No major changes from SEAT with the midlife facelift of its five-year-old Alhambra MPV, but when the company got this big, smart people-mover so right first time around, why bother risking all its good work with a comprehensive overhaul?
In the Metal:
As big MPVs go - and accepting that if you're going to try and build something to carry seven people plus some cargo, then your designers haven't got a lot of room for manoeuvre - the SEAT Alhambra is a stylish contrivance. The changes for the 2016MY amount to a new grille, LED rear light clusters, fresh alloy wheel designs and the introduction of two colours, Romance Red and Urano Grey. Inside, the upholstery and dashboard trims get a going over, while the steering wheel and instrument cluster are also revised. Connectivity is improved with Full Link (covering MirrorLink, Apple CarPlay and Google Android compatibility) and the SEAT ConnectApp, all of which are controlled via the on-board 6.5-inch colour touchscreen. The net outcome of all these improvements is a large people carrier that looks understated yet handsome on the outside, while being pragmatic, finely finished and attractive enough inside too.
But, it's not the aesthetic of the cabin that wins acclaim, more the simplistic brilliance of its seat/luggage capacity configurations. Nothing has changed from the pre-facelift model but that means you get the fully individually sliding and adjustable middle row of seats, two rear chairs that fold out of the boot floor in a rapid-fire two-stage process and a cargo area that approaches the vast when all the seats are stowed away. Best of all is the fact the Alhambra still has a useable boot when seven people are on board, at 267 litres, and the electrically sliding side doors/opening boot make life much easier for parents trying to load errant children and murderous folding pushchairs into the SEAT - bear in mind, though, that these remain an expensive option for the Alhambra.
The range across Europe consists of one petrol and one 2.0-litre TDI diesel engine, though the former is unlikely to come to Ireland - no bad thing, as it's a 1.4-litre TSI 150hp/250Nm unit that's a bit lost in a 1.75-tonne MPV. The diesel engine is offered in two power outputs. However, in Ireland, we had a 115hp and 140hp model previously and it looks like the first of these has been discontinued by SEAT. Which means the two we're left with are the 150- and the 184hp engines. The most popular base version now produces 150hp and 340Nm, representing increases of 10hp and 20Nm respectively. There's an Alhambra with the 184hp/380Nm figures of a Volkswagen Golf GTD, which will be a fair price walk from this 150hp model if confirmed for Ireland. If it does come here, we think it might be worth the premium, and we'll explain why.
Whichever TDI Alhambra you pick, it will be brilliant at the simple act of transporting you and your offspring around in total comfort. The ride is great. The body control is great (meaning little roll and therefore less chance of the kids vomiting all over the rear seats). The suppression of wind noise, tyre roar and engine grumble are all great. The steering is nice and positive without being sparkling, the brakes are unobtrusively good and the six-speed manual gearbox is a delight to work with; you can have a DSG dual-clutch item on all engines, but to be honest we don't think it's worth the required €2,865 as it doesn't improve either fuel economy or performance. Put succinctly, all the major controls of the Alhambra are calibrated in such a way that it becomes an absolute doddle to drive this physically large vehicle in a smooth and acceptably brisk manner that doesn't make your passengers go green about the gills. Bang on its development target, then.
Where the 184hp model just edges ahead for us is on the overall refinement of the drive. Ask for full acceleration and the 150hp model feels markedly slower and sounds a tad noisier in the midrange; this is borne out by the 184's 0-100km/h time of 8.9 seconds, a good 1.3 seconds ahead of the 150. The bigger engine's extra power and torque will make a significant difference if you actually plan to use this MPV correctly (i.e., with lots of people and luggage aboard). Their economy and emissions figures are almost identical, too. At least the best news on this score is that both 2016MY diesels are now in Band B2, saving €110 per annum over the pre-facelift Alhambra.
What you get for your Money:
Genuine space for seven adults, provided they're not all 6ft 8in tall, and that brilliant seating system with a good boot out back are backed up by a healthy standard equipment list. But, as the prices are likely to carry over from the pre-facelift models, it will place the Alhambra in the upper echelons of the large MPV sector in terms of cost. It is cheaper than a spec-for-spec, almost identical Volkswagen Sharan (which has just been facelifted too, but not confirmed for Ireland) and about comparable with either of Ford's big people movers (Galaxy and S-Max), but conversely it is quite a lot more than Citroen's excellent Grand C4 Picasso or the Kia Carens.
Trims in Ireland should remain at S and SE, although an SE Lux is on the cards in other markets; we hope that comes to Ireland, as it's a suitably luxurious package. Base cars come with 16-inch alloys, the Media System Plus with Bluetooth/USB connectivity and an eight-speaker stereo system, three-zone climate control, all-round parking sensors and some safety gadgets in the form of Hill Hold Control, Automatic Post-Collision Braking System and Tiredness Recognition. Stepping up to SE adds 17-inch wheels, cruise control, auto lights and wipers and a few convenience goodies (folding door mirrors with puddle lights, front fog lights with cornering function and so on). Options include satnav, a panoramic opening roof, the powered doors and tailgate, leather trim and heated front seats with a driver massage function.
Under threat from the rise of seven-seat (or 5+2-seat) SUVs, and still burdened with that slightly unfortunate perception that you look like you've given up on fun if you buy one, the large MPV sector is in decline. But there are some absolutely superb offerings in the marketplace and the SEAT Alhambra is one of the front-runners, if not the best of its type. It's not showy and the dynamics never sparkle, but for doing the job of moving lots of people and stuff about the place with the minimum of stress, it's hard to think of anything better. The Alhambra might not be cheap but, with just a few worthwhile nips and tucks here and there, this 2016MY example is worth the premium over its rivals. It's a truly excellent family machine.