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