SEAT Toledo

It's big. In fact, it's absolutely huge. That was the first thing we noticed about the new Toledo when SEAT offered us the opportunity to climb behind the wheel of the Madrid Motor Show star for a special first drive.

SEAT's new design strategy is to defy convention, and that's exactly what the Toledo Prototipo does. Traditionally, MPVs are more practical than their saloon siblings. But with a 500-litre boot and a roomy cabin, the Toledo is more capable than the Altea on which it's based. It's just a pity some of the clever features won't be offered at launch.

It's big. In fact, it's absolutely huge. That was the first thing we noticed about the new Toledo when SEAT offered us the opportunity to climb behind the wheel of the Madrid Motor Show star for a special first drive.

The newcomer previews the look of the production version of the saloon, due here next year. And in a striking break from convention, SEAT is plugging the Toledo as a roomier, more practical alternative to its MPV sibling, the Altea, with which it shares a platform.

In fact, the SEAT is so large that it's set to rival the likes of the Ford Mondeo, Vauxhall Vectra and new Peugeot 407. But is bigger actually better?

For a four-door, the Toledo's bulky styling is controversial to say the least. SEAT chief of design Steve Lewis told us the car was originally conceived as an Altea with a boot. And that's pretty much how it looks. But while the Altea has a smooth-sloping tail, the Toledo's stepped rear hatch won't appeal to all.

Lewis believes this unconventional design is suited to the Toledo's target market. He admitted, though: "We may lose some more traditional customers who prefer a standard saloon shape. But we can make up for this by attracting younger, more adventurous buyers."

And when you climb inside the Toledo, its MPV-like dimensions start to make sense. The lofty driving position provides good visibility, while the dash, which is the same as that in the Altea, is stylish and well laid out. There's acres of headroom throughout and rear seat space is a match for any large family car - impressive given that the Toledo is built on the new VW Golf platform. This feeling of room is enhanced by the full-length tinted glass roof, which is one of many clever features showcased on the Toledo Prototipo. Another is the use of a durable, rubber-based fabric on the floor instead of carpets.

But the newcomer's best feature is its huge, flexible boot space. The Toledo is 200mm longer than the Altea, which gives 25 per cent more luggage capacity - 500 litres in total. And there is a clever false floor which can be set to one of three positions and includes a removable dividing tray to stop shopping sliding around in the back.

Sadly, this feature - as well as the glass roof and the new floor material - won't be available when the Toledo is launched, although it could appear in the next three years as the innovations are developed for production use.

Also, the road car won't come with the two-tone paint on our model and will feature five seats instead of four. Otherwise, the production Toledo will be virtually identical to the concept - and this is a good thing, because our initial driving impressions are positive.

Although we were unable to put the prototype through the rigours of a thorough test drive, our time at the wheel revealed that, despite its size, the SEAT feels sporty, with the economical 2.0-litre FSI direct-injection petrol engine responsive and free revving.

When the Toledo goes on sale early next year, from around £14,000, other engines will include a 1.6-litre petrol and a choice of 1.9 and 2.0-litre diesels.

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