throwing in the towel felt awesome. I began to approach the big Seat with a skip in my step as I went to pull the rear door handles or – better – blip a button on the key fob, so that the rear doors would slide effortlessly open in a high-five-dad bit of teamwork. Those sliding doors grant you much easier access to the car, and they mean you can park in tighter parking spaces without struggling to extract children by grinding their shouty little heads between a conventional hinged door and the bodyshell.
The row of three seats that those sliding doors access all have really easily accessible Isofix clips too, so you can get three child seats in next to each other (usually you can fit just two). Or you can put one child seat either side of the central seat and still have space to seat and belt an adult in the middle. That’s what we did and boy-oh-boy did it feel great. It meant we could stop the three-year-old repeatedly slapping the one-year-old about the face, or retrieve the items that the one-year-old was repeatedly throwing. Life didn’t have to be a grind! I didn’t have to turn up the radio quite so loud to drown out the wailing!
If you’ve got more people to carry about, or if you have a need for more than three offsprings, there’s also an extra third-row of seats. That’s handy, but I wasn’t particularly bothered about that – I’m happy with two kids, and three would be a kind of doomsday scenario. I’ve also heard that the third kid gets terrorised and leads a miserable, resentful life as a result, but don’t worry if you’ve got a third on the way, it’ll probably be alright. No, what I loved was the Alhambra’s huge, cuboid boot. All that stuff you’ve got stacked up in a pile and need to carry to the tip? You can put it all in here, all at the same time. I didn’t have anything to take to the tip, but the urge to use that capability became so intense that by Sunday lunchtime I’d actually hacked a tree from out of the earth by my front door, dismembered it and squashed it all under the Alhambra’s electric tailgate, like I was a kind of tree-surgeon Dexter.
I handed the keys back to Stephen Worthy, the Alhambra’s regular keeper, on Monday with the newfound knowledge that there is a boxy void ready to be filled in my life.
I’m an MPV convert. One life! Live it!
By Ben Barry
Taking the Seat Alhambra on holiday to France - 26 July 2012
Just back from holiday in France and, funnily enough, my new Suzuki Swift Sport wasn't man enough for the job of taking a family of four with a week's luggage. Cue a begging email to Stephen Worthy asking to borrow his cavernous Seat Alhambra.
If you're expecting this to be a glowing praise of a people carrier in its element, think again. It's more than that - I've come back thinking the Alhambra is surely the best MPV on sale today. Starting at £23,535, it's a solid £700 cheaper than its VW brethren and £1500 less than a Ford Galaxy. Only the Ford S-Max tempts me as an alternative - it's priced from a punchy £22,600 and has equally strong talents.
But the Alhambra has a few aces up its sleeves. Neither Ford can match its sliding rear doors which make getting in and out of the back much easier. I'd ditch their electric operation, though - just plain annoying for parents as children whizz them back and forth with a reversing dustbin lorry beep. And the motorised tailgate is a folly. It's so long, you end up worrying it's going to scrape car park/wall/child as it winds up slowly and jerkily and noisily and.... what's wrong with an old-fashioned manual mechanism?
The Seat MPV is cleverly vast without being squared off like a Galaxy or Espace (RIP). As holiday transport, it's perfect. Familial conversations about packing were the most pain-free I've yet encountered - everything fitted in and nothing had to be left behind. And yet the Alhambra doesn't feel too daunting to drive; the package is well worked and it's easy to thread around city streets. A reversing camera helps too.
This is sooo much better than the last Alhambra, an ageing cross-breed related to the Ford Galaxy/VW Sharan etc. In comes the sort of VW quality that Wolfsburg specialises in: tactile materials, solid build, easy-to-use touchscreen/sat-nav/Bluetooth functionality. Frankly it's the electronic architectures like this which a small company like Seat would struggle to deliver on its own. Just look at Lotus.
Having travelled on Eurostar the last time we drove to the Continent, we chose to sail to Normandy this time with Brittany Ferries. I used to live in Portsmouth and I was surprised by how much smarter the ferry port is nowadays - much spruced up from the ramshackle shed I've seen previously.
We sailed on the Normandie Express to Cherbourg and I was relieved that the Alhambra - 4.8m long and 1.7m tall - still qualifies as a car, not a minibus. It fitted on with no problems and those sliding doors came in handy. The crossing out was quite choppy but Brittany Ferries' catamaran sped across the Channel in three hours, chopping a load of miles off our journey. A summer crossing costs £320 and you'd save a bundle of that on péages and petrol.
