Spanish brand has an ambitious recovery plan; read it here first
22 November 2007

The Volkswagen Group’s top brass may currently be concerned with the imminent takeover of Porsche, but its accountants will be occupied with the performance of its Spanish subsidiary Seat.Loss-making in 2005 and 2006 and suffering stagnant sales this year, Seat has recently been prescribed fresh, German-dominated management, a revised product plan and a new design centre. The long-term goal is to double production to 800,000 units by 2012. Will it work? Read on to find out.

New men at the helm

VW has parachuted in three key German execs to Seat’s executive board: chairman Eric Schmitt, R&D head Frank Bekemeier and sales boss Berthold Kruger – plus Belgian design chief Luc Donckerwolke, formerly of Lamborghini.Schmitt is the key man, and his leadership will be measured on whether Seat gets back to profitability and hits its new production peak. Both Schmitt and Bekemeier are ex-Audi and know Seat from previous stints at the company.

New designs on the drawing board

Design will be a big theme in Seat’s revival, and Luc Donckerwolke has been hooked out of Lamborghini to bring controlled creativity to a company whose new products have veered from the sublime (Leon) to the ridiculous (Toledo). The design theme established in 2000 by Walter Da Silva will largely stay. “I’m not going to change everything, that’s not my style,” says Donckerwolke. Details will change, however, and we’ve seen the brand’s new flavour with the Tribu 4x4 concept, which introduces Audi A8-style air intakes. Dominant on the Tribu, they’ll be scaled down on the new Ibiza supermini, Donckerwolke’s first production Seat.A key detail for future Seats will continue to be the downward curving bodyside feature line, most obvious on today’s Leon. The execution will change, however, with the line appearing in more subtle form.Donckerwolke is very keen that all future Seats designs have “higher quality”. By that he means the way the cars’ proportions and details are better realised: “We will do much better in quality in future.”

A new design studio

Donckerwolke has also overhauled Seat’s design team, closing down the Sitges studio, sited in an artist’s colony on the Barcelona coast, to concentrate design in a new-build studio at the Martorell factory. “We were wasting so much time driving to Sitges and back,” he says.His team has been trimmed down, too, many of the Sitges team leaving for posts elsewhere in VW Group.The new studio is a workmanlike creative centre, with designers looking directly onto a modelling area with five ‘plates’ where the whole future Seat range can be modelled in clay and viewed in its entirety.Donckerwolke won’t criticise the previous design set-up, but there’s clearly a sense that the company has lacked creative focus.

And the new models

The heart of any car company is the new model plan and Seat’s is getting a work over. The strange proliferation of similar MPVs - Toledo, Altea, Altea XL - will start to be sorted out next year when the new Bolero saloon arrives. Seat won’t admit it yet, but the Bolero saloon will eventually replace the Toledo. A rakish estate version will also move Seat closer to its sporty target market.A new realism is coming to product development, too. Teaser concepts like the Tango two-seater that was created without a production future are unlikely to happen again. And R&D boss Bekemeier has stated that all new models have to be profitable: “The three biggest sports car markets are the US, Japan and the UK. Seat sells in only one of those. We need to find models that make financial sense in Europe.”The Tribu soft-roader is an obvious such model. There are also signs that a compact three-door coupe is being considered to push Seat into an affordable segment that’s not had a distinguished model since the demise of the Ford Puma. A concept at Geneva is possible.Donckerwolke even suggests that the bold styling of the coupe – seen under a silk at the new design centre opening – could influence the next Alhambra MPV.“Its easier to try out design ideas on a fresh design rather than a production model. Preconceived ideas about what a car should look like can affect creativity.”Seat is also part of the Up project to create new affordable models for VW and Skoda. The spiritual successor to the Arosa – hence its ‘Ros’ name – is at least three years away. But it will be a more convincing entry-level hatch than the Polo-derived Arosa and by then Seat’s new design language should be well practiced.

Seat’s new five year model plan

Small coupe concept - due March 2008 (Geneva)New Ibiza 5dr - due Sept 2008New Ibiza 3dr - due Feb 2009New Bolero saloon - due June 2009Leon facelift - due mid 2009New Alhambra MPV - due Oct 2009Tribu soft-roader - due early 2010Ros city car - due early 2011All new Leon - due late 2011New Altea - due early 2012

Julian Rendell

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Comments
3

23 November 2007

As a long term owner and fan of the SEAT brand, now on my 4th SEAT and 3rd Leon. I am very pleased to read that the company is making a sustained attempt to change it's approach to the design of it's future models. Though the company as a whole has been making losses, the UK arm of SEAT have in recent years been very successful. The motorsport campaign has certainly raised their profile in the public psyche, but the business can't survive on the sporty models alone. I am glad to see SEAT moving back to a varied mix of vehicle sectors, with saloons, estates, 4x4, supermini's and coupes all in focus for future development. I have recently bought a New Leon Cupra, and as your article points out the Leon is likely the best of a bad bunch in terms of the current designs that have come out of the company recently. Though technically the new car is streets ahead of the car it's replaced it has been received by many with what I can only describe as a touch of the Marmites. The older Leon Cupra R in particular was a very striking hatchback. To be fair to SEAT I personally love the new car every bit as much as my previous Leon's. I would say it's shape is unique in terms of other manufacturers in the same segment. However the car's perception by the public may of been harmed by the launch of the Altea before it and the subsequent raft of MPV-alikes that followed it. The Toledo being the worst of all. If Luc Donckerwolke and his design team with the support of the new Audi sourced suits can turn the business around and make it half as successful as Audi itself has been in recent years. I'll be a happy customer, I look forward to seeing what the future brings.

23 November 2007

My understanding of the SEAT brand within the VAG group is as the sporting brand of the mainstream models. While they have access to the best bits from the VAG parts bin and often get first refusal on them, I can't help looking at them and thinking they have gone down a design cul de sac.

Most of the models are styled as MPV's/mini MPV's, rather then sporting models. I much prefer the look of the previous Leon to the current one, for example.

The biggest success story of recent times within the VAG group has to be Skoda, which is supposed to be the budget brand within the group, but regularily receives rave reviews highlighting the better fit and finish compared to other group companies.

I hope the SEAT top brass can come up with package of changes to save the brand from obscurity before it's too late, as I am fond of the previous range of cars to the current ones.

One point to make is the dash architecture needs desperate attention.

27 November 2007

Yep, that's right the thing that is putting us off buying SEATs is the design. Between my wife and myself there are 2 car cars that I WANT to buy from the current range. But I won't.

I love the idea that they are stealth VWs, that you can get all of the best bits without the associated price tag. What I didn't like was the 8 weeks my car sat in the dealership while they sorted the external temp gauge (replacing instrument pack, ecu, immobiliser in the process), the unresolved faults on my wife's car (resolved when I took it to an independent) and the generally shoddy way they went about their business (including bleating about margins on warranty work)

Until SEAT can sort out the dealerships, I will continue to take my cash elsewhere.

Ben
(Previously a Leon Cupra owner, wife currently owns an Ibiza)

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