Death Of A Clown

The Exeo was an attempt at a D-segment offering on the cheap, but was the joke on SEAT?

Do you want to drive it into the pool darling, or shall I? Image: Autoevolution

Perhaps Erich Schmitt’s leylines and shakras had swirled his vision akin to adding milk to a caffeine drink. Internally known as the Bolero, the public knew the car as the Exeo (ex-ay-o) – a Latin derivation of exire meaning to Go Beyond. Herr Schmitt certainly did that.

Installed as Sociedad Espanola de Automobiles de Turismo president in 2006 under strict instructions from Ferdinand Piëch to inject some much needed gusto into VW’s Spanish branch, Schmitt foresaw a bold plan to assuage his boss – the re-use of an older model. Rarely a European consideration, older models are either shelved or positioned in some far flung location with their build licence encouraging monetary growth from afar. Schmitt’s vision was to use the B7 version of the Audi A4 on the PL46 platform.

Toes were not to be trodden on, mind. The Exeo was billed as the Spanish answer to le Quément’s Laguna, the Henry’s Mondeo and most definitely not the concurrent A4 or Passat with their handsome sales figures. 

In a move which today seems overly confident if not extreme, back in late 2008 must have garnered gasps of incredulity. A convoy of 1,150 lorries along with dozens of support vehicles carried the entire dismantled A4 B7 production line from Ingolstadt to Martorell, thirty kilometres north west from Barcelona in preparation for a March 2009 launch. A logistical tour de force over some 1,500 kilometres. 

As the line merely required bolting back together in its new, sunnier climes, new Exeos were in production right on time – the prediction materialised. As a previously known quantity, the SEAT saloon appeared on solid ground – proven build quality, reliable powertrains and some added Spanish flair – what could possibly go wrong?

Styling differences between the two cars were minimal; the world and his wife knew the car was the outgoing A4, thus the nose and tail became de-Audified, with contentious outcomes. To the sides, the door mirror mounts had been relocated revealing a slightly awkward curve at the foot of the A pillar. Inside saw changes of equally small beer – a new dashboard came courtesy of the provider B7 generation A4 cabriolet version – identified by the circular opposed to oblong air vents. Here ends the re-styling story. Recycling has never looked so familiar.

Schmitt lauded the Exeo as a D-segment motor for drivers of a sporting nature with a starting price tag of a not inconsiderable six thousand euros cheaper than an equivalent A4. Initially the five seater, four door saloon was available in Reference, Stylance and Sport trims for mainland European drivers under code Typ 3R5. The U.K. had the prosaic S, SE, SE-LUX, etc as per Czech brethren, Škoda. August brought about 3R9 in estate or Sports Tourer flavour all powered by three petrol and two diesel from the VW engine department .

Image: coc-seat.net

May 2010 saw those mills refined along with some handy trophies to nudge Erich’s crystal ball towards the shelf edge. Namely, Switzerland awarded the Exeo their Golden Steering Wheel – upper medium sedan section. Germany’s Company Car 2009 went to the ST whereas Finland went one better with magazine, Tuulilasi administering the full CoTY gong. For reasons your author could not ascertain, one somewhat tongue in cheek award was offered by the Catalonia region for Novelty CoTY. Was the Exeo so reviled?

With big hype, bigger hyperbole and clairvoyant predictions stated, the road tests proved, in the UK at least, highly commendable. Commensurate with acknowledged traits, the press’ usual suspects heaped praise on the car for not only its engines but driveability alongside fleet friendly characteristics. Your author remembers a tiny column buried within Autocar’s data section where the unknown user of a diesel Exeo extolled the virtues of the machine on his mega mileage weekly schleps. Of course at that time, diesel and its high MPG figures were king but crowns topple as easily as predictions fail.

