Anyone Fancy a Cheap Old Audi Made in Spain?
By Andy Bannister
In an unusual bid to win over cost-conscious executive car buyers in Europe, SEAT of Spain is getting a helping hand from its German sister Audi, in the shape of a lightly restyled version of the outgoing Audi A4.
This is a return to former habits for SEAT, which before it was purchased by the Volkswagen Group was a budget make best known for building thinly-disguised obsolete Fiats.
Prestige brands are usually less keen for their old designs to live on in different formats, so it’s is an interesting departure for Audi as well. The deal is probably more about politics within Volkswagen
rather than setting a precedent, so don’t expect to see a SEAT version of the A6 or A8 in the future.
No doubt a positive gloss will be put on the departure, but a certain desperation is evident too. The truth is that SEAT has always struggled with building its own identity within the Volkswagen empire and is still a weak brand.
VW doesn’t need two budget marques, and Skoda has already got that niche nicely sewn up, leaving SEAT trying to position itself as a junior sporty brand. This is despite in the past offering a confusing line-up of models ranging from MPVs to a minicar and even a van.
In December SEAT will launch its new Exeo saloon with great fanfare. There will, however, be no denying it is nothing more than the outgoing Audi A4 with a nose and tail job. An estate car will also follow, based on the A4 Avant. Both will take the Spanish marque into previously uncharted territory.
The production line is being transferred from Germany, where a new A4 is already being made. Given that the old A4 was a huge global hit, this seems like a winning bet for SEAT, which will no doubt price the car well under Audi tariffs – ironically, one competitor will be Skoda’s recently launched large car, the second-generation Superb.
Taking over a proven German design apparently largely unchanged should also boost the perceived quality of the whole SEAT line-up. Despite lots of previous attempts to convince buyers it is up there with the continent’s best, is still not seen an upscale brand and also suffers from a poor dealer network in some countries.
An injection of new staff from elsewhere in the VW empire is behind this change of tack, with Audi supplying both SEAT’s new Chairman and the Head of R&D. They are charged with turning round recent losses and dealing with stagnating sales.
The company’s current flagship is the bizarre Toledo, best described as a tall MPV with an ungainly rear bustle, guaranteeing it appears inelegant from every possible angle. It is roomy and reasonably well built, but its looks have not attracted buyers, and sales have been dreadful.
As well as giving SEAT a decent top model for the first time, the extra sales the Exeo could generate are desperately needed if SEAT is to meet its ambitious goal of doubling production by 2012.
The brand needs to step up its performance right across Europe – by far its biggest market – but may struggle in view of the current slowdown, which has hit the company’s core Spanish homeland very badly. SEAT also desperately needs to make greater impact in global markets where its name is hardly known.
It already has an impressive small hatchback, the fourth-generation Ibiza, newly on sale, and a small soft-roader coming. Recent TV commercials have been trying to pitch the company as much funkier and design-led.
This was the Marbella, a hopelessly outmoded version of the 1980 Fiat Panda which had to be sold at give-away prices. Memories of this car make the company’s dealers today cringe with embarrassment.
Exeo also marks a change of policy for SEAT, which has previously named its cars after Spanish geographical locations. The chosen name is a good indication of the high hopes the company has for its new model – Exeo is derived from the Latin word “exire”, which means to go beyond.
COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved