"Which one would you take home then?". That was the question posed as the inaugural '#SEATtweetup' drew to a close earlier this month. Taking a long, hard look up and down the line up of new SEATs, I couldn't help myself from focusing on the Ibiza. The problem was, this just happened to be the MK1 Ibiza - 1989 vintage. Oh dear.
That's not to say that the new SEATs are bad cars - far from it in fact. But despite having driven six new SEATs on the day, not one of them managed to stir my soul. For a company that prides itself on delivering 'auto emoción', this was a little disappointing. But perhaps it's me. After all, SEAT now holds a record 2% share of the UK market and is rapidly increasing its dealer network. It also enjoys a loyal and enthusiastic following for its 'hot' models, with the Leon Cupra R held in particularly high esteem.
I guess I just expected more from the brand. At the start of the day, SEAT's Mike Orford gave an upbeat presentation on the company's fortunes and made a point of extolling the virtues of the SEAT brand. 'Dynamic', 'Design' and 'Driven' were the watchwords, with a focus on a 'young-spirited' audience. When you have cars like the Altea, Exeo and Alhambra in your stable, it's important not to be too youthful in your approach.
After the presentation we were invited to grab the keys to any car and head off into the Sunday morning traffic around Farnborough and Aldershot. Like all good swingers' parties, there was a rush to grab the keys to the hottest metal. But in true PetrolBlog style, I immediately jumped into the MK1 Ibiza and spent the next hour revelling in the car's retro goodness. More on this in a future blog.
Ibiza Cupra Bocanegra - 1.4 TSI, £18,665 + options
For maximum contrast, having delivered the ageing Ibiza back to base, I immediately jumped into the range topping Cupra Bocanegra. If Google Translate is anything to go by, this really was a case of 'tiza y el queso'*. After the basic, no frills and buzzy nature of the MK1, the range-topping Bocanegra is almost the complete opposite. The Ibiza has come a long way since the days of 'System Porsche'.
Like the folk who would have frequented the car's geographic namesake back in the late '80s, today's Ibiza has piled on the pounds and feels more grown-up. And this isn't necessarily a good thing. For sure, the new Ibiza is less likely to kill you in a crash and it will allow you to plug in your iPod or MP3 player, but hot hatches are all about one thing - fun. Bear in mind that the Bocanegra has to compete in the same sector as the Renaultsport Clio and you'll understand the heights the car needs to reach.
The Bocanegra has some tantalising tools at its disposal, the most impressive of which is the brilliant 1.4 TSI twin-charger engine that I last experienced in the Skoda Fabia vRS last year. Like the little Skoda, the Ibiza Cupra Bocanegra also comes with the same seven-speed DSG gearbox with steering wheel mounted paddle shift controls. On paper at least, the vRs and the Bocanegra are evenly matched, with the SEAT slightly quicker to 60 and the Skoda offering a small advantage in the economy stakes. Still, a combined MPG figure of 44.1 isn't too shabby for a balls-out, 180bhp hot hatch.
But unlike the brilliant Fabia, I never truly gelled with the Bocanegra. Battling the Sunday morning traffic, the car felt strangely devoid of fun. The severely over-assisted steering doesn't help matters, presenting a rather numb feel to cornering. In my book at least, this is one area where a pocket rocket simply has to deliver. Yes, the Bocanegra has blistering pace, but in the UK, a car that can provide thrills within the legal limit gets a big thumbs up from me. It's why I rate the old Swift Sport so highly and why I found the Renaultsport Twingo so much fun earlier this month.
On the plus side, the Bocanegra is loaded with standard kit. For a £700 premium over the already well equipped Cupra, the black-mouthed SEAT comes with 17" dark tinted alloys, tinted rear windows, a flat-based three-spoke steering wheel, Bocanegra-styled seats and various bits of added trim and badging. This is on top of the standard Cupra kit, including climate control, cruise, front fogs with cornering function, sports suspension, MP3/iPod AUX IN and a host of safety features. But then, for a base price of £18,655, you'd expect some bells to go with your whistles. That's £2k more than the basic Fabia vRS and £140 shy of a Polo GTi. Brave pricing by SEAT.