Speaking of fuel, we topped up in Portsmouth and saw a pleasingly high 600-mile range. Despite being loaded up to the gunwhales, our Alhambra averaged 37mpg exactly over 501 miles. It's not a quick car, our Seat, but the ride and handling are damn close to the S-Max, my personal class benchmark, and the twin-clutch transmission is as rifle-bolt fast as usual. It's slightly incongruous, if anything, slamming gearchanges home with the speed of a Scirocco in something that seats seven, but we're not complaining.
You might have gathered, I'm rather keen on the Alhambra. If you're in the market for a seven-seater, look no further.
By Tim Pollard
The highs and lows of an integrated seat – 13 April 2012
We were pretty much given a blank canvas by Seat when speccing up the Alhambra. We went fairly conservative too, with road test editor Ben Pulman reining in my demands for the pretty olive green-cum-gold ‘boal’ paint in favour of bold salsa red, but our Spanish friends did stipulate one thing.
Knowing that I had one child and another on the way at the time of ordering (second boy finally born November 2011) they asked that we try out the integrated child seat. It’s certainly a neat device, but it’s only now that I’ve plucked up courage to use it – okay, for my son to use it – in earnest.
To look at, the seat looks like a common or garden one at rest, but pull the handle under it and it lifts upwards, as if on a little dais, creating a mini footrest for your mini adults in the process. It becomes, in effect, a super sturdy booster seat. You also swap the standard headrest for one with side supports – although that support looks pretty minimal. By which we mean very open. Which is where my problems with the childseat begins.
Anyone who has got two children will own after-market childseats and will know that if you have more than one car the constant unbuckling, un-Isofixing and swapping of them between vehicles is a damnable chore. Which is why the Seat integrated seat appeared so attractive to me. The wife? That’s another matter altogether.
She simply doesn’t think it looks safe enough, pointing to the cushioned comfort afforded by the big Britax childseat she has fitted in her C-Max. But as our eldest, Raffi, is three, the law says the Seat seat (that’s not word repetition) is legal. I love how easy it is to set it up, but I’ve been barred from using it, apart from on very small trips. As my wife is editor of Pregnancy & Birth magazine, she is something of an expert on all things baby and child related, so I’ve decided this is one battle not worth pursuing.
Which has left one young man rather unhappy. Raffi loves his ‘big boy’s chair’, especially its footrest. Sadly, by the time he will be old enough to fit in it without raising my wife’s ire, the Alhambra will be long gone. It will be yet another reason to bemoan the departure of a rather brilliant vehicle.
By Stephen Worthy
In a bit of a flap – 12 March 2012
I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m just about the only member of the CAR team who thought it was a good idea to mate the Alhambra’s 138bhp 2.0-litre diesel block with flappy VW Group paddles. In fact, I may have been the only one in the world with that opinion. My reasoning was that a lad’s gotta get his kicks somewhere – even if it’s in a family-sized MPV the size of hippo (although, as Tim Pollard mooted, it handles far more nimbly than that – like a baby warthog, perhaps)
Truth is I do use the paddle shifts, especially when powering out into roundabouts along the Bedfordshire stretch of the A1, trying to ensure I don’t get stuck behind Norbert Dentressangle or any of his articulated kin. But I’m also man enough to admit that I may have been wrong in opting for them – but not because I think they aren’t much cop. No, it’s because those kicks I was seeking have manifested themselves all over this deliriously practical car (so, I’m getting old already!)
The little things that currently put a smile on my face:
• As I’ve only had the car since the clocks went back, it’s taken until now to fully appreciate the full-length sunroof in the evening. It will be coming into its own now that the sap is rising and the days are getting longer
• Leg room in front of the second row of seats – not for the benefit of my passengers, but because I can sling briefcases, the shopping and 144-pack boxes of Pampers into the gap rather than having them roll around the boot
• Steering wheel intuitiveness – I’m an obsessive twiddler of the switches and dials, toggling between DAB radio, iPod, trip meter, fuel remaining and recipe suggestions*. The Alhambra has the best of any car I’ve driven. Better than BMW, better than Mercedes.
While I’m here, I’ve got my own solution to Greg Fountain’s mild irritation with the pace of the electric sliding passenger doors. I use the keyfob to close them, thus resisting the temptation to start yanking on an expensive bit of technology. That I can do it while standing on the doorstep, waving my keys at the Alhambra like Mr H Potter with his wand, is still some kinda alchemy to me.