Attractively priced, interesting looks – sales in the doldrums. An outcast the Exeo had become where the car remained for its brief, non-tumultuous life. In the cars launch year, just 348 saloons and only 21 ST’s were sold. The following twelve months saw those figures leap to almost 23,000, fourteen thousand of such being the saloon. Peak combined sales lurked at a soupçon over 23,000 for 2010, the next year floundering around 20,000 and in its final, breathless year, a little under eleven thousand were made. 

Image: Parkers

Not only the crystal ball had shattered. The car’s depreciation was massive but do badge and snob values add to the Exeo’s indignities? Probably so. Purchasers were desirous of the four chrome ringed circles and their orders forwarded there or to their Wolfsburg partners for their new models. Whilst known, the Exeo became unknown, anonymous to the point of being invisible. The car’s only momentum appears to have been when being transported from Germany to Spain. The lacklustre image denting the whole project with clearly little investment sealed the cars fate. It would seem few mourned the Exeo’s demise.

Remaining UK examples are seldom witnessed. Observed as a savvy used purchase by the trade counts for little almost ten years on since manufacturing ceased. Those available hover around the 4-5k price bracket, looking somewhat careworn regardless of upkeep and use.

The acceptable B7 Audi? Image: Autoevolution

Another car industry gamble that failed, taking with it untold millions. One cannot help but wonder at Schmitt’s vision; should the planets have aligned a better way, perhaps we would be discussing here the veritable wundermove of his, the Exeo now brand leader outselling home grown saloons and the latest Exeo diversification into the class leading urban cross-over sales charts. Damn, this car-boot sale bought glass ball is good!

As for Erich Schmitt, his role as CEO of SEAT was only part time. Subsumed in the VW empire, times and roles bifurcate. Soon after the Exeo debacle ended, he stepped down due to health reasons. Perhaps Herr Piëch had used his clairvoyant powers to spirit Schmitt away? Guessing games can be very expensive. Let’s all drink to the death of a clown.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

21 thoughts on “Death Of A Clown”

  1. Good morning Andrew. Thanks for the reminder of a perfectly decent car that was hopelessly wrong for the market. The world and its wife knew the Exeo was a recycled Audi and shunned it as a consequence. European buyers who could afford a new car were, by and large, too affluent and badge-conscious to drive a cheap hand-me-down.

    The Exeo project was partly driven by SEAT betting the farm in the mid-00’s on a monobox design that featured on the Altea, Altea XL, Toledo and Leon, leaving these models looking superficially identical to each other. The company desperately needed something to appeal to more conservative buyers, so the Exeo seemed an expedient solution.

    One nice stylistic difference between the Exeo and A4 was the treatment of the tailgate on the estate:

    I like the V-shaped lower edge to the rear window, and getting rid of those nasty cheap looking B7 A4 tail lights was a bonus. Relocating the rear number plate to the bumper also looked cleaner.

    1. Ah, the de Silva dip. (If you steal from yourself, it isn’t stealing)

  2. The Exeo would have been an opportunity to buy a car with the build quality of an A4 B6/7 instead of the cheap and nasty B8 which offended many long standing Audi customers (otherwise the B9 wouldn’t have made a leap forward quality-wise, still not up to B6 levels but far better than B8).
    But then for new car customers (fleet lease users) it was the wrong brand and for used car buyers it was too expensive.

  3. Morning Andrew. Thanks for clarifying how you pronounce Exeo, I’ve never known 🤣. A chap at work bought a new one when they first came out. I did wonder why when it was simply a rebadged previous Audi model, but the price difference explained why. As you say, I’ve not seen one for a long time.

  4. Since I rather liked the B7 Audi, I thought it was a great idea to keep it going as a Seat. The only downside was the relocated door mirrors. I’m sad that buyers weren’t smart enough to snap it up – it was the best car Seat made at the time, and I have to agree with Daniel about the estate.

  5. 81,552 Exeos produced between 2008 and 2013. That’s not even one and a half White Hens, to use my favoured metric, and the Exeo was marketed across just about all of Europe.