Maybe it's me. The general consensus of opinion on the day was that the little Bocanegra was the most impressive SEAT of the range and it did feel more fun on a second drive in the afternoon. But for me there are better options available and crucially, they offer much more in the enjoyment stakes.
Leon Cupra R 2.0 TSI - £25,995 + options
For years, the Leon Cupra R has been one of the first names on the shortlist of those looking for maximum performance from an otherwise practical hatchback. Indeed, with a staggering 265bhp is quite simply the most powerful SEAT ever made.
As such, the Leon Cupra R is SEATs halo product - a car that epitomises the aforementioned 'young spirited' and racy side of the brand. If you're playing Top Trumps and you hold the Leon Cupra R card, you're in with a shout of winning. If the 265bhp isn't enough, you can also call on the 155mph (limited) top speed or 0-60 time of 6 seconds. Make no mistake, the Cupra R is a bloody quick car.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the pace is the car's ability to deliver it through the front wheels. I seem to remember someone once saying that 200bhp was the maximum power you could realistically push through the front wheels. Well SEAT has managed to disprove this theory with the able assistance of 65 manic horses.
The performance is terrific and delivered with an accompanying soundtrack that is best described as being 'touring car-esque'. Throw into the equation a pair of Recaro racing seats that are on a par with my old Racing Puma Sparcos, (still used as my benchmark for great seats), and the Leon Cupra R has the ability to turn a quick trip round the block into what feels like a quick lap of the Thruxton circuit.
It has all the necessary ingredients for a terrific hot hatch. A great 6-speed gearbox, a wonderful engine note, a surprisingly excellent ride and superb cornering abilities. Plus the same engine can be found in Volkswagen's Scirocco and Golf R and it's a genuinely impressive unit.
Looking back at my notes from the day, the only negatives I found were the slightly sombre interior, the numerous blind spots, (the most annoying of which being the rather large A-pillar), and the optional white alloy wheels. With the benefit of hindsight, these are merely nitpicking points, but I still couldn't find myself living with the Leon Cupra R. It's all a bit 'shouty' for me, as much a sign that I'm getting older as anything else. But even so, the Cupra R just lacks soul and authenticity - a car that packs a powerful punch but is sadly difficult to love. Shame.
Alhambra SE 2.0 TDI 140PS E-Ecomotive - £26,605 + options
The SEAT Alhambra / Ford Galaxy / Volkswagen Sharan MPV has been a common sight on Britain's roads for the best part of 15 years. It's hard to believe that the utilitarian 7-seater managed to survive largely unchanged right up until 2010. There was a minor facelift to mark the new millennium, but the 'Sharalaxy' stayed true to the original concept unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in 1995.
I've never been a fan of MPVs. Despite their obvious appeal for those looking for practical, family motoring, I've always maintained that a decent estate car or 4x4 could offer a less soul destroying option. I recall one motoring writer, (probably Clarkson), describing a particular MPV as a 'waiting to die car' and I've tended to use this as an umbrella term for MPVs ever since. Yes, it's an irrational hatred, but hey, I'm getting too old to change my ways.
My experiences with MPVs have been thankfully thin on the ground. I was once forced into driving a company Picasso for a day - an adventure I found so incredibly dull I nearly gave up driving forever. I was also forced into travelling in the back of an old Toyota Previa on the way to a Bon Jovi concert at Wembley. Being perched so close to the rear of the vehicle is an experience to treasure, as is the moment when the clutch gives out on the A40. Memories are made of this.
So it was with some trepidation that I climbed aboard the good ship Alhambra. It's still heavily related to the VW Sharan, although the Galaxy is no longer part of the equation, therefore rendering the 'Sharalaxy' name redundant. I guess it's 'Sharalhambra' these days, making it sound like a song by Showaddywaddy.
But anyway, back to the Alhambra. For the road test, I ventured out into the high streets and suburban roads of the local area and for the first few miles I genuinely thought I was slipping into a coma. The overall driving experience is one of dullness and wretched boredom. The Alhambra, like just about every MPV I've ever experienced, has the ability to paint the entire world magnolia. You can almost hear the hands of time ticking slowly by as you go about your daily business. Depressing. Is it actually possible to love a MPV? Answers on a postcard…
To avoid giving up on life altogether, I stopped the Alhambra at a bus stop on a deserted business park in Farnborough. Feeling the urge to open the boot, I thought I'd try my hands at the supposedly clever seat configuration. Within a matter of seconds I'd converted the 7-seater into a 5-seater with a completely flat floor. A few more seconds later it was back as a 7-seater and with a press of a button on the boot lid, the door was shut. The Alhambra was beginning to make sense.
