A Week in the (Not So) Hot Seat

By Andy Bannister

01.27.2009

I’ve just come back from a trip to the Spanish Atlantic island of Gran Canaria, where I spent a week negotiating hairpin bends in what should be that most quintessential of cars made in Spain, a Seat Ibiza.

For those who don’t recognise the name, Seat (it is really an acronym, SEAT, meaning Sociedad Española de Automóviles de Turismo) is the most obscure brand in the Volkswagen family, being little known outside Europe. Its values are (I think) supposed to be sporty affordability.

My transport was an example of the newly-launched (fourth-generation) Ibiza, a surprisingly large five door hatchback with a rather feeble 1.2-litre engine. Seat’s current styling theme for the Ibiza is based on rather odd upward and downward body creases, which may look good on a bright red show car with fat alloy wheels, but looked slightly incongruous on a black-painted hire car with skinny tyres and plastic wheel trims.

Inside the Ibiza appears to be single-handedly keeping the plastic moulding manufacturers of Spain in business, with a relentless slab of black plastic with a grey plastic insert being the dominant feature of the dashboard in what is one of the least attractive modern cabins I’ve been in for a while. Rivals like the Opel Corsa and the new Ford Fiesta are streets ahead.

This all got me wondering a little bit what the purpose of Seat really is. The Ibiza shares many mechanical components with two other group siblings, the Volkswagen Polo and Skoda Fabia, both of which to my mind are more attractive cars.

Seat’s heritage is rather a strange one, as it started life effectively as Fiat Spain, and for decades made tiny little Italo-Spanish runabouts. They were cheap to buy and had minimal creature comforts, and were certainly not the most reliable cars on the road, but were full of character.

The company was actually founded in 1949 on the orders of Spain’s fascist dictator, General Franco, a contemporary of Hitler and Mussolini. He somehow clung to power until the mid-1970s, preserving Spanish society and industrial development in a suspended animation which the country managed to vigorously shake off so quickly that it is now a leading player in the European Union, with liberal attitudes that must have Franco spinning in his tomb.

Fiat was delighted to be chosen as state-controlled Seat’s partner, giving it privileged access to the effectively closed Spanish market, and the first Seat to be produced was a local version of the Fiat 1400. Production was soon ramped up, with Seat-badged versions of the Fiat 600, 550, 1500 and the later 124, 127 and 132 following. Many Seats were exported under the Fiat badge to top up Italian output.

Something occasionally happened under the hot Spanish sun, with Seat developing local bodystyles – four-door versions of the little 600 and 850, for example. In 1974 came the company’s very own 133 model, which was the first Seat home-grown design sold as a Fiat in other markets. It was remarkable chiefly as one of the very last cars to be designed with a rear-engine layout, and soldiered on until 1980, selling well in Spain.

With Fiat in trouble at the end of the 1970s, and the market opening up to competition, the Italians bailed out of Spain and – after a brief period of independence based on some hastily-cobbled together local designs, like the first-generation Ibiza, VW bought into the company before taking full ownership in 1990.

Seat, with its low-cost labour force and line up of small cars, should logically have continued as the Fiat-rivalling bargain-basement marque of the VW Group. Unfortunately it unexpectedly acquired some fierce in-house competition in the shape of Skoda, another VW buy. The Czech brand filled this niche perfectly, leaving Seat in search of a new role.

Since then, the company has changed course several times, abandoning both its Arosa minicar and Inca van without replacement. This has cut off a fair proportion of likely Spanish sales, leaving customers struggling to differentiate between a line-up of too-similar mid-size models like the Leon, Altea (shown) and the Toledo, all of which in their present incarnations have somewhat questionable styling.

Seat’s latest departure has been the launch of the Exeo, a thinly-disguised version of the last-generation Audi A4, taking the company back to its badge-engineering roots. Despite this obvious image handicap, the Exeo is seriously intended to push Seat into comparison with much more exalted brands like Alfa Romeo.

The truth is, though, even Spaniards don’t buy that many Seats anymore. In 2008, just over 102,000 units were sold on the home market, down a whopping 27% (thanks to Spain being the most severely hit of any major market by the economic downturn). Seat sales were behind the market-leader, Ford, with both Peugeot and Citroën also ahead, and Renault only just behind Seat.

Across Europe, the company is an also-ran, selling fewer cars than Nissan and only slightly more than Suzuki and Honda.

Curiously, Seat also has failed to capitalise on the apparent potential of trading on its roots in markets with strong Hispanic links, such as Latin America. North American sales never seem to have been seriously complicated (would Americans buy a car which sounds like a chair, even if it is correctly pronounced say-at?)

Back to my Ibiza then. As a holiday hire car it did the job efficiently in many ways. It swallowed two large suitcases without needing to fold the seats down, it was comfortable enough to drive and started without a murmur, and certainly didn’t attract unwanted attention.

The puny engine struggled, of course, on the island’s gradients, and while the car handled the often difficult rural roads with competence and safety, I certainly wouldn’t call it fun to drive, or particularly wieldy. In the narrow streets of Gran Canaria, where parking spaces are at a premium and roads are frighteningly narrow, the car was a bit too large and wide to be a really useful, especially for an entry-level model.

No doubt one of the more comprehensively equipped, more powerful Ibizas would have left a better impression. But for Seat to position itself as a sporty brand then I’d expect every one of its range to offer a bit more than average.

Truth is, a few days after my return and I’ve more or less forgotten the Ibiza already, apart from that eyesore of a dashboard and the odd feeling every time I caught sight of those body creases that I’d accidentally dented it without noticing.

Being forgettable is certainly not something I’d accuse my last Seat hire car of being. About 15 years ago, I spent a fortnight driving around Bulgaria in a Seat Marbella. At the time it was what passed for a modern car in that country, where Russian Ladas and Moskviches ruled the roost.

The Marbella had a 900cc engine and was a thinly-disguised evolution of the 1980 Fiat Panda, a very low-priced utility car.

With painted metal everywhere inside, wafer-thin seats, almost non-existent instrumentation, a haphazard gearbox and alarming body roll, as well as suspension ill-suited to pock-marked Balkan roads, the Marbella was a somewhat challenging vehicle to pilot.

Somehow, despite all those faults, its rustic charm and simplicity grew more appealing with every day I had it. I still smile on the rare occasions I see one today.

I doubt anyone will have the same affection for an Ibiza, and that’s a pity, for Seat and for Spain.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: Andy Bannister

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4 Comments

  1. Interesting article-as you drove cheapest of cheap rental car special you can’t expect too much power or luxury.The really cool seats are at the top of the range,where you can find,say a Golf GTI clone for thousands less.The great part of VW owning Skoda And Seat is all come from the same high Quality gene pool-so you can cross shop and save.

  2. What Seat should be is a youth brand, a European Scion with style.

  3. Seat was tried and died in Australia (again) in the 90’s. They failed because the VW product on which they were based was superior and didn’t cost much more. The quirky styling (reminiscent of Izuzu in the 80’s) didn’t help either. Now Skoda are here with a similar suite of product but unlike Seat they are loaded to the gunnels with ‘features’ such that they compete with the mid spec VW & Audi offerings on features but come in at just below the base model price…and they make no secret of the VW underpinnings. Combined with conventional styling….it seems to be working.

  4. I agree with Seano, Skoda has the winning formula with the VW parts bin. SEAT has not figured out the formula like Skoda has. I’d plump for a Skoda over a SEAT every day.

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