*Alright, it’s not that intuitive. Yet.
The problem with sliding doors – 28 February 2012
Borrowing Stephen Worthy’s Seat Alhambra for a weekend was mainly a pragmatic decision, driven by the need to help my mum move house rather than by some long-suppressed fetish for Spanish people carriers. I wonder what you’d call such a fetish? Seatism? Vanchondria? Multiple Doorosis? Anyway…
There’s an awful lot to like about the Alhambra. Unlike its usual keeper I don’t have a rapidly burgeoning headcount to ferry about, so I’m more concerned with its substantial freight-forwarding potential than with its seating capacity. And with the seats down it’s a light commercial, capable of containing virtually all of the spurious coffee tables from my mum’s lounge (why DO old people have so many coffee tables?).
In the matter of coffee-table stowage the sliding doors are naturally pre-eminent. They work beautifully and offer up orifices into which you simply cannot resist loading items, human or otherwise. Also, when one returns to the car park to discover that some skill-averse Fiesta owner has left you such a narrow gap that, should you attempt access, Danny Boyle will make a film about your plight, well… you can still get in.
The flipside, however, is the fact that the doors are ‘automatic’ – a £995 option that also includes a powered tailgate. In my experience, anything that is automatic works at its own pace, in its own sweet way and couldn’t care a tinker’s cuss for the pace or method you (its mere owner) would prefer. Such is the way with the doors. You pull the handle and try to open them, but they won’t let you. Oh no. You must allow them to do their prima donna ‘long, slow glide’ act while you stand there with an armful of coffee tables, tapping and tutting.
Once loaded, you try to slam the door with a satisfying Transit-style whoosh-clump-click, but no. We must wait. It’s like a recurring dream I have, where I’m playing in a big football match and surely about to score, but I’m inexplicably running in slow motion, unable to reach the ball in time.
So, I say to Seat the following: the car is great, the idea of sliding apertures equally so, but please can we take a leaf out of the arrival procedure for cabin crew: doors to manual.
By Greg Fountain
Tim Pollard on the Seat Alhambra MPV – 23 February 2012
Borrowed Stephen's Alhambra 2.0 TDI SE DSG for the past week, on a mix of work and holiday duties. I came back nothing but impressed. This is a great people carrier.
Why so? Well, it's very practical family transport. The sliding doors make getting in and out a cinch, and I reckon they've incorporated the sliding rail mechanism very neatly into the design. The boot's massive (we've spent the first part of this week filming video out of the back) and it scrubs down easily after 48 hours of practically living in the cabin. (We got it rather dirty, sorry Stephen.)
But what makes the Alhambra appeal to the likes of me and, I guess, perhaps you, is how it manages to drive like an anti-bus. My personal benchmark in the MPV sector remains the Ford S-Max and Galaxy, but the Alhambra/Sharan set must now run it very close indeed.
The 2.0-litre TDI engine has enough punch for spirited performance, the DSG twin-clutch 'box shuffles gears smoothly in the background and the chassis is surprisingly rewarding when being shuttled around Welsh back roads.
Don't get the wrong idea. I wouldn't for a second take the Alhambra out for a blast, and I never once touched those misplaced paddle-shifts. But it's nice to know you can choose an MPV and not have to sacrifice your enthusiast desires totally.
Then there's the rock-solid build quality, the comfortable seats, the equipment, the fact that this particular Alhambra costs almost precisely £1000 less than its VW equivalent... I wouldn't change much on our Alhambra - except delete the ludicrous electrically operated tailgate, which chunters away so slowly you'd be quicker to load the boot through the side doors. It doesn't open tall enough, either. A rare black mark against this otherwise very practical MPV.
By Tim Pollard
Big Al proves to be a winter winner – 13 February 2012
While I was standing in the road trying not to knocked over by a bus the other morning – I was trying to juxtapose the 221 to Edgware with my Salsa Red Alhambra, see – I watched my next-door-neighbour-but-one waste 20 minutes of his time.
It had snowed overnight in London NW7. Five centimetres or so, maybe. I watched the neighbour come out and inspect VW van and then head back inside for 10 minutes. Out come TWO saucepans of boiling water which he poured over the windscreen. 'Aaaaargh! Waddya doing man?' I said. Not very loudly. I guess he can afford a new front ’screen when this one cracks. Then, he went back inside and came out with a broom and wiped all the snow off.
