GENEVA - Two years ago, Volkswagen Chairman Ferdinand Piech said he wanted VW's Seat brand to rise to the level of Alfa Romeo in style and image. To back his words, he hired Walter de' Silva, Alfa's celebrated chief designer.
At the Geneva auto show this month, Piech began to see a payoff.
What a week de' Silva had. The former head of Alfa design who went to Seat 18 months ago stole the show - twice.
The 156 Sportwagon de' Silva designed before leaving Alfa was the production hit of the show, a highly praised sequel to the 156 sedan, the 1997 car of the year.
And his first effort at Seat - the Salsa coupe/minivan hybrid that is expected to be produced - was easily the concept star of Geneva.
With the Salsa, de' Silva revealed where he plans to take Seat: He wants to create the kind of flair that marked his 12 years heading Alfa design. But he is also interested in practicality.
'Sportiness no longer means just a two-seat coupe, but a more practical car,' de' Silva said.
2 PRIME EXAMPLES
Geneva saw the world debut of two distinct interpretations of de' Silva's approach. Both the 156 Sportwagon and Salsa are crossover vehicles. The Alfa mixes wagon and coupe; the Seat blends coupe and minivan.
'I am deeply convinced that today's car buyer wants, in addition to a sporty character, plenty of interior space and a wide flexibility of use,' de' Silva said. 'Even true icons of pure performance cars such as Ferrari and Porsche are evolving toward a more practical car. The market expects even more practicality from a volume maker.'
The Salsa, the first car conceived at Seat under de' Silva's guidance, is much more than a concept car.
'It is our baby,' said Winfried Burgert, Seat executive vice president in charge of research and development. 'I will try my best to get it made, but the VW Group philosophy is that all brands should be financially independent. With our cash flow we have to pay our debts first, then we can launch additional products.'
The Salsa is based on the platform of the forthcoming sporty version of Leon, the Cupra. The Salsa has a 2.8-liter V-6 engine coupled with permanent four-wheel drive. The Cupra wheelbase was lengthened by 2.4 inches to offer more leg room to rear passengers.
Work on the Salsa began last spring with the construction of four 1: 10 scale models.
'We are a very international team at Seat Design,' de' Silva said. 'Three models came from Spanish designers - Jesus Iglesias, Xavier