I wandered around to the rear passenger door, pulled the handle and watched as the door slid open. Glancing at the picnic trays, window blinds, upholders and cubby holes, I began to see why the new Alhambra is held in such high regard. With a good selection of toys and the range indicating a 510 mile distance to refuelling, the SE Ecomotive makes a lot of sense. It's certainly a car I'd be renting when on a family holiday.
A good car. I never thought I'd say that about a MPV…
Ibiza SE Copa 1.2 TDI E-Ecomotive - £14,940 + options
SEAT's Copa range is primarily designed for the fleet market, offering range of models with a high level of equipment as standard. The 5-door Ibiza is available with a choice of 1.2 or 1.4 petrol engines or a 1.2 diesel unit, with the lowest priced model being the 1.2 petrol at £12,805.
For a couple of grand more, you can opt for the 1.2 TDI Ecomotive, an Ibiza with a claimed combined MPG of 80.7, rising to 91.1 for extra urban. With a CO2 figure of just 92g/km, it is also road tax free for the first year.
A car ideally suited for the prolonged age of austerity then?
In many ways, the Ibiza Copa Ecomotive is easier to justify than the Bocanegra. It's never going to excite or set the pulse racing, but you will be spending less time at the pumps and it's an incredibly easy car to drive. The interior is a little on the cheap side, but is lifted somewhat by a natty steering wheel and decent seats.
If you're in the market for a small, practical, 5-door supermini and are likely to do the mileage that warrants the extra expense, the Ibiza Copa Ecomotive is a tempting proposition.
Exeo Sport Tech 2.0 TDI 143 PS Multitronic - £25,140 + options
You'll probably know by now that the SEAT Exeo is effectively 70% based on the previous generation Audi A4. Had this been an end of term class report, I'd be tempted to give the Exeo an A-for-effort. But it's not, so I won't.
Of course, the Exeo's A4 origins are easy to spot, being only thinly disguised on the outside and plain to see on the inside. Prices start at £19,480, but can rise to £25,140 for the range topping Sport Tech with Multitronic 'box and a few options. Try getting a similar spec new Audi A4 for similar money.
But deciding whether or not the SEAT Exeo represents a good value for money is largely down to personal tastes.
On the one hand, the Exeo has a lot going for it. As you'd expect, it comes loaded with standard kit, including the Multitronic gearbox with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifts, full black leather upholstery, sat nav, iPod connectivity, BOSE premium audio, sports suspension, Bluetooth, cruise…the list goes on and on. And with the interior being lifted directly from the Audi A4 cabriolet, you know the quality will be good, if a little sombre.
Driving the Exeo is a decent enough experience. The handling is neat and tidy, although the diesel engine lacks genuine poke. There's also a high level of wind and road noise which, when mated to an already noisy diesel engine, gives the Exeo a surprisingly unrefined feel. Compare and contrast with the excellent Skoda Superb and the Peugeot 508 and the Exeo is left somewhat exposed.
But then the Exeo is SEAT's third best selling car and at least gives them a foothold in a major, if somewhat shirking, sector. A good car, but not a great one.
And this is how I'd sum up the entire SEAT range to be honest. A selection of good cars that you'd be hard pressed to find genuine fault with. I just can't help but feel that SEAT has been dealt a poor set of cards by Volkswagen. As recently as ten years ago, I'd have thought that it would be SEAT and not Skoda that would have the most interesting and relevant cars on offer. But while Skoda has two potential giant-killing class winners in the Superb estate and the Yeti, SEAT seems to be feeding on scraps. I'd even go as far as saying the vRS brand is a little stronger than Cupra these days. But that's just me showing my age again.
The Ibiza Bocanegra and Leon Cupra R are hints at what could be achieved at SEAT if only VW would let them off the leash. Time to indulge in a little more latin flair? We'll see...
*I sincerely hope this means 'chalk and cheese'. If it doesn't and I happen to have written something offensive, my humble apologies.