    There’s got to have been some tax write-off or regional aid reason behind the sorry venture. Otherwise why not introduce a proper Toledo based on the 2005–2012 León 1P? Instead the name was used for the mad Altea variant with a short boot, and there was a four year lacuna when SEAT didn’t offer a mid-sized sedan at all.

    Perhaps the most interesting comparison is the 2001 Škoda Superb, built at Kvasiny and reverse-engineered at very little cost from a Chinese LWB Passat B5 derivative. Not too dissimilar a strategy to the Exeo, but the Superb was so successful that VAG management wanted to drop it after one generation, fearing its pernicious effect on Passat and even Audi A4/A6 sales.

    1. Buying a Skoda is a smart move whereas buying a Seat is an act of desperation.
      In this particular case buyint the Seat would have been the smart move because you’d have got B6 quality for giveaway prices. You only had to get around brand snobbery and free fall residual values. The latter would not have been a problem if you kept the car long enough which in the case of the B6/7 meant very long.

  6. The Exeo’s front is ok yet the rear leaves a lot to be desired, at the same time it does not really live up to the supposed Sporting image the SEAT marque is meant to convey. That is not the fault of the Exeo itself, the addition of 2-door Coupe and 2-door Convertible bodystyles would have certainly helped its case as well as brought to mind both the original smaller Cordoba Coupe and vaguely the Bolero concept.

    It is just that if the Exeo is supposed to be a cut/correctly-priced Audi than it might as well been better suited as a Skoda than a SEAT, whether as is slotting between the Octavia and Superb or slightly stretched instead of the Superb.

    It certainly does not help that SEAT was unable to produce a sportscar to establish its credibility as VW’s aspiring sub-Audi analogue of Alfa Romeo, both pre-VW with SEAT’s inline-4 version of the Porsche 984 Project up to the SEAT Tango concept (that met internal resistance from Audi) as well as SEAT version of the mid-engined VW Bluesport concept (with renderings carrying over the Salsa name).

    1. Agreed. I don’t think the Salsa and Tango have aged well (and neither has the clip’s commentary). SEAT did a sports car concept called the Formula, which was better.

      I think the Volkswagen Bluesport is still lovely (5:10 onwards).

    2. The Tango puts me very much in mind of Bangle’s flame surfacing and is a bit porky:

      The Bluesport was (and still is) lovely:

      What a shame that VW didn’t have the heart to put it into production. It might not have made much commercial sense to do so, but it could have helped to make VW a bit more ’emotional’ (in a good way, not a PR blurb nonsense way) and likeable, instead of the merciless corporate monolith it it is widely perceived to be.

    3. Charles

      Forgot about the SEAT Formula concept, also a pity it never reached even limited production as unlike the Tango it’s mid-engine layout would have been consistent with both the preceding SEAT Porsche 984 project as well as a hypothetical SEAT version of the VW Bluesport.

      OTOH Audi would have likely saw the latter two as needless competition for the TT, short of Audi appropriating both the Formula and Bluesport for themselves at SEAT’s expense.

      While again brings to question the relevance of SEAT against both Skoda and Audi as well as if in retrospect the marque would have fared better under Fiat (had dispute between SEAT and Fiat been resolved – depending on what happens with Alfa Romeo with Ford, etc) or under another company that historically expressed interest.

    4. Hello Bob,

      Below is a reminder of the Formula. Generally very nice, apart from the gimmicky headlights.

      I wonder if there could be room for another roadster in VWG – perhaps the bigger issue was pressure from Porsche (in addition to Audi and their TT).

      2019 was SEAT’s best year ever, with over 500k sales in Europe, so perhaps they’ve found a niche. However, I’ve just looked at their website to review their models and they do a large SUV called a Tarraco. I can’t recall ever having heard of it – I had come across their other SUVs, the Arona and Ateca, though. They do some nice-looking cars – good value, too.

