"Seven-seat practicality and a solid line-up of Volkswagen-sourced engines make the Alhambra a good all-rounder for large families."
If we were going to be a bit reductive – just this once – we could describe the SEAT Alhambra as a Volkswagen Sharan with a stripped-down, back-to-basics interior and slightly jazzier exterior styling. That's because they’re basically the same car, but the Alhambra, crucially we think, is cheaper. Yet it still offers all the virtues of the more expensive VW that for lower price. Which means that you get an incredibly practical seven- seat MPV that comes with a good range of engines to choose from and impressive on-road dynamics for a bit of a bargain. It's still not the cheapest MPV on the market, by any means – some older rivals, such as the Vauxhall Zafira, do cost less - but none of the cars that beat it on price can match the Alhambra on comfort, practicality or fuel economy - and that's why we named it Best MPV in our 2013 Car of the Year awards.
MPG, running costs & CO2 emissions
With all models of the Alhambra coming fitted with stop-start fuel-saving technology, the 2.0-litre diesel engine on offer is efficient and cheap to run. If you go for the 138bhp 2.0-litre diesel, with the E Ecomotive badge, you should get 50.4mpg in combined fuel economy and 146g/km CO2 emissions, which places in road tax band F and will cost £140 a year. But even the 175bhp diesel impresses, returning 47.1mpg economy and emitting 158g/km (band G, £175 a year). If you add the automatic gearbox, economy and emissions are very slightly worse.
Interior & comfort
The Alhambra's diesel engines are incredibly quiet and smooth, allowing you to enjoy the benefits of their increased fuel economy without having to put up with any kind of racket inside the car. The SEAT's ride is slightly firmer than you get in some other MPVs, but it's actually very comfortable regardless, and soaks up lumps and bumps in the road easily enough. Plus, while the steering is can be a little heavy, it's a matter of preference as to whether you think that is a good or a bad thing. The interior is flexible enough to allow most adult passengers to get comfy, and while grown-ups can fit in the back, we’d advise against it, unless they are as flexible as the seating set-up.
Practicality & boot space
We don’t give five out of five stars for nothing, and which full-sized MPV would be worth its salt if it wasn’t incredibly practical? The seven-seater SEAT is one of the widest MPVs on sale in the UK and that gives it one of the most spacious interiors, too. Its second and third rows of seats both fold flat, plus even the front passenger seat folds in the higher-spec models to allow the SEAT to carry loads that measure in length up to 2.95m. With all seats in place you get a so-so 267 litres of luggage capacity. With the rearmost seats folded down, the Alhambra offers 1,167 litres of boot space; fold down the second row, too, and that expands to a van-challenging 2,297 litres. Alas, the third row seats are really only suitable for carrying children, with adults unlikely to get comfortable back there at all, given the limited leg and headroom, but electric power for the sliding doors can be added as an optional extra, which at least makes access even easier.
Reliability & safety
It's something of a tell-tale sign that no SEATs made it into the 2013 Driver Power customer satisfaction survey's top 100 cars. This reflects that fact that SEAT itself languishes at the bottom of the same poll's manufacturers ranking, placing 27th out of 32nd, a drop of three spots from its 2012 ranking of 24th, which itself was a massive fall from its 2011 position of 14th. Does that mean that the Alhambra will end up being unreliable then? Probably not - with a range of well-proven, tried-and-tested Volkswagen Group engines under the bonnet, you shouldn’t really encounter many reliability issues with it. Plus, SEAT does back this up with a three-year/60,000-mile manufacturer warranty on the car to provide some peace of mind. It is a safe car too, coming with a driver's knee airbag fitted as part the list of standard equipment and accessories – which is a first for the SEAT brand in the UK. That and standard-fit electronic stability control (ESP) helped the Alhambra to secure the maximum five-star rating in the exhaustive Euro NCAP crash safety tests. It also offers you the option of disabling the front passenger airbag, which allows parents to fit a rear-facing child restraint.
Engines, drive & performance
It may still be trumped by the Ford S-MAX, but if you’re looking for a sporty MPV, then the Alhambra is a good choice, feeling nearly as much at home on twisting, winding back roads as the S-MAX. That's partly due to the well-weighted steering and firm suspension, which give the SEAT's large dimensions plenty of grip when driving through corners and minimises body roll. The engine that offers the best blend of performance and efficiency is the 138bhp 2.0-litre diesel. It accelerates the MPV from 0-62mph in 10.9 seconds - although if you’re looking for just that bit more speed, we’d recommend trying out the 168bhp diesel. It's not perfect but is better to drive than it looks.
Price, value for money & options
The Alhambra is available in three main specifications – entry-level S, mid-range SE and top-of-the-range SE Lux specs, but even the base specification car doesn’t skimp on equipment and accessories, coming fitted with 16-inch alloy wheels, air-conditioning, Bluetooth connectivity and hill-hold assist, all as standard equipment – and that's on top of expected basics like all-round electric windows and central locking. Splash the cash on the top-spec SE Lux and you’ll also get leather upholstery, sat-nav and heated seats thrown in, although this does comes at a fairly substantial hike in price.