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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: September 7, 2012 @ 12:35 pm

    Seat’s search for its soul

    Neil Briscoe

    Seat has been Volkswagen’s problem child for some time now. Across the rest of the VW Group, its brands from Volkswagen itself to Skoda, Audi, Bentley, Lamborghini and now Porsche are striding forth, expanding, growing and generally out-selling the competition. It shows what years of careful investment and the sharing of some pretty impressive mechanical packages can do. VW is on a quest for global near-domination and few would bet against it achieving just that.

    But Seat has underperformed and continues to do so. Its market shares are either flat or falling in Europe, and only recent entries into growing markets like China and South America have given VW”s Spanish brand a glimpse of success. The model range is mostly ageing and few of its cars ever live up to VW boss Ferdinand Piech’s bold claim that Seat would become a Spanish Alfa Romeo. In fact it has done just that, but only in the sense that Alfa is also suffering a massive sales miss-fire at the moment.

    The problem is that Seat doesn’t, at the moment, do anything that isn’t done better or at least equally as well by either VW or Skoda. There is no compelling reason to fall for a Seat, even though I know from personal experience that there’s nothing at all wrong, and actually quite a lot right with the cars it sells.

    But take the Alhambra people carrier. It looks pretty much identical to the VW Sharan with which it shares its mechanical package, and drives more or less identically too. It’s not a bad car, but it’s not exciting, not dynamic. Surely, you would think, the correct thing to do would have been for VW to make the staid, sensible version while Seat went off and did a lower-roof, overtly sporting Ford S-Max rival. But it didn’t, and that decision is redolent of the problems facing Seat.

    Now, the brand is embarking on a massive round of investment and new products which it hopes will re-ignite (or even just ignite for the first time) people’s passion for this Latin car maker. Seat’s brand director in Ireland, Adam Chamberlain, spoke to me about the plans recently, and was quite candid about the problems that need to be turned around:

    “I think actually that if you look at the brand it’s not that people have fallen out of love with Seat, it’s just that it hasn’t grown like the rest of the Volkswagen group. If you look back at the last seven-to-ten years, the brand has averaged around 2% market share. Unfortunately, at the current market level, that 2% makes us really struggle for sustainability, hence the drive for investment and the drive for increased performance from Spain and from the Volkswagen Group.

    “The heart of every car business has to be great product, and while I think we’ve had some successes in the past, notably the Ibiza which is performing fairly well for us, the rest of the range has been, as you say, either cloned from other VW Group products, such as the Exeo which is effectively an Audi A4, or it’s been left to age. Look at the current Leon, the car is nearly eight years old. So at the start of the offensive comes product and by the end of next year 90% of our sales here in Ireland will be from brand new products.

    “We have the Mii city car, which shares its parts with other VW Group cars but it’s still a brand new product, not an older car that was facelifted into a Seat. We will have a new Toldeo in November. Again, that car is shared with other VW Group products, but from the very start of the design it was deemed to be a Seat again. So not a cast-off, but it’s more about platform and research sharing. Next year we’ll get a new Leon, and that car will come as a five-door, a three-door and a new estate variant, so that’s a huge variation from today. That car is stand-alone, based on a new VW Group platform. “

    Hmmm. Yup, new product is significant, but once again I fear that Seat is falling into the same trap that it has done before; making cars that just aren’t different or exciting enough. The new Leon looks pretty appealing but if it drives and feels the same as a Golf, or the next generation Skoda Octavia, then what’s the point? Likewise the new Toldeo. It’s effectively the same car as the new Skoda Rapid, and while that means it will be practical, useful and affordable, the Rapid is one of the most resolutely un-sporty cars we’ve driven in years, so unless Seat’s engineers have been busy working some serious magic on the suspension and steering, then it’s just going to be another sensible but unexciting family car.

    Of course, the great unremembered problem is that that’s exactly what Seat was originally good at doing. Back in its dim and distant past, it build cheap versions of old Fiats to flog to nationalistically-minded Spanish buyers. It wasn’t a Spanish Alfa, it was a Spanish Skoda. Now, occupying the same universe as Skoda in the VW Group, Seat just hasn’t gone far enough down the road of making itself unique. And it’s a vicious cycle. The reason Skoda has been allowed by the VW accountants to invest heavily in making unique and appealing cars like the Superb and Yeti is that it’s been steadily making money. Seat has been losing cash, so it gets punished by being starved of investment. Its mid-size Mondeo rival should have been a low and sleek four-door coupe. Instead it got an old Audi A4 to re-heat and made the Exeo. Still, there may be a chink of light around the side of the door, as Adam Chamberlain explains.

    “If we look globally, the Seat brand is expanding, into China, into Mexico and into other central Asian markets. So that’s helping buffer some of the downsides of the real drastic market declines we’ve seen in southern Europe where Seat has traditionally been strong.
    We had and we have one or two great sporting icons, such as the Cupra R. But the truth is to make that sporting claim all your cars have to be overtly sporting right across the range. But to do that would have meant distancing ourselves from heartland Spain which is typically smaller cars or three box saloons which inherently aren’t that sporty.”

    Surely now though, with Seat’s traditional Spanish markets depressed anyway, there is an opportunity to break away from that cycle, a chance to draw a line in the sand beyond which Seat never builds an ordinary, dull family car again.

    Actually, there is here a point where Seat really car draw some inspiration from Alfa Romeo. Take the current Giulietta – it’s priced and performs much the same as a Golf or Ford Focus but when you sit in and look at the main dials, you see that instead of rpm, water temperature and fuel, they are labelled giri, aqua and benzina. A silly, car-nut touch, but the kind of thing that gives you a shiver of feel-good factor just for sitting behind the wheel. That’s what Seat needs to find for itself.

    Beyond that, surely there are enough car nuts around that if Seat can find a way of using VW’s expertise in efficient diesels and petrols to create a range of sharp-handling, enthusiast-oriented cars that are still affordable to buy and run, then the world could yet be beating a path to the door of its Barcelona HQ. And it can do it. The already-mentioned Leon Cupra R is a cracking hot-hatch, while the more under-the-radar Leon FR TDI diesel is almost equally so, but far more reasonable on the pocket. Cars like the Suzuki Swift Sport and Ford Mondeo prove that you don’t need big power outputs to be fun to drive, so if Seat can mix those qualities with some sexy styling and inviting interiors, then it could at last be making paella while the sun shines.

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