Concluding our retrospective on Spain’s automotive flag-carrier and the rare occasional flowering of its independent design talent.
SEAT enjoyed a period of independence between 1982 and 1986 during which it introduced the MK1 Ibiza in 1984, a Supermini that was sold alongside the outdated 127-based Fura before replacing it in 1986. A four-door saloon version, the Málaga, followed a year later in 1985. The Ibiza and Málaga were the closest SEAT ever came to producing wholly independent designs, although both still relied to a large extent on Ritmo-derived underpinnings.
The Ibiza was styled under Giorgetto Giugiaro at Italdesign. It is alleged that the design was actually Giugiaro’s proposal for the Volkswagen Golf MK2 that was rejected in favour of an in-house design. That, and the Ritmo-derived chassis, might explain why it was rather larger than the norm for Superminis at the time.
By accident or design, the Ibiza anticipated the subsequent growth in size of B-segment models. It was a modern and quite handsome car, available in three and five-door versions, with some novel features such as banks of rocker and sliding switches in pods either side of the steering wheel, which replaced conventional stalks as secondary controls.
One aspect of the design that was widely promoted was its ‘System Porsche’ engine, advertising the collaboration between SEAT and Porsche in the development of the Ibiza’s drivetrain. Not content with seeing its name on the engine (and in a decal on the flanks) of the Ibiza, Porsche allegedly negotiated a royalty payment of DM7.00 (roughly £2) on every car sold. In truth, the kudos of having a Porsche engine in your Ibiza was rather greater than the reality, as it was fine, but not exceptional. The by now ancient but still willing 903cc Fiat unit from the 127 continued to be used in the basic version. The Ibiza Mk1 was a very successful car and 1,342,001 were sold over nine years in production.
The Málaga purported to be a four-door saloon version of the Ibiza and was given an Ibiza-style front and rear end treatment, but the centre section was carried over from the Ronda and used the doors from the original Ritmo, readily identifiable by the uptick at either end of the DLO and slightly concave door skins. Like the Ibiza, it also used the System Porsche engines. Although not nearly as popular as the Ibiza, the Málaga was a steady seller and 196,929 were manufactured before production ended in 1991.
The Ibiza and Málaga were SEAT’s launch models when it entered the UK market in September 1985. Both were priced as budget offerings and were well received, although the UK market for small saloons was very niche. Autocar Magazine tested the Ibiza and concluded that it “…feels potentially fun in terms of performance. It revs willingly and has a lovely spread of power, delivered smoothly if rather less than quietly. Steering and handling feel delightful. It responds well to the wheel and does not roll much, yet its ride is excellent for a car of such a weight and size.”
After Fiat’s withdrawal, Volkswagen saw an opportunity to take advantage of Spain’s lower labour costs by moving some of its manufacturing out of Germany. It signed an agreement with SEAT in September 1982 for the manufacture of Passat and Polo models. This was supplanted by a broader co-operation agreement signed in June 1983, which gave SEAT the distribution rights for Volkswagen in Spain.
The relationship between the two companies continued to grow closer and Volkswagen took a majority 51% stake in SEAT in June 1986, which was increased to 75% in December of that year. Finally, in December 1990, Volkswagen took full ownership of SEAT. From that point onwards, SEAT models would rely wholly on VW Group technology, although would largely continue to maintain a distinct identity in design terms, at least until 2015.
There were a number of exceptions to this, however. The first was the 1996 Alhambra, a large MPV that was a virtual clone of the Volkswagen Sharan and Ford Galaxy, apart from mildly modified front and rear ends. The second-generation Alhambra, launched in 2011, was also a lightly modified Sharan, although Ford was no longer involved in the MPV joint venture.
The second was the 2008 Exeo, a D-segment saloon and estate, which was a B6 generation Audi A4, disinterred two years after it had been replaced by the B7 and given a new nose and tail. The third is the 2011 Mii, one of a trio of city cars that includes the VW Up! and Škoda Citigo. The fourth is the 2012 Toledo, a five-door budget B/C segment hatchback also sold as the Škoda Rapid.
During the thirty years that Volkswagen Group has owned SEAT, it has often appeared to struggle to find a coherent and marketable identity for its Spanish subsidiary. SEAT was at one point promoted as the ‘Spanish Alfa-Romeo’ and the 1998 Mk1 León was, stylistically at least, a new Alfasud. The Cupra sporting version tried to make the connection more than skin deep and did attract a good following, particularly in its distinctive yellow signature colour.
However, in 2005, Volkswagen replaced the León with an MPV-style monobox design that lost all its sporting appeal. The new León was very similar looking to the 2004 Altea MPV, which introduced SEAT’s new style. The bustle-backed (and very odd looking) Mk3 Toledo was introduced later that year and replaced a rather handsome saloon variant of the León. There followed the LWB Altea XL in 2006. All four new models looked uncannily similar and resolutely unsporting. Only the small Ibiza was spared the quasi-MPV treatment.
Putting all its eggs in one stylistic basket cost SEAT sales and market share. Between 2004 and 2012, annual European sales* fell from 405,597 to 261,018. The latter part of this period encompassed the Global Financial Crisis, but SEAT’s market share also fell significantly, from 2.51% to 2.08%. SEAT recognised its error mid-way through this period and the 2008 Exeo was a stop-gap effort to broaden the company’s range.
In the last decade, SEAT’s model range has been ever more closely aligned with Volkswagen’s, each model being more or less a straight rebodying of its VW equivalent. SEAT has tapped into the growth of the SUV/Crossover market, but its Arona, Ateca and Tarraco models could all, with a different front end treatment, easily pass for Volkswagen, Škoda or even Audi models.
That said, the company’s market share has recovered and, in 2019, SEAT enjoyed its best year ever with over 500,000 sales for the first time and a European market share of 3.22%. This is an impressive recovery, but SEAT has some way to go to catch up with its sister company Škoda, which achieved almost 750,000 sales and a European Market share of 4.76% in the same year.
SEAT’s current strategy is undoubtedly successful and its cars are now frequently rated above its Volkswagen Group stablemates. The company seems to have assumed the favourite child mantle formerly bestowed on Škoda. However, one cannot help but mourn the loss of its distinctive identity, which was particularly evident in the company’s brief period of independence. Perhaps Cupra, which has recently been launched as a stand-alone sub brand, might restore some of that individuality? The Cupra Formentor crossover-coupé is a promising start.
* European sales data from http://www.carsalesbase.com