Having more than three children used to condemn the keen driver to a life of drudgery, schlepping around in an old Peugeot or Volvo estates – or even, horror-of-horrors, an ex-local authority Transit minibus.
Those days are long gone now thanks to Renault, of course, who changed the game in the mid-eighties with the Espace, the revolutionary car that allowed drivers to indulge their reproductive proclivities to the full while still letting them enjoy a damned good B-road thrash whenever they fancied it
The marketplace is now stuffed full of fine handling, good looking and economical seven-seaters and the SEAT Alhambra is widely acknowledged to be one of the best on sale in the UK today. Having gained a very respectable carwow score of 8/10 we thought we should borrow one to check it out for ourselves. After all, theres no substitute for first-hand knowledge, is there?
Picture a people carrier, any people carrier, and youve nailed the Alhambra. Its not special, but then how many different ways can you interpret a seven-seat, one-box design? Having said that, its not an unattractive car, just an unmemorable one.
The Alhambras high roofline isnt pretty but it does give oodles of headroom; a basketball player wearing a top hat would still be able to sit upright while juggling. SEAT, acknowledging the need for at least a modicum of disguise, has given the car scowling headlights and a wide grille; the result is the illusion of a lower roofline as well as a suitably menacing look, from the front at least.
The sliding rear doors with their handles positioned right next to the front ones, a la suicide doors from a more elegant motoring age – are made obvious, even to the casual observer, by the need for a recess to accommodate the rollers upon which they slide. This could have ended up looking utilitarian and ugly, but it doesnt thanks to some careful and thoughtful design; the roof rails echo those horizontal strakes and soften their impact while the recesses themselves terminate at the point where the ultra-modern rear lights start. They are practical too, allowing your kids to get out of the car in a car park without giving you the heebie-jeebies that theyre going to dent the car next to you. They arent perfect though, being heavy and stiff, so you might want to consider electronic assistance. At 950 (including a powered tailgate) its probably money well spent.
The overall impression inside is thoughtful, sober and high quality; it isnt dotted with fripperies but then neither does it seem to be trying too hard. Its not an Audi (what is?) but it is distinctly VW-like.
The wide range of adjustments available to the driver give a car-like driving position and provide an ergonomically sound environment. The high driving position, coupled with a lot of glass, gives excellent visibility, which is a boon in heavy traffic and around the city. The front drops away sharply and isnt as long as you anticipate, meaning that I frequently had to jump back into the car and move it forward another couple of feet when parking nose-in.
The rear-most seats, the ones that turn it from a five-seat estate car into a full-blown minibus, fold flat when they arent being used giving a massive boot although it has to be said that the boot remains very usable, even with all seven seats raised and in use.
If you fold the middle and rear seats youre left with a proper van-sized space that swallows sofas and wardrobes; you should never under estimate just how useful this sort of carrying capacity can be or how popular it makes you with friends, family and neighbours
The car-like impression extends to the way the Alhambra drives; if you can ignore the SEATs length then youll feel at home slipping into one from a Golf
or a Focus
. Its quiet very quiet and rides well, even on optional 17-inch alloys wheels fitted with 50-profile tyres. Motorway journeys are a delight and a combination of decent suspension and a torquey engine allow you to waft along in great comfort.
Things go slightly downhill on twisty A- and B-roads, but only a little. Understeer dominates when you first turn in but not to an alarming degree and the mid-bend and exit dynamics are nicely neutral, allowing you to power out of them earlier than in some of the Alhambras competitors.
Body-roll is well contained and its easy to forget you are driving something the size of the Bismarck if you can shut out the noise of five squawking ten-year-old boys on their way to a birthday party (although I am prepared to acknowledge that this was more the fault of my progeny than that of SEATs diligent engineers, as the Alhambras NVH are admirably controlled).
Brakes and steering are utterly unforgettable, which is to say that they are progressive, perfectly weighted, and do the job to perfection. As does the stop/start and electronic parking brake; both are unobtrusive, which is how they should be.
The 2.0-litre turbo-diesel engine produces just shy of 140bhp and 236 lb/ft of torque are never going to set the world alight, especially in a car this big, but they are enough. Cruising at mildly illegal speeds is indecently easy and overtaking is swift and assured as long as you change down a gear, something that the six-speed box encourages with an easy and positive action.
The top speed of 120mph will satisfy the determined continental cruiser even if a 0-62mph time of 10.9 seconds will leave you lagging in the school-run Grand Prix. Still, we managed to get 40.1mpg over a week of mixed use, which isnt to be sniffed at and will be appreciated by families on a budget.
Value for money
Talking of budgets, the Alhambra is keenly priced at a smidge under 27,000 in SE 2.0 TDI CR Ecomotive form. That price includes pretty much everything else a family will need bar electric assistance for the sliding rear doors and, oddly, sat-nav.
The Alhambra range starts at 23,770 for the S, while the SE Lux starts at 30,350; all, of course, come with a plethora of optional extras for the well-heeled. As ever, our advice is that basic is (pretty much always) better.
If you need a people carrier then the Alhambra is probably the pick of the bunch. Its cheap to buy, cheap to run, easy to drive, rewarding to punt along at a fair lick, and very, very practical.
The Ford S-Max
is also worth a look as it probably pips the Alhambra in the way it drives but if youre in this market it probably comes down to which of these two cars you prefer as few others match them for fun and practicality.
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For more, check out our full summary of the SEAT Alhambra alongside reviews, stats, photos and videos.