LEON, Spain - This city in northern Spain was the obvious choice to launch the latest addition to the Seat range - it is, after all, the car's namesake.
But the Leon scores so many firsts for Seat it hardly needs any gimmicks to stand out. It is Seat's:
First car to offer a 180-hp engine
First with a six-speed transmission
First with all-wheel drive
First with rain-sensing wipers
First to be assembled in two factories, Martorell, near Barcelona and Brussels.
Probably most important of all, it is the first Seat to compete in Europe's biggest segment, the lower medium segment dominated by the Volkswagen Golf, Opel Astra, Ford Focus and Renault Megane.
The Leon went on sale in Spain late last month at a base price of 2.11 million pesetas (U.S. $13,075).
Seat executives expect the Leon's sales to top 100,000 units a year by 2001, accounting for about one-fifth of Seat's production.
Seat's sales for the 10 months through October rose 11 percent from a year earlier, to 403,500 units.
Detler Schmidt, Seat's director of sales and marketing, said the Leon has the potential to become the No. 2 selling vehicle in the entire VW Group. 'But this depends on our dealers and dealer development, where there is a bottleneck at the moment,' Schmidt said.
That would be a tall order. The Golf was the No. 1 car in Europe last year on sales of 664,110 units and 4.6 percent of the overall market. The No. 2 VW Group car, the VW Polo, was No. 6 overall on a volume of 413,335 units.
The best-selling Seat is the smaller Ibiza, which is expected to post sales this year of 174,000 units.
One key to the Leon's potential is VW's decision to build the car at both Martorell, just outside Barcelona, where a new production line has been installed, and Brussels, alongside the Golf and Toledo. That enables the mix of models to be changed according to demand, Schmidt said.
The Leon, which is only available as a five-door hatchback, comes with a choice of four inline-four gasoline engines and two diesels. A 20-valve, 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder is rated at 180 hp tops the engine range.