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It's less expensive than the car on which it is based, but underneath, is the Seat Exeo anything more than a reheated Audi A4? Time to find out

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When is a new car not new? When it comes as the result of a piece of platform recycling. The Exeo might be Seat’s first foray into the mid-size D-segment, but it has had more than a helping hand in the process from its German in-laws Audi. Under the Seat badges and Seat Ibiza-esque nose, the Exeo is a reworking of the previous A4.

Given this, you may well question our decision to give it a full road test, but there is more to the Exeo than a simple change of name, partly in the technical alterations, but also because as a Seat the Exeo has a different role to play than in its A4 days. At prices a good £6000 or more below a current A4's, the Exeo represents refreshingly good value.

Under the Seat badges and Ibiza-esque nose, the Exeo is a reworking of the previous A4

Given the current economic climate, this could well be its most persuasive asset. Seat has kept the Exeo line-up simple, with a 2.0-litre turbodiesel engine in three states of tune (118, 141 and 168bhp) and one petrol (a 2.0 TSI with 197bhp). Saloons and ST-badge estates are on offer. Trim levels are S, SE, SE Tech, Sport and Sport Tech. Saloons and ST-badge estates are on offer, as are S, SE and Sport trim levels. On test here is the mid-power 2.0 TDI 143 saloon (the number relates to the metric hp) in Sport trim.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Audi A4-inspired Seat Exeo

The A4 roots in the Exeo are obvious to anyone who knows cars, and no amount of Seat-isation at the nose and tail can disguise the very Audi-esque flanks and roofline whose forms don't tally with any other current Seat designs.

That said, the visual rebranding has resulted in a decent-looking car, although meeting the latest pedestrian impact regulations, which the A4 pre-dated, required a re-engineering of the front end. In profile the newly-elevated bonnet sits slightly uncomfortably with the Exeo’s otherwise crisp, clean lines.

The visual rebranding has resulted in a decent-looking car

A 2012 facelift introduced new bi-xenon headlights and daytime running lights to the Exeo, bringing its visage in line with the Seat Ibiza and third-generation Seat Leon. New wheel designs and upgraded interior trim were also incorporated into the mid-life refresh.

Despite Seat’s best efforts to disguise the Exeo’s roots, at 4661mm long and 1772mm wide the Exeo is noticeably smaller than the current crop of mainstream and premium saloons, particularly the 183mm longer and 114mm wider Mondeo. Cars have grown since the original version of the root A4 was launched in 2001.

INTERIOR

Seat Exeo dashboard

If the exterior of the Seat Exeo left you in any doubt of its Audi roots, the cabin should jog your memory. Other than the steering wheel badge and a gear lever of a subtly different shape, the Exeo cabin is pure Audi A4 – or, more precisely, A4 Cabriolet.

Given the plaudits lauded at the A4 for the quality and ergonomics of its cabin, Seat’s decision not to mess with a winning formula seems sound. But while the ergonomics are still (mostly) excellent and the cabin construction very robust, the design is a little dated. Whether that will matter is down to individual taste; some here felt it missed the flair and intricacy of some rivals, while others appreciated its simplicity.

The Exeo's cabin is a little dated, but the ergonomics are mostly excellent

The driving seat, which in the case of our test car was cloth-finished (leather is optional), offers good support, and along with the reach and rake-adjustable steering wheel caters for a wide variety of shapes. If there is a grumble it is that the driving position is slightly offset, although the problem here is nowhere near as poor as in the current-shape A4.

Accommodation for rear-seat passengers is perfectly acceptable if not quite as spacious as the current crop of saloons; likewise the Seat’s smaller dimensions mean that its 460-litre boot capacity trails all but the Citroën C5 saloon. Higher-end Exeo models get an ‘acoustic’ windscreen which improves sound deadening. This feature, coupled with tall gear ratios and a refined engine, make the Exeo a quiet, relaxed tourer, with minimal wind or engine noise. Given this, it is a shame that the stereo isn’t better; it has an impressive eight speakers, but its sound quality falls short on definition.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

2.0-litre Seat Exeo diesel engine

Although the Exeo is clearly very closely related to the old A4 (Seat calculates that 70 percent of the components are shared), there are clear mechanical differences. The most notable is the 2.0 TDI engine, a common-rail unit used across the VW Group brands but never found in the old A4, which instead employed pumpe düse technology. As in its other applications, this 2.0-litre diesel impresses with its refinement and linearity of torque delivery.

This is an engine that will dish out traditional turbodiesel-style whoosh if you so desire, but it doesn’t need to be driven that way. Such is the spread of torque and precision of accelerator response that it is easy to access just the right amount of propulsion. All out, 0-60mph takes 9.1sec and the real-world measure of 30-70mph is dispatched in 8.8sec. In both respects this is quicker than the figures we recorded for the current A4 2.0 TDI with the same engine.

