SEAT Exeo Sport

Great new engine makes Italian charmer even harder to resist.

With its Audi genes, the Exeo has brought SEAT into the compact executive car class. It offers a premium feel for a hugely competitive price – but there’s no mistaking its roots.

In profile, the Exeo is virtually identical to the previous Audi A4 on which it’s based. SEAT has added a new front grille and lights, which help to freshen up the design, but they do little to disguise its ancestry.

At the back, the number plate now sits on the bumper and the SEAT logo doubles up as an external boot release. However, these changes can’t hide the rather dated shape that underpins this saloon. And when lined up next to the Alfa, the Exeo simply can’t compete in the style stakes.

It’s a similar story inside, where the dash is effectively lifted from the old A4 Cabriolet. That means you get rock-solid build quality, combined with logically laid-out switches. But overall, it lacks the panache and style of the 159.

Yet while the SEAT isn’t at the cutting edge of design, its cabin is a pleasant and comfortable place in which to spend time. The driving position is excellent and rear passenger space is on a par with its rival.

The Exeo is designed to appeal to car buyers who put driver appeal high on their list of priorities. And although SEAT can’t hope to rival the motorsport heritage of Alfa Romeo, its products have the raciest image of all the VW Group brands.

This is also evident out on the road. Stiffer suspension is a no-cost option on Sport versions of the Exeo, and the more focused set-up means the ride is harder than the Alfa’s. The damping manages to prevent too much crashing over rough surfaces, and body control is good, too. There’s also plenty of grip, so the car turns in well and corners with confidence.

The steering is pleasingly weighted and the six-speed gearbox delivers a solid shift action. Plus, the firm brakes helped the SEAT post shorter stopping distances than the Alfa – it came to a halt from 70mph more than a metre sooner, in 48.4 metres. The thing is, where the 159 is lively and agile, the Exeo still feels a little numb.

Compensation comes under the bonnet, because while the chassis is from old Audi stock, its 2.0-litre diesel engine is the latest common-rail TDI. It provides punchy power delivery and performance to match the 159. On the road it feels flexible, if not as smooth as the Alfa, while refinement is good.

Emissions are higher than the Alfa’s, but on our test route the SEAT returned slightly higher fuel economy. It also costs less to buy in the first place – at £21,455 – and comes with plenty of equipment for the money.

So despite its ageing underpinnings, there’s plenty of life in the big SEAT saloon yet. It’s solidly finished and impressively practical. The question is whether it has enough unique appeal and all-round desirability to beat the Alfa Romeo.

In detail * Price: £21,455 * Engine: 2.0-litre 4cyl, 168bhp * 0-60mph: 8.8 seconds * Economy: 35.7mpg * Annual road tax: £150

Details

WHY: It saw off Lexus’ IS 220d in its first test, with a strong diesel and a premium feel. Can the Exeo win again?

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