SEAT’s Alhambra has been a popular fixture on the full-sized MPV scene for some 15 years, offering a tempting combination of space, practicality and good value. But the Alhambra, and its Volkswagen Sharan sister, had become long in the tooth and were losing ground against newer, more ingenious rivals. So what can the latest, all-new Alhambra offer families to tempt them back into the fold?

The all-new SEAT Alhambra has been on sale a year and accumulated six major awards

At a time when many manufacturers are moving away from the largest type of MPV, Volkswagen group finally unleashed its latest generation of offerings a year ago, this time going it alone and not sharing anything with the Ford Galaxy. As before, the Alhambra and Sharan share the majority of their body panels, interior mouldings and mechanicals, but continue to differ in terms specification and pricing boundaries.

The Alhambra doesn’t innovate in any particular area but what SEAT has successfully achieved is to combine the majority of the best features of its competitors in its new model. The motoring press agree, bestowing it with six major awards since launch. These changes are most evident when you explore how the new model differs from its predecessor.

Naturally, replacing a basic design that first saw the light of day at the tail end of 1994 with one that debuted in 2010, the new model will immediately look more modern, with tighter panel gaps, more integrated bumpers, modern lighting technology and improved aerodynamic performance. The most obvious change though has been the switch from hinged to sliding rear side doors.

Sliding door aid entry to the second and third row of seats

Despite the evident advantages of this design solution, in terms of allowing access to the five back seats in tight spaces without clonking doors into other cars, European MPVs have generally erred away from their fitment. Market research had previously suggested that consumers associated sliding doors with panel vans – conventional doors gave the impression that MPVs weren’t simply vans-with-windows but instead were taller versions of regular cars. Presumably, pragmatism now rules and the sliders are in. They move electrically too, adding to both comfort and convenience. The only styling gripe is the very obvious slot for the door runner that bisects the rear wings – Chrysler’s solution on the Voyager is infinitely more elegant.

Step around to the tailgate, also with electric assistance and that long-running grievance with 7-seat MPVs remains – the lack of boot space with all seats in the upright position. 267l of space is an improvement over the older model but next to useless if all the seats are going to be occupied and you need to take seven lots of luggage along with you. Renault and Chrysler have got around this problem to some degree by offering longer ‘Grand’ versions of the Espace and Voyager respectively but presumably the powers that be within the Volkswagen Group didn’t feel they could justify the extra investment or felt that sales of a Grande Alhambra would be negligible.

That said, the boot space is more usable than those of 7-seater MPVs from the size class below and the rearmost seats are habitable by those of adult-sized proportions, rather than just kids, further increasing the Alhambra’s practicality. But they also highlight an area of compromise as part of the SEAT’s improved ease of use.

While adults can sit in relative comfort in that back row, the seats themselves are not as comfortable as those in the middle row, whereas on the previous generation all five rear chairs were essentially the same. The reason? Well, you no longer have to pump iron down the gym before removing the back seats to extend the load bay to a cavernous 2297l. All five of those separate rear chairs fold into the floor, meaning your hallway can remain the domain of shoes, coats, umbrellas, washing baskets of unironed clothes and kid-related detritus, not a temporary holding area for discarded MPV seating.

All five rear seats folded into the floor and the Alhambra's cargo area is cavernous

For the few who’ve not experienced this kind of seat folding trickery before, it’s a novel and brilliant thing. But Alhambra owners who knew of this phenomena will lament the fact that it’s taken their beloved SEAT so long to offer this facility. After all, Vauxhall’s Zafira debuted this feature all the way back in 1999.

Alhambra’s dashboard has been given a significant overall in terms of ergonomics and overall quality. This really feels like a substantial, expensive car interior now, with high grade, soft touch plastics, solid switchgear and silver brightwork lending an expensive air to the cabin ambience. The major functions are also easier for the driver to reach with the controls being closer as they would be in a conventional car, than the spaced out feel of the previous Alhambra. SEAT manages this without the front seats feeling remotely confined or claustrophobic.

All five rear seats folded into the floor and the Alhambra's cargo area is cavernous

In SE specification, the Alhambra is very well equipped with customers appreciating the stop/start system, tri-zone climate control, privacy glass, automatic wipers and lights, cruise control and Bluetooth connectivity for the stereo system amongst many other features.

The original Alhambra, and its relations, were praised at launch for being so ‘car-like’ in terms of their driving experiences but as competitors moved on and it didn’t, the big SEAT felt like it was becoming more detached vis-à-vis its rivals. Not any more.

On the road the latest Alhambra is a revelation, offering a fine ride and neutral handling that outshine some conventional cars. There’s no significant hint of body roll as its tall body is hustled round bends, with the steering communicating enough of what’s going on with the front wheels to inform the driver without over-enthusing them. The ride quality was composed and supple, ensuring passengers will remain unruffled and fresh after long journeys. It’s soft enough to be very comfortable without inducing travel sickness because of a ship-like wallow.

This particular test Alhambra also featured the popular staple from the Volkswagen Group’s engine range – the latest 2-litre TDI with common rail injection, instead of the clattery old Pumpe Düse (PD) units. It’s a refined motor which suits the Alhambra’s character, ensuring plenty of torque for momentum in any of the six well chosen ratios for brisk, if not sporty, progress. The impressive economy figure of a claimed 50.4mpg seems likely too, allied to the stop/start function which works quickly and effectively to reduce the SEAT’s penchant for drinking diesel.

The Alhambra makes even more sense in its latest guise - a sound purchase

The latest SEAT Alhambra is a first-rate choice for those in the market for a full-sized MPV with space for seven adults, if not necessarily their luggage. A superbly built, generously equipped and fine riding car, that selects the best features of its rivals and combines them into one convincing package. Continued popularity is not only assured, but thoroughly deserved.

On Sunday 2 October, SEAT invited a small group of predominantly online motoring writers to experience a selection of its models, using the Aviator Hotel in Farnborough as its base. The #SEATtweetUP was the first such event of its kind organised by a major manufacturer.

Thumbs Up: High quality, well built, generous equipment, fine ride, practicality and ease of use

Thumbs Down: Boot space still small with third row of seats up, rearmost seats not as comfy as middle row

Quick Facts

Model Tested: SEAT Alhambra SE 2.0 TDI CR 140PS E Ecomotive

Top Speed: 120mph

0-60: 10.9sec

Average fuel consumption: 50.4mpg

CO2 emissions: 146g/km

Engine size: 4/1968cc common rail fuel injection turbo diesel

Power: 138bhp

Torque: 236lb/ft

Price: £26,070 (July 2011)

All photographs © SEAT 2011 – not of actual model tested and for illustrative purposes only

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