    5. Charles

      Cannot see the SEAT Formula being a threat to the Porsche Boxster as even if it entered limited production it would likely still carry over the 1.8T 20v engine of the period whose lowest output was 148 hp (as in the Ibiza FR) and as high as 178 hp in the Ibiza Cupra R (and if required 222 hp in the Leon Cupra R ).

      The likes of the Toyota MR2 and MG F / MG TF serve as a rough guide in terms of size, weight and engines what a production version of the SEAT Formula would resemble, perhaps even an entry-level 1.6 16v model with the engine from the Lupo GTi and Polo GTi.

  7. I recall that one of the British magazines compared the Exeo very favourably with the A4 which came after it (i.e. not the car on which it was based). The view was that build quality was superior, it was cheaper and although the handling and ride of the Audi were marginally superior, it was not enough for the German branded car to bette the Spaniard.

  8. An enlightening article – I never realised that so few were sold. I preferred the styling over the Audi which to my eyes has progressively got worse with each generation, There is a well kept silver estate very near to me which looks very classy both inside and out.

  9. Considering that SEAT was supposed to play the role of an Alfa Romeo within the VAG Group, they had successly failed completely to achieve their goals.
    Sporty?
    Yes, they were allowed to be. To the exclusion of the public in the domestic market (SEAT Cupra GT).

    Outside of that, there were (quite nice) small cars, mid-size hatchbacks and family sedans, sometimes better sometimes less so.

    As one commentator has already written, you couldn’t buy a SEAT for good reasons – there were none, except price – only out of desperation.
    And obviously there were never enough desperate buyers, otherwise the Exeo would have been sold in considerably larger numbers. Its quality was demonstrably good, but the rest just wasn’t right. No brand identity, no image, no want-to-have factor.

    (The Czechs in Mladá Boleslav were allowed to do it differently – and thus better – they put themselves between the classes with their vehicles and thus had a USP).

    SEAT, on the other hand, had the Ibiza – a Polo, only cheaper – the Leon – a Golf, only cheaper – and at some point an Audi A4, only cheaper.

    Yes, desperation describes the desire to buy an Exeo pretty well. Hence the sales figures. There were obviously not enough desperate people.

    Now SEAT is also getting a “sub-brand” called CUPRA. Maybe in 30 years we will find out that this was a very big elaborate plan by the gods in Wolfsburg. I probably won’t find out, I’ll be dead – I’m not sure if I would have been interested in the unveiling either…

    Since the basis is identical to the Audi A4, the conversion to a Seat Exeo Cabrio should be quite easy. This would give one quite an exclusive car for little money – even if it is “only” a SEAT…

  10. Good Lord, my knowledge of the Tango and Formula were nil up to this point. And the Blue Sport passed me by as well. Out of the three, the VW does look the most polished and ready for market. The Formula appears to these eyes attempting something Lotus like with that Latin flair. It’s not disagreeable. Whereas the Tango is most disagreeable and features nothing pleasing. An overwrought training shoe or a puffer jacket that offers “looks” but no comfort or warmth. No thanks. Oh, never mind, it ain’t there.

    I have to agree with a lot of the comments above. In the giant halls of Herr Piëch’s mind, these whims had no real opportunity to prosper.

    I did like how Seat improved on the estate rear end. There’s a black version somewhere local but it’s always filthy and driven like it’s going out of fashion to try and appreciate the looks.

    1. I, too, have had my education broadened considerably by this – thanks all. Fred, you missed out a couple of “same as but cheaper” examples which managed to make a few sales in the UK: Arosa (Lupo) & Alhambra (Sharan). The latter, even when badged as a Galaxy with a blue oval on the front, was an excellent carrier of people (I hired several for taking aged relatives on holiday) and for a while popular with taxi operators. But why VAG decided that resurrecting the BMC love of badge-engineering was a good idea is completely beyond me.

  11. I had no idea that the Exeo was a reworked Audi but quite liked the car when it was first announced. I actually saw a black estate version the other day and did wonder what had happened to them., so thank you Andrew for the update.

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