BARCELONA - Spain's Seat SA, long a downmarket arm of Volkswagen AG, is being repositioned higher up the product ladder as a competitor to Alfa Romeo.
Seat's design director, Walter De'Silva - recruited, not coincidentally, from Alfa Romeo -said the emphasis from now on will be on young, fun and sporty cars. But the cars also will be practical. 'Being sporting is not just about performance. Vehicles must have a realistic life,' he said at the Barcelona Motor Show.
Pierre-Alain De Smedt, then chairman of Seat, said the company hoped to double its sales by early in the new century and to widen its reach beyond Spain and Germany.
Spain last year accounted for 40.2 percent of Seat's total sales of 360,169 units, which were up 8.6 percent over 1997. Germany accounted for 16.6 percent of total sales, or 59,788 units.
Seat's market shares, though, fall far short of its sales concentration in the two markets. It has a 12.2 percent share at home, 1.6 percent in Germany.
Seat's average market share across Europe for the past two years has been 2.5 percent, but that has risen to 3 percent this year on strong sales of the new Toledo. De Smedt said he wanted to increase share to 5 percent in the early part of the next decade.
Looking outside Europe
Vital to this will be increased sales outside Europe. South America is a natural target, particularly as parent Volkswagen Group already has a strong presence in Brazil and Argentina.
Last year, the company sold only 30,000 cars outside Europe, about 7.5 percent of total production of 391,443 units. The company will address this by overhauling the model range and dealer network and spicing up its image.
Next year, Seat will unveil its contender in the GM Astra/Ford Focus class. Two years later, the totally new Ibiza and Cordoba -heavily influenced by De'Silva - are scheduled to arrive.
This year's facelift of the Ibiza/Cordoba is more than skin deep. The car has grown by 2 centimeters and has a completely new interior. The only features carried over are the outer door panels, rear wings, side windows and the base of the monocoque structure.
As the company chases a new image, a lot of responsibility will fall on the shoulders of De'Silva.
What excites him most, he said, is that he has a clear mission to create a brand for the future.
'With Alfa Romeo it was completely different; they were working too much on a historical base. In Seat, we are creating history as we go,' he said.
VW Group has a design studio in Sitges, just south of Barcelona, an area that is rapidly being portrayed as the California of Europe because of its perfect light and great colors.
The Sitges studio works for all four VW brands, not just Seat. It was responsible for the exciting Formula sports car concept seen at the Geneva auto show - a concept that, said De'Silva, definitely will not see production.
But it is important to explore such concepts because, he said, 'the client is always changing.'
That changing client is embodied in today's youngsters, who will be tomorrow's customers.
'To find where sportivity is going is the challenge; you can have sportivity in a 4x4 or a people carrier,' said De'Silva.
A rebel's car
De'Silva's constant talk of youth is something that analyst Steve Saxty, of Automotive Answers in London, said he believes is the right approach.
'In some markets, the Seat brand is closer to this Mediterranean image of youth and excitement than in others,' said Saxty. 'This is particularly true in Germany, where the Seat is a rebel's car vs. Dad's VW.'
What Seat desperately needs, said Saxty, is a lifestyle car such as Honda's HR-V. It needs to be allowed to develop its own special cars and not have to rely on obvious platform spinoffs such as the Arosa and Cordoba, he said.
But he cautioned that chasing Alfa may be a misguided strategy because of the Italian company's lingering reputation for weak quality and durability. Alfa Romeo also has an indifferent dealer network, he says, whereas Seat's retailing and marketing seem to be slightly ahead of its products.
'They need to devise a brand print of what makes up Seat,' Saxty said. 'Then they need to measure which elements are the most important and where they stand relative to their competitors.'