Oh lord, not another modern-day Matra Rancho.
Ah – immediately, you’ve spotted Seat’s biggest problem with the Altea Freetrack. This is a crossover – part MPV, part 4x4. And, with its ‘family car sporting stick-on muscles’ looks, set for a bit-part in our lives? Don’t dismiss it so fast, though. The SUV element stretches further than just black plastic body mouldings. The ride height has been raised, suspension toughened and, crucially, four-wheel-drive made standard. A proper job, unlike sad pretenders such as the Renault Scenic Conquest, and VW Golf Plus Dune that the Altea will be compared with. Now they really are Rancho wannabes.
But why not go the whole hog and design a proper 4x4?
Because that would be treading on the toes of VW’s Tiguan, which current VW Group strategy disallows. It would push the price up, which Seat strategy disallows. And it would also go againt the company’s admittedly admirable aims of making the most car-like and sporty crossover it can. It’s undeniable that some will see a kitted-up Altea XL MPV as naff. It also breaks the golden SUV rule, whereby looks and image are all. Seat could have done more to counter that, as from the wheelarches up it’s a stock Altea XL. But give it a little slack, and there’s nothing to say the Allroad-style concept can’t work, for those keen on what something can do, rather than its image.
Do ‘active’, ‘lifestyle’ and ‘family’ come into it?
Inevitably. No serious maker can ever forget these cornerstones of cliché. Seat supports them by pointing to the integrated roof rails, front seatback trays, sliding rear seat and the 490-litre boot (albeit smaller than the XL, due to the 4wd gear). Shorn of the active-lifestyle baggage of a regular 4x4, maybe more serious, less image-obsessed users will actually fill that considerable space with active lifestyle stuff. A pretty neat roof-mounted multimedia screen will keep said family quiet, too. An RTA socket allows iPods/PS3s/DVDs to be plugged in, with sound either through the car stereo or, preferably, via infra-red headphones. A cool standard touch, like all the MPV flexibility built into Altea XL, too. One benefit of the derivative looks…
What’s this quasi-off-roader like on the road, then?
Surprising fun. Turn-in is direct, roll well contained for a tall car and there’s plenty of grip. You can confidently lean on it, while throwing it about sees it respond with neat alacrity. It’s an unlikely back-road pleaser. 4wd helps here, easing tractive demands on the front tyres so you can really press on in corners. The small, sporty steering wheel isn’t there for show – this is genuinely fun-to-drive. The TDI 170 diesel (expected to form 90 percent of sales), while vibey and gravelly, is super-torquey and responsive. But it’s the 2.0-litre petrol that’s the real match. Rev-happy and fast, it’s lively and complements the rest sufficiently to make you muse what a Golf GTI 4motion would be like. It rides better than most Seats, too.
More than capable for forest track/muddy field use. Traction is ample, even with ESP off, and the raised ride means the sump’s never in danger. Naturally, there’s no low-range 'box or hill descent control, but most drivers will chicken out way before the car does. You could also drive it like an Impreza WRC, as we did. On-road responses transfer off-road, so it’s agile and chuckable, with lots of feel and the most delightful power oversteer out of gravelly hairpins. You wouldn’t believe the amount of opposite lock you need at times. Huge hooligan fun.
Multimedia screen apart, what else do you get as standard?
Pretty much everything; there will only be one trim, with climate control, rain and parking sensors, ESP, MP3 CD and 17-inch alloys as standard. High-set bucket seats from the FR are superb and give a commanding SUV feel, but more divisive will be the chocolate brown interior plastics. Retro cool or rank? You decide. Seat isn't saying how much it'll cost, but a slightly too expensive £20,750 seems a safe bet (with the 2.0 T-FSI nudging in slightly cheaper than TDI). For that, you can get base diesel versions of the CR-V, RAV4, Outlander. None offers this level of kit, or performance, or car-like manners. All come with proper SUV looks. Pays your money, etc.
The Freetrack lacks the SUV looks that people buy SUVs for, despite costing SUV money. This is why it won't be a huge player, but why it hits the spot (in a way) for people like us. Drives like a car (a semi-GTI car boasting effective 4WD at that), good off-road with fewer compromises on it, well stocked for the steepish asking price and amusingly fast. Also won't make green campaigners spit at you. It's a damn sight more relevant than, say, the Toledo. Sadly, at 500-800 units per year, it looks to be almost as obscure.