Espíritu Independiente (Part Two)

Concluding our retrospective on Spain’s automotive flag-carrier and the rare occasional flowering of its independent design talent.

(c) autogaleria.hu

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between 1982 and 1986 during which it introduced the MK1 Ibiza in 1984, a Supermini that was sold alongside the outdated 127-based Fura before replacing it in 1986.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 Porscheengine, 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.

(c) autocar

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.

1992 Seat Toledo. (c) bestsellingcarsblog.com

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 CitigoThe fourth is the 2012 Toledo, a five-door budget B/C segment hatchback also sold as the Škoda Rapid.

2015 Seat Toledo. Image: SEAT UK.

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.

(c) autogaleria.hu

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.

2020 Seat Leon. (c) Paul Tan

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

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

28 thoughts on “Espíritu Independiente (Part Two)”

  1. If I remember correctly Volkswagen originally had no interest in taking over SEAT but succumbed to political pressure to save Spain’s only domestic manufacturer. Therefore it’s no wonder that VW didn’t know what to do with SEAT for a long time. The result were wild stylistic experiments from Andreas Zapatinas’ pig nose grille and wild intersecting side creases to the MPVs that were exceptionally ugly even for cars of that ilk. Only now does VW look as if they had a consistent idea of what to do with SEAT.

    The Ibiza’s engines were developed by Porsche Weissach as one of their typical engineered-to-order jobs. Usually Weissach’s customers are contractually prevented from referencing this relation (because Porsche is not interested in making public their involvement with cars like Lada Samara) and most of the customers aren’t interested in making it publicly known anyway (like PSA when Porsche heavily redesigned their ES9J4 V6). In SEAT’s case somebody forgot the relevant clause in the contract and SEAT couldn’t resist putting the ‘System Porsche’ script on the valve cover, much to Porsche’s dislike.

    1. I’d not be so sure somebody forgot such an important clause in a contract.
      I would on the contrary shift the focus to that royalty payment of DM 7.00 on every car sold, taken together with the productivity problems, and consequently money troubles of the end of the Eighties which led Porsche to hire Japanese consultants, slash workforce, and eliminate two out of six management layers to increase productivity.
      In other words I would point to money problems probably already begun at the beginning of the Eighties, which Porsche tried to solve with disorganised remedies as this royalty thing, before resorting to more radical solutions.

    2. That Andreas Zapatinas ever worked at Seat is news to me – do you have any particular insights you’d be willing to share in this context, Dave?

    3. Of course it wasn’t A. Zapatinas. Must have had a brain shortcut when I wrote this. I beg you rpardon for any inconveniences this might have caused.

    4. No inconvenience caused whatsoever. I was merely curious to learn something new.

  2. Good morning Dave. Thanks for the additional background information. SEAT was determined to get full value for its DM7.00 ‘System Porsche’ levy on each car. It featured very prominently in its advertising:

    I also recall that many of the early Ibiza models sold in the UK had large ‘System Porsche’ decals along the lower flanks.

  3. It is probably speculation from motoring tabloids of the period in the mid-1980s, though have read claims of the Fiat (124 Series?) derived “System Porsche” engines were to range from a 1-litre 3-cylinder up to a 1.8-litre 4-cylinder. It would be worth finding out whether that was SEAT’s original plan for its Fiat-based engines (down to a possible 124 Series based 1-litre 3-cylinder) at some point or if it was always the intention to use rebranded 0.9-litre Fiat 100 Series and 1.2-1.7-litre 124 Series(?) engines? A bit surprised SEAT were unable to carry over or build their own Fiat-based 2-litre engine, like they were able to with other Fiat derived cars and petrol / diesel engines up to the mid/late-1990s.

    Rather like the look of the mk1 SEAT Ibiza yet find it somewhat funny the Malaga was more of a Volkswagen Jetta sized saloon rather than Peugeot 309 or Nova/Corsa sized saloon.

    Not really a fan of recent SEATs with the SUV-like looks and dislike how Volkswagen basically pushed it at the expense of deliberately handicapping Skoda.