Me? I simply started up the Alhambra, reached across to the windscreen wiper stalk, pressed it and watched the night’s deluge clear. It took, perhaps, 1.5 seconds. Despite being Iberian (via Wolfsburg), the Alhambra is finding February’s inclement weather easy-peasy to deal with. The heated front ’screens are a winner, the bum warmers heat up quicker than a halogen ring and the interior is toasty before I’ve left my road. Unlike our Infiniti M long-termer, which eventually became hospitable somewhere near Stevenage on a drive last week. You can hardly drive like a twerp – or indeed want to – in an Alhambra, but even so the fitted winter tyres means there’s been no ice dramas either.
Maybe it’s the weather that’s the cause of the one glitch we’ve encountered on the Alhambra so far. The rear electric passenger door has decided it doesn’t want to close from the inside. Thankfully you can close it three other ways – using the keyfob, central console switch or by manually closing it from the outside.
Yeah, I know. Manually closing it! Tsk. Whatever next? Manual parking rather than the assisted kind? Because yes, the Alhambra does that too.
I’ve gone slushier than the outside lane of the A1(M) over this car.
By Stephen Worthy
Seat Alhambra to the rescue – 27 January 2012
At the last count, the Seat Alhambra has won more glittering prizes than the movie Titanic (seven in the UK alone, but also garnering best MPV nods throughout Europe – including Germany). But thankfully, this is no sinking ship. Far from it. Out there among the Continent’s car-buying public, the new Alhambra is proving to be a fine synthesis of family-sized function, form, real-world practicality and optional electric sliding doors. And that’s why we’re here, speccing up an Alhambra as my wife and I welcome our second child to the world. Is it just a Sharan with a few hundred quid knocked off merely because of the badge?
Sales of the seven-seater Alhambra have trebled in 2011 against the previous 12 months, says Seat, so plenty of motorists have become smitten. Although we want to find out if you can really fall in love with a car as big-boned as this. First, we will have to choose wisely when it comes to marrying standard spec to Seat’s jam-packed option list.
Eschewing the lure of option overkill, where a car groans and puffs under the weight of its own technology, I’ve started with a base of middling SE trim. There are over 50 ‘highlights’ of the standard equipment that SE affords you, including such unmissable delights as rear window wiper and washer and electronic handbrake. Grab you yet? No? How about we dig deeper, as you also get – ‘gratis’ – cruise, Bluetooth, steering wheel phone and audio controls and stop/start.
We’ve grafted all this onto the most popular engine choice, the 138bhp 2.0 TDi Ecomotive (which we’ve opted to take with the DSG gearbox with flappy paddles). How much? £27,875. And then, by jove, we start to get into the really exciting stuff. Okay, so ‘exciting’ and Winter Pack (£295) is pushing it but for that you get heated front seats and heated front washer nozzles. An extra of £450 gives me the standard-ish Seat Sound System but with Park Assist to wow the neighbours with.
With our eldest boy now touching one metre tall we’ve taken the plunge on an integrated child seat (£195) and the Cargo Pack (£325) looks a good choice as we think the Alhambra will spend most of its time with us operating on five seats only, with the rear row disengaged to give us a Wembley-sized boot. The Cargo Pack comes with a number of fancy nets and partitions so you can make the very most out of your aft stowage.
We’ve got the car over the depths of the British winter (not that it really has arrived yet in the London area), so £445 seems an appropriate, if a little expensive, use of our budget in order to secure a heated front windscreen. Experience with Volvo XC60 and Vauxhall Meriva long-termers has sold me on the benefits of a full-length panoramic glass roof, both for vision and ad hoc planespotting for kids, big and small. On the Alhambra that means ticking the Panorama Pack which, for its £795, also gives us 17in Kosta alloys… oh, and door and dashboard decorative inserts. Hussar!
Finally the coup de grâce – if my experience with a 168bhp Alhambra this summer is anything to go by – is to have plumped for powered tailgate and sliding rear side doors. They are fancy, they are ‘trick’ (as they say in the modified world) but they are unfailingly useful. They make pouring two little boys into a car less of a work of art but something resembling fun instead. And that, for £31,375, is your lot for now.
If this isn’t the start of a beautiful relationship, then I’ll eat my standard spec sun visor (with illuminated vanity mirror).
By Stephen Worthy