The gearchange quality is an area where the Exeo tops the current offering from Audi

This is partly explained by the Exeo’s 80kg weight advantage, but also some cannily chosen gear ratios. First through fourth are broadly in line with the Audi’s, giving keen performance, while fifth and sixth are markedly taller for quieter cruising and better fuel economy.

The gearchange quality is another area where the Exeo tops the current offering from Audi; the movement is precise and pleasantly mechanical, but smooth-shifting and ideally weighted. It’s disappointing, then, that on one of the two Exeos we sampled the clutch produced an occasional vibration as the plates engaged, particularly in reverse.

All Exeos get disc brakes all round, complete with ABS, EBD, and EBA. Disc sizes vary with model, rising to 320mm/288mm for the 2.0 TSI, although the smaller units fitted to our 2.0 TDI proved more than up to the job during our measured stops; a dry stopping distance of 45.8m from 70mph is bang on the money for a VW Group car, slightly bettering the Mk6 Golf, if not quite matching the new A4. The Exeo’s performance in our wet tests actually betters its group counterparts. In less extreme use, though, the Seat’s middle pedal impresses less, having inherited the Audi tendency for a period of dead travel followed by an overly sharp initial bite.

RIDE & HANDLING

Seat Exeo hard cornering

While the suspension hardware front and rear is carried over from the A4, Seat has tweaked the spring, damper and anti-roll bar settings in an effort to give the Exeo a character of its own. Furthermore, Exeos in Sport trim offer lowered ride height and stiffer suspension as a non-cost option, while the 168bhp diesel and the single petrol model get Audi’s Servotronic speed-dependent power steering.

If you’d asked us to name the potential downsides of a recycled Audi A4 before we’d driven the Exeo, compromised ride and handling would have topped the list. Although it did improve during its life cycle, the old A4 was consistently bugged by its longitudinally arranged forward-set engine, producing nose-heavy handling and an unsettled ride. While Seat hasn’t exactly effected a complete transformation, the changes it has made to the suspension settings have improved matters considerably. The primary driving characteristics are still recognisable as that of an Audi, but one with fewer concessions.

Exeos in Sport trim offer lowered ride height and stiffer suspension

Exeos come with a range of wheel sizes, from 16in to 18in, and on two different chassis settings. In line with Seat’s positioning as the sports brand within the VW roster, we selected an Exeo in Sport trim, meaning a lowered, stiffer suspension and 18in wheels as standard. At town speeds the ride is relatively firm, with road scars and ironwork causing displacement not only in the wheel but also in the vehicle body, and while things improve with speed, there remains unwanted movement over disturbances such as motorway expansion joints.

What rescues the Exeo is that this movement is sufficiently damped to avoid becoming harsh or unsettling and, crucially, the Exeo doesn’t suffer from the A4’s high-speed vertical bobbing.

Although the Exeo’s enthusiasm for corners doesn’t match that of the class-leading Mondeo, it is well controlled and keener to turn in than we remember it being in Audi guise. There is grip and composure, and the hydraulic (non-Servotronic) steering’s accuracy and consistent weighting (another surprise, given its origin) makes it easy to place the car.

Does this make it the ‘sporty’ car that Seat would like to have us believe? Not really. Instead the Exeo is easy and intuitive to drive, stable at speed and, for the most part, comfy.

We also tried an SE model and although the ride was improved, it wasn’t significantly better, and the trade-off was noticeably less composure at speed.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Seat Exeo 2009-2013

Seat's pricing and kit list for the Exeo look tempting. The S model offers alloys, six airbags, dual climate control and cruise control for around £2500 less than the cheapest diesel Mondeo, and the forecast residuals are strong.

The cost to trade up to an SE seems worth it for improved interior trim, rear parking sensors and the ‘acoustic’ windscreen, while Sport models, with larger wheels and lowered ride height, cost more again.

Private buyers might find the insurance groupings a sticking point

However, private buyers might find the insurance groupings, which are higher than those for mainstream rivals, a sticking point.

Over mixed driving our Exeo averaged a slightly disappointing 35.7mpg, but the tall sixth gear resulted in a much more acceptable 51.9mpg over our touring route. The facelifted Exeo should improve on this; Seat claims a boost in combined fuel consumption from 51.4mpg to 58.9mpg. CO2 emissions have dropped from 139g/km to 129g/km.

VERDICT

3.5 star Seat Exeo

For what it is – a quick fix – the Exeo project is not without merit. Although not flawless, the previous-generation A4 was mainly a good car and the changes Seat has made for the Exeo build on this.

The common-rail diesel brings performance, economy and refinement, while the Exeo’s mix of ride and handling betters that of the Audi original.

For what it is – a quick fix – the Exeo project is not without merit

There is no hiding from the fact that aspects of the Exeo, and in particular the cabin, are dated, but the quality of materials and construction remains and the simplicity of the design isn’t without charm.

Similarly the Exeo’s proportions can be viewed in both positive and negative lights.

While the Exeo doesn’t revolutionise the market, this doesn’t stop it from being a good car with few real faults and an attractive price. Right now, that could be all that Seat needs to do.

Seat Exeo 2009-2013 First drives