11 March 2014

SEAT looking into the future

Most car brands have a signature halo car, and for SEAT this is the Cupra version of the Leon, writes Brian Byrne. And the latest version will soon be in Ireland for sale and proper review.

I've just been in one at a SEAT event in Barcelona, and while the Cupra itself has stunning performance potential, it's actually the changes to SEAT itself which have been the eyeopener.

We have seen the Leon compact hatch being transformed in a number of variations over the past year — the 5-door hatch first, then the 3-door SC sportier version, the elegant ST wagon which to my mind is the best-executed of the bunch in design terms. Now the Cupra rounds out the model as the one to lust for, with 2.0 TSI petrol engine coming in 235/280hp power flavours.

I'm not going to review it here, a short drive in an afternoon really isn't the proper framework for a decent evaluation. But when I get my hands on the wheel of one in Ireland, I'm promising myself a number of non-stop runs to far parts of the country.

In the Irish context, SEAT is building up strongly from the small base it had before Volkswagen Group Ireland took it back under the mother hen wing, and a 62 percent increase in registrations in 2013 has already been followed by a 20 percent increase so far this year, with over 1,000 vehicles sold so far in 2014.

The visit today provided the opportunity to hear some of the research and development details underpinning improved performance of the brand in a number of markets. As they say, it's all about product, and arguably SEAT is pushing out some of the freshest product in the VW Group.

The Design Centre at the giant SEAT HQ and manufacturing complex at Martorell, near Barcelona, employs nearly a thousand people, has around 360 projects running in any given year, and produces 50 prototype cars annually.

A presentation today by the Centre's Stefan Ilijevic also revealed that the CAD systems there can carry out some 55,000 simulation tests a year on concepts before even a clay model is built. That saves a lot of money, and time which is itself also a lot of saved expense.

In addition to coming up with full car designs, the Centre works on development of parts for other brands within the Group.

Not being a premium brand, the work at the Centre is very much focussed on 'design to cost', to provide the most cost-effective solutions without compromising on quality. Another focus is 'reduction of complexity' in components, which of course targets the two aims of cost control and weight trimming.

The Centre's work also takes into account external challenges, such as the global problems caused by CO2 emissions, changing needs from customers, and variables outside their control. So there's also considerable attention given to such matters as alternative fuels, maximising the efficiency of current powertrains, and developing future ones which include hybrid and electric motors.

The foregoing is a small taste of what SEAT is up to looking to the future. It was worth the visit even if we hadn't driven the cars.