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SEAT Altea FR Car Review | February 6, 2006

Driven February 2006

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At the end of Seat's press conference to introduce the new Altea FR, during which it mentioned the Formula Racing badge many times, a Romanian hack stuck his hand up and asked what FR stood for.

Like being back in Primary 3, there was a round of sniggers at the Romanian's lack of hearing or understanding, or both.

Looking back, I now find myself asking the same question: what does FR really stand for? I know what it's an abbreviation of; I just can't get my head round Seat's hot-hatch tag being stuck on a diesel-powered MPV.

There may be 168bhp and 258lb ft of torque, but 0-62mph in 8.6secs ain't fast in the hot hatch world these days, especially when the Spanish firm will relieve you of £18,000 for the privilege. A Focus ST comes with 222bhp, 0-62 in 6.8secs and costs £500 less.

What is Seat playing at? Well, the company's keen to get the drop on the competition, so it has introduced the Altea FR with a diesel first. Thankfully, a petrol version will be along later this year with the Golf GTI's 197bhp two-litre motor.

In the meantime, the 2.0 turbodiesel goes head-to-head with the Vauxhall Zafira 2.0 T SRi.

Seat has modified the turbo, air intake and injectors of the VW Group 2.0 turbodiesel to realise 168bhp and push torque up by 22lb ft to 258lb ft. Other changes include a ride height lowered by 7mm, hip-nipping front seats and obligatory white-faced instruments.

The stiffened-up ride is no worse than an Altea in Sport trim, so it's firm but fair on cracked roads, while keeping the body well in check through corners.

There's also a whole load of grip, although accelerating away from the lights or out of tight turns, the diesel's hefty tug from low revs has the front wheel clawing for grip like a dog on linoleum.

There's no doubting the handling side is well taken care of and rapid cross-country drives are there for the taking, but the diesel engine still jars with the concept of a hot hatch in the Altea.

The six-speed gearbox has a decent shift, but it's best left in a higher gear to surf the torque, and that isn't much fun in a hot hatch.

This leaves me wondering not what FR stands for, but why it was attached to this car. Without the badge, I'd be thinking it was a stealthy and frugal way to travel fast. But the FR spec raised my hopes and the Altea FR has not risen to meet them.

Alisdair Suttie

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