SEAT: Being the “Sporty Spice” of the Volkswagen Group.

Not all car brands are created equal, especially those in the mainstream market. Price, specification and running costs speak more to consumers heads than their hearts. Styling is a factor as is brand identity, but they appeal to the heart and how much stock should a company place in such a mercurial organ? Some car makers get this right, while others get lost in the crowd. French manufacturers like Renault, Peugeot and Citroen have fully embraced their heritage and this has allowed them to sell cars with an odd, yet appealing Gallic charm. Italians in contract try to appeal on the grounds of passion and emotion and this has proven less successful. Just how much passion and emotion can be imbued into a small hatchback or SUV? This brings me nicely to SEAT.

SEAT is the Spanish arm of the Volkswagen group, and unlike sisters Audi, Volkswagen and Skoda, SEAT is marketed as the most emotional brand among the quartet. On paper this looks great and it reminds me of the Spice Girls pop band with their varying degrees of spiciness. I know, I am blatantly showing my age and homosexuality here, but stay with me. You have Audi which is like Posh Spice, all classy and aloof. Then you have Volkswagen which has to be Scary Spice as they nearly destroyed the planet and then tried to lie about it! Skoda is the Baby Spice of the group, all innocent, honest and unassuming. We all know that this is the brand that could creep up and dominate whole market segments if left unchecked. That leaves SEAT as Sporty Spice then, the most overlooked member. (Before anyone tells me I am missing a Spice Girl, I'm not including Ginger Spice as she left the band and it would spoil my clever analogy).

All four car makers base their vehicles on the same platforms so under the skin they are identical, to the point where they are manufactured globally in various VAG factories, giving flexibility, economies of scale and make lots and lots of money. Take a look at the fourth-generation SEAT Leon as an example. It is very stylish, clearly taking inspiration from Lamborghini with just a hint of Audi and Porsche at the rear with that light bar. The interior is a little more restrained yet is straight out of the Volkswagen Group playbook in terms of layout. It will come with the latest range of efficient engines and there is the promise of a super exciting Cupra (SEAT's sporting division) version to give the Leon the pace to match its looks.

On paper then the Leon looks good. However, the underlying assumption is that the equivalent Audi (A3), Volkswagen (Golf) and Skoda (Octavia) will devour it in the sales charts. Granted, Audi and Volkswagen are global brands and have larger markets. But I will assert that Skoda's sales will be far higher and there is a very good reason for this. The Octavia physically is a large car that appeals to private buyers and taxi drivers alike. It forgoes the high-tech bells and whistles that VW and Audi pawn off on customers and it is the antithesis to anything sporty or emotional. It gets the job done, and it gets the job done well. I do concede that operating as a budget brand is much easier in these circumstances. The sheer size of the Volkswagen Group means Skoda can offer good cars at a cheaper price. This leaves SEAT stuck somewhere in the middle trying to offer "emotional" cars that are constrained by both brand positioning and very similar hardware.

The irony is that SEAT was a sporty brand. After Volkswagen bought them in 1990, they made a name for themselves in the World Rally Championship with their Ibiza supermini. Later, the Leon hatchback was taken touring car racing. Today, recession and electrification has forced SEAT to exit these events. Furthermore, SEAT's sports division, Cupra, has been set up as a standalone brand. This highlights the lack of confidence currently in SEAT and limits their credibility as Cupra became synonymous with SEAT because of its rallying success.

There are options. SEAT could go solo. Like Sporty Spice herself, Melanie Chisholm did after the girls went on hiatus in 2000. She proved to have a huge amount of untapped musical talent and versatility and she found her voice away from the constraints of the band. SEAT would lose access to Volkswagen platforms and infrastructure and would need a partner or another company to buy them and that is a massive risk. An alternative would be to remain in the Volkswagen Group and reposition the Cupra arm. Do something like Renault has done with Alpine. Offer sports cars that appeal to the enthusiast, perhaps launch a halo model like the R8 was for Audi. Again, I can't see the brand being strong enough achieve this and the money can be better spent elsewhere.

The reality of the situation is SEAT will be forced to remain where it is. It is not a bad position. They make good cars that are stylish. They have a sports arm that does offer fast vehicles that give customers an alternative to the German models within the group. They will never be allowed to usurp them but at least they still exist. The Leon will continue to be called the "Spanish Golf" and SEAT's legacy will be that of a company which operates within a strict collective, one that relegates it to being a backing member of the Volkswagen Group. That's fine, but it is missing the passion and emotion the company so wishes to cultivate.

 

SEAT Leon images from www.autocar.co.uk