Seat Spruces Up Toledo With New TDi Engine

It's official: The Toledo, Seat's answer to the VW Golf, has entered middle-age. And as is usual with middle-aged cars, it has received some rejuvenating treatment. One is a mild cosmetic cheering up, the other, a brilliant new engine -- the 1.9 TDI turbodiesel from the Golf.

This Mondeo-class hatchback was always great value, but now that all models in the nine-car line-up amazingly include dual airbags and air conditioning, it's even more of a catch. Seat is making the bold claim that equipment levels in the invigorated Toledo range are unmatched by any class rival. It's difficult to contest this in view of the air conditioning, twin airbags, remote central locking, electric windows and door mirrors, power steering, electric sunroof and six-speaker stereo that are standard on TDi models.

Visual changes comprise bigger, smoother bumpers, a deeper front air dam with larger vents and sleeker nose treatment with an enlarged grille. Around the back you find two-tone lamp lenses, a high level brake light and a more steeply raked rear spoiler.

But more importantly the super-efficient TDi engine has found its way under the Spanish hood. It makes the Toledo easily capable of beating "normal" turbodiesel economy by between 15 and 20 percent. If you fancy a 1,400-kilometer trip on a single tankful, Seat's latest Toledo can apparently deliver it.

The Toledo presents TDi power in two guises: the ?12,895 ($19,780) TDi SE tested here, and the ABS-equipped SXE model costing ?13,795 ($21,161).

Jump inside the refurbished Seat and you'll find dark plastic trim, fortunately relieved by smart smoked-gray plastic inserts on the dashboard. The pleasant, modern facia is home to some recognizably chunky VW-type switchgear and stalks, and although its layout is good (excepting one or two switches hidden by the wheel rim), the instrument binnacle and its dials are surprisingly small and cramped.

Sportily shaped, supportive seats are tastefully upholstered, but that's not enough to relieve the cabin's blackness. The driver's seat adjusts for height, although the simple mechanism tilts the seat angle annoyingly as it varies height.

You can alter the height of the front seat belts too, but not the steering wheel, which is just a touch too high, although seat adjustment helps compensate. Despite this, it's easy enough to find a comfortable driving position.

There's no denying that the Toledo's cabin is adequately spacious -- about par for the Ford Mondeo/Opel-Vauxhall Vectra class -- with a very reasonable quality of build. But that build isn't quite up to parent-company VW standards, as a few creaks and groans were evident on our test car.

Front headroom is plentiful, and as long as front seat occupants aren't long in the leg, rear legroom is fairly generous. The Toledo makes a pretty effective mover of people: You can sit three across the back seat without packing them in like sardines, and the 60/40-split folding rear seat is a comfortable one, even though it lacks up-to-date features like a lap-and-diagonal belt and headrest for the center passenger.

Drop those seat backs flat and you reveal the Toledo's greatest asset: a 545-liter luggage compartment. You'll be hard-pushed to find another trunk as huge as this in the class. If you're a regular load-shifter, Seat's biggest hatchback has to be a serious consideration.

But it's the engine we're chiefly interested in. We know from VW Golf experience that this turbocharged and intercooled 90bhp unit packs a mean punch, delivering kidney-slamming torque right from the word go. And in this respect, nothing has changed, as the Toledo TDi performance is equally impressive, and the wide spread of torque and ability to rev keenly to 4,800rpm is still there. As is the super-long gearing that gives enormously civilized motorway-speed cruising.

Yet there is a big difference between it and the Golf, and that's refinement. By comparison the Toledo is rather short on it, as it not only fires up with a tell-tale cold-diesel clatter, but that clatter never fully goes away. Worse still, at idle and low running speeds, you can feel occasional shakes and vibrations, not only through the controls but also through the body. These all smooth out swiftly when the engine is "on song," but they return, of course, as you slow down -- as does a rough edge to the engine's tone.

None of this is very serious, it's just that the TDI engine installed in VWs and Audis offers such smoothness that it comes as a surprise. The Seat's gearchange and slightly abrupt clutch also feel less classy than the Golf's: Despite a light shift there's a slightly annoying grittiness to the action, and some in-gear slop too.

The mechanical refinement may be a touch disappointing, but the Spanish car's chassis compensates. The Toledo TDi is an easy car to wield, with nimble handling and more than adequate grip. Although handling is marred by fairly keen bodyroll, this never detracts from the car's safe, corner-responsive feel. A by-product of its agility is a firmish ride which can occasionally feel jostly over small bumps, but overall the suspension is supple and comfortable, and road noise is nicely subdued.

Together with these attributes, crisp, well-weighted power steering makes the latest Toledo a pleasure to corner. But forge into a corner too fast and lift the throttle mid-bend, and you'll find it keen to lift its inside rear wheel and swing out its rear-end. Although the Toledo is a bit twitchy in this respect, this characteristic is only found in extreme conditions.

The Seat's brakes are very satisfactory, despite the pedal's initial feeling of vagueness, and its mildly spongy action.

Overall, the highly respected and very efficient Volkswagen-Audi TDI engine hasn't worn the transferral to the Seat all that well. It's noisier -- although the Toledo isn't a noisy car as such -- and there's absolutely no disguising that it's a diesel. But, the performance which it gives the Toledo is very commendable, as is the fuel economy.

So if you don't mind the sound of a diesel engine, and you're attracted by the lure of air conditioning, twin airbags and a colossal load space at a competitive price, test drive a Toledo TDi. The latest revisions definitely spruce up its image, and its driving style is more than acceptable -- in fact it's enjoyable.

Ivor Carroll is a writer for Auto Express in Britian. He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.