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2008 Seat Altea XL - 8th June 2008

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2008 Seat Altea XL 2008 Seat Altea XL 2008 Seat Altea XL 2008 Seat Altea XL 2008 Seat Altea XL 2008 Seat Altea XL

And here’s what you could have had!

My palms are sweaty with anticipation as I stand at the Avis Car rental desk in Bergamo Airport outside Milan. "Mizzter Henstack, we hav upgradze you!" My heart sinks, I want an Alfa, I’ve hired an Alfa and I NEED an Alfa. He looks puzzled. "What is it?" I enquire tentatively, "SEEAT Altea XL" he beams back at me, "very nize." "Yes but I want an Alfa" I reply. He huffs and shrugs but picks up the phone and chats to the people in the pound, "No Alfa, you can havz a automatiz BEE-EM-WUBBLYOUZ TREE, is you likez" No I don’t likez. At that moment I would have got back on the plane. My holiday was wrecked.

I sulked out of the office and stomped out to the car pound, family in tow. I was now livid as I gazed upon the black hulk that sat before me. OK so the boot was huge and swallowed the entire family luggage. The clever boot cover, operated by a simple click down, was smart. The useful storage nets either side kept the camera safe - but it wasn’t an Alfa!

I climbed into the drivers seat (smart grey trim) and was greeted by a huge well equipped dash below a huge windscreen that disappeared off into the distance. Easy to get comfortable behind the steering wheel, moveable both in reach and rake. The lumbar-support equipped seat was soft but supportable. It had cruise control, dual climate control, auto lights and auto dip mirror, rain sensitive wipers...OK it was loaded with goodies, but it wasn’t an ALFA!!!

The kids were delighted; it was equipped with privacy glass and rear sun blinds. I pointed out that was good because they wouldn’t want to be seen it. Generic VAG key inserted and turned, “chuffin 'ell” it was rough & noisy, could this be the same 1.9tdi found in my A6? The sticker on the fuel cap telling you it was a diesel was superfluous, this engine left you in no doubt about which fuel it burned. Select reverse, which was greeted with a "beep" - parking sensors fitted then!.

The steering was light and made shuffling out between the rows of Fiat Pandas easy. Clear of the Avis pound and on to the Autostrader I gunned it – nothing! This can’t be the same engine as mine, it was gutless. Yes the decibel level rose, the revs climbed, but our forward motion must have been suffering from jet lag. My mood was not lifting and it was not helped by the gearbox which was refusing to talk to the lever in my hand. Mrs Wife and the kids kept telling me how good it was, loads of room, lots of storage space, smooth ride, great view out of big windows. But I wasn’t interested because, yes you’ve guessed it, its not an Alfa.

Off the Autostrader onto the Italian A and B roads and the surface was far superior to ours in the UK - which I wasn’t surprised about as I think our roads are now no better than Bulgarian. Up to the first roundabout, turn in and the slug just wallowed into understeer. I suppose you have to pay for all the headroom and the lofty seating position. Yes it gripped as it wasn’t under-tyred on its 205/55 Bridgestone’s wrapped around its smart 16 inch Eldorado alloys but it just wouldn’t turn in. The nice thick rimmed wheel was equipped with audio controls which, when I pushed the correct button, the radio got louder or changed station. A similar disconnected relationship applied to the direction of travel - if I turned the wheel left the car went left and luckily the opposite when I turned it right. It’s just that it felt remote and devoid of any feel - smooth but disinterested.

As I parked the Seat up for the night I didn’t glance back at it - hoping in the morning it would all be just a bad dream. The morning was bright and sunny and I could hear my wife chuckling away in the lounge of the apartment. "You don’t want to look outside" she said to me with glee. No it couldn’t be, I looked out and there below was a metallic grey 159 glinting in the morning sun. The new arrivals in the next door apartment had an Alfa. I wanted to cry. Worst of all he didn’t ask for the Alfa and he liked the Seat "ideal for a family" he commented. If it had been the same hire car company I’d have prized the keys from his hand and swapped there and then.

The roads around Lake Garda promised lots of opportunity to explore the poor handling and the lack of grunt of the Hippo (as it had been christened). Over the next ten days we covered over 600km and apart from the 150km to and from the airport most of it was spent on local roads, some of which would have made a brilliant special stage on a World Rally event. One section went for over 9km without a straight more than 100m long. It was so frustrating, the engine should have 105PS - it made a lot of noise but always felt short of that and the gearbox was terrible, feeling vague and imprecise. Although it had good grip the handling was not up to the roads, or more likely what I required of a car on those roads.

As for the gadgets the Hippo was adorned with, I was a bit sceptical about the auto lights having always considered that I knew when I needed to switch my lights on. When would I find use for this frippery? Pass me the humble pie please, you see Lake Garda has more than its fair share of tunnels and Galleries (tunnels with the occasional open arches) so I thought I would give it a try - it was brilliant! Into the tunnel, lights on in less than a second, out into the sunlight, off they go. Also great when your home and lock up - they stay on for 30 seconds to get you to the door and when you unlock they light your way to the car. I am not saying it’s essential but it was a clever touch that I grew to appreciate.

If you’re in the market for a £15k good size family car the Altea XL makes a good alternative to the other medium MPV’s out there - Scenic, Focus C Max, Citroen Picasso etc. It’s got loads of room and it’s very well equipped. It looks different and from certain angles you could describe it as racy. But (and for me it’s a but as big as the Altea’s) if you consider hitting apexes and overtaking as the essential parts of motoring it would be a disappointment. To me the engine was rough and gruff, the gearbox recalcitrant and the handling dull. I expected more from the brand that I’ve always thought of as the VW groups alternative to Alfa Romeo.


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