The Conundrum of SEAT – the Volkswagen with a Spanish Accent
2007 SEAT Altea Freetrack
VW group has great plans to continue its global success story, spurred on by its Volkswagen and Audi marques winning over new customers and markets. Backing them up is Skoda, its Czech arm which caters to more value-conscious motorists, and the enigmatic SEAT.
I say enigmatic because no-one seems quite that sure what Seat represents. In case you haven’t heard of it, SEAT (officially pronounced Say-at) is VW’s Spanish-based marque. Its acronym stands for Sociedad Española de Automóviles de Turismo, the Spanish Private Car Company.
SEAT has been fully owned by VW since 1990. Prior to 1990, it had a few years of independence, having up to 1981 being intimately linked to Fiat of Italy. In earlier times it manufactured a range of that company’s vehicles, some with significant Spanish design input, and mostly small and rear-engined.
SEAT vehicles in the 1980s did well across Europe based largely on their low price, Spanish car factories being considerably cheaper places to assemble cars than places like Germany. SEAT also deployed some successful sales gimmicks, making much of styling by Giugiaro of Italy, and promoting a range of Porsche-designed engines, which led to early versions of the SEAT Ibiza hatchback being sold with prominent “System Porsche” stickers although their little 1200cc and 1500cc powerplants hardly set the track on fire.
The growing success of Skoda as VW’s low-priced brand, however, has forced a gradual change of tack at SEAT, in favour of a sportier image. Models which didn’t fit the brand image, like the Arosa city car and the Inca van, have simply been dumped without replacement.
The company has instead concentrated on offering a slightly sportier take on mainstream VW platforms and mechanicals, as well as imposing a corporate look to its styling. So much so that – with the exception of the rather dumpy Ibiza small hatchback and the ancient Alhambra MPV – all the company’s models now look so similar it is hard to tell them apart.
The best of the bunch is undoubtedly the Ford Focus-sized Leon hatchback, which has low and aggressive styling hiding what are largely VW Golf underpinnings. Particularly in its hotter 197bhp FR and 237bhp Cupra versions, these are undoubtedly very desirable hot hatches indeed.
Unfortunately the car’s impact is severely diluted by it being so easily confused with other less desirable models in the line-up. First up is a small MPV, the Altea, which looks like a slightly taller Leon and has little more room inside, prompting the recent launch of another slightly stretched clone, this time called the Altea XL. There’s also a “soft roader” version, the Altea Freetrack 4, which does at least look a little more distinctive with its jacked-up stance and huge black plastic bumpers.
The biggest missed opportunity of the range, though, is Seat’s flagship, the Toledo. In its first generation, based on the VW Jetta, the Toledo was the first Seat to be taken seriously, and the second generation model was a really handsome and successful sporting saloon.
The latest Toledo is more or less an Altea with a giant rear bustle which makes it look ungainly from almost every angle. Doubtless it’s a fine enough car to drive, with VW mechanicals and build quality, but who on earth would want to be seen in such a thing? Buyers have stayed away in droves.
At this year’s Frankfurt Motor Show, a possible new direction for Seat was signalled with the unveiling of the Tribu SUV concept. This is the first model wholly designed by new SEAT Design Director Luc Donckerwolke and his team since his arrival from VW’s Lamborghini division.
Any injection of Lamborghini brio into Seat could well be good news. While no beauty the Tribu does introduce some new design themes for future SEATs, notably the trapezoidal shape of the headlamps, grille and air vents, and the new grille-mesh design. Let’s just hope this time they remember not to make the cars look quite so identical to each other.
The other question is whether SEAT will remain a brand with most of its volume confined to Europe, with a few small pockets of sales worldwide. Sharing so many genes with VW and Audi the next generation of cars should be able to compete in a global market. While the potentially silly name to English speakers hasn’t put off buyers in the UK, where the brand is a modest success, would it work in North America I wonder?
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