    1. Hi Bob. Despite appearances that the Malaga was a bigger car, there was only 5mm difference between the wheelbase of it and the Ibiza. I think it’s a bit of a shame that SEAT didn’t use the doors and centre section of the Ibiza for the Malaga, as it would have given it a more contemporary appearance for 1985.

      The original Ibiza was a favourite of mine and a very nice Giugiaro design in its purest, pre-facelift form:

    2. The following picture should be enough to show that the ‘System Porsche’ engines were not based on the 124 OHV engine (no intermediate shaft, no pushrod tunnels).

      The old Fiat engine was limited in growth because the con rod of one cylinder would foul the intermediate shaft from a certain length of stroke so there is little chance Seat had any plans for capacities that were not realistic with that engine.

    3. Have read the extent of Porsche’s involvement was with the cylinder head on a Fiat-derived block (with the Lada Samara also utilizing a similar Porsche developed cylinder head), what specific engines then were used as the starting point for the “System Porsche” engines?

      Could understand the “System Porsche” engine being more of a clean sheet design due to the unusual 1.2-1.7-litre displacements compared to the Fiat engines, yet SEAT and Porsche hastily modifying an existing locally built Fiat engine to avoid another lawsuit once the partnership with the latter ceased would served as another possible explanation.

  4. Seat’s failed early noughties push is a very peculiar case. Walter de’ Silva had been hired as the brand’s chief designer at the height of his stint at Alfa Romeo, to much fanfare – and against the backdrop of other, more prestigious job offers (he was in the running as Bruno Sacco’s replacement, but declined the offer in favour of Seat’s/VAG’s). Concept cars like the Salsa roadster also seemed to suggest that VAG were serious about positioning Seat as the Spanish Alfa, but the production cars, what with their semi-monobox architecture and somewhat saggy sheetmetal surfaces, rather undid what Giugiaro had achieved with the Leon, in terms of brand perception.

    With MPVs being what SUVs are right now at the time, part of the reasoning behind this move is understandable. But doing so in the context of what supposedly is a ‘sporty’ brand seems rather unorthodox, to say the least.

  5. I’ll go as far as to say VW never knew what to do with Seat, it really is a missed opportunity of sorts. In the 90’s I was really sceptical to VW taking over Skoda, only because it would need such a massive turnaround from forty years of rear engined backwards communist technology of questionable quality. The last quality product Skoda made that was an actual success in exports was the fifties Octavia. That VW succeeded with turning that around but had no idea what to do with Seat that should seemingly be a simpler task is actually mindboggling and a failure in comparison.

    1. That’s an interesting comparison, Ingvar. Ostensibly, SEAT had longer experience of FWD and a more modern range than Škoda, so should have been the easier fix. I think the misguided MPV experiment from 2004 to 2012 lost the company vital momentum (and 20% of its market share). It was curious that it was SEAT rather than Škoda that got a version of the Sharan large MPV to sell. It seemed a better fit for the Czech marque.

      The Leon in particular suffered, going from this:

      To this:

    2. I’d argue that Skoda’s dreadful image also helped facilitate a clean-sheet approach towards the marque’s relaunch. Seat was considered an also-ran, but not recipient of the kind of vitriol levelled at Skoda – in the Czech marque’s case, nothing stood in the way of the brand’s reinvention. With Seat, my impression was that VAG always believed they were in possession of some kind of opaque brand equity. The utter failure to grasp or dismiss it resulted in the kind of aimless meandering that defined the brand, before Jürgen Stackmann helped getting it back on track.

    3. Despite being one of better Eastern Block marques (if not arguably the best of the lot – which is not saying much), would have to agree with Christopher that Skoda’s dramatic post-Volkswagen turnaround after reaching rock bottom definitely helped matters.

      Another aspect would be the perception of Volkswagen having an upmarket and overpriced image in spite of being a mainstream marque, which allowed post-Volkswagen Skoda to quickly establish an image of basically being more conservatively styled Volkswagens sold at realistic (or even very reasonable) prices.

      Would have to agree on questioning the need for SEAT to receive the Arosa and Alhambra instead of Skoda though the latter did merit the more practical Skoda Ahoj! city car concept, whereas the Arosa despite SEAT’s sporting pretensions never managed to receive a Cupra equivalent of the Lupo GTi.

      It is funny how Volkswagen also appeared to consider expanding even further from the 1990s up to the 2008 financial crisis with possible revivals of Trabant (via the Trabant X03/P1995* as well as the Trabant Sachsenring Uni 1 hybrid prototypes**) and Horch*** respectively, the former presumably being a sub-Skoda budget equivalent of Dacia and the latter reputedly envisioned as Audi’s Maybach analogue.

      * – https://jco-illustrations.jimdofree.com/projekte/trabant-x03/
      ** – https://www.trabantteam-freital.de/extra/sachsenringuni1/index.html
      *** – https://fourtitude.com/news/audi-rumors-renders-spy-photos/throwbackthursday-modern-horch-concept-never/

  6. I had, I hate to admit, forgotten about the Ibiza. It’s a lovely clean and well proportioned design. I had not heard that it was a rejected proposal for the Golf II, but can see how that would have worked and would have been very nice too! I remember the marque being launched in the UK, with concerns including that we’d have trouble knowing how to pronounce the name! Like Skoda, it was positioned as a value (cheap) brand, and although well received overall, I also recall that quality and refinement were listed as disappointments.

    I might be alone in liking the ‘MPV’ Leon and Altea (if not the Toledo and XL thing of the same generation). In particular, I think that version of the Leon was rather influential on the class, with the Astra J in particular looking like an Opel interpretation of the Leon’s theme. It was a decent drive too – benefiting from the Golf V’s underpinnings.

    The current Ibiza is a very likable design and well-rounded car, which I prefer to the current Polo. I don’t get the new Leon, which looks like the offspring of the previous version and the current Ford Focus.

    1. Hi S.V. I actually share your appreciation of the Mk2 Leon in isolation, but think it lost the sporting intent of the Mk1, and SEAT customers with it.

      Notwithstanding that, it had some lovely details, such as the way the windscreen wipers parked neatly against the A-pillars:

      I’ve never travelled in one, so I don’t know what impact this had on front visibility / blind spots. Although I don’t like hidden rear door handles in general, the way the recesses were incorporated into the plexiglass(?) rear-quarter window on the Leon was very clever:

    2. if I’m not mistaken the second leon was Walter de Silva’s and the built-in handle was also present in the Alfa 147. I personally don’t like Seat as a brand, at the moment I don’t see any difference in Design between Skoda and Seat, they speak the same geometric language, a waste.

    3. S.V. – I hadn’t noticed the Astra J similarity before – interesting.

      Carwow recently reviewed the new Leon, and my first thought was that it looks a lot like the Focus, although I personally prefer it to the Focus.

  7. Dear Dave
    As far as I know, the System Porsche engines were not based on the Fiat engines, but anyway linked to them.
    Due to budget constraints, SEAT had to use the same machining tools on both, so the distances between cylinder axles are the same. That’s the link!

    1. Fascinating. Was it too soon for SEAT to investigate the engine cupboard at Volkswagen before using the existing machine tools as the old Fiat units to develop the System Porsche engines?

      Also find it curious that SEAT was allowed to still make use of the 100 Series engines in the Marbella until 1998 (along with the mk1 Ibiza until 1993) without any apparent modifications to differentiate the engine from its Fiat base.

    2. Identical bore spacing doesn’t mean anything when it comes to relationships between engines. At VW even the current EA888 Gen3 has the same bore spacing as the Ea827 from the early Seventies. Machine tools for engine production, particularly the drilling robots for the bores (the equipment related to bore spacing), are frighteningly expensive and therefore it does make sense to use then as long as possible.
      Seat’s cooperation with VW started in 1982 at a point when the ‘System Porsche’ engines already were well developed.

    1. Agree on the Ahoj! playing an influential role in the Skoda Roomster, with a bit of tidying up would have actually preferred a production AhoJ! city car that sat below the 5-door Fabia as a relatively more practical alternative to the Lupo / Arosa.

  8. Interesting reading. Haven’t had really any exposure to Seat because they only sold really not many Ibizas, Cordobas and Toledos in the 1990s here, although I have a nagging half-memory of a more recent return, or perhaps it was just speculation.

    1. Hi John, and thanks for your comments. May I ask which country “here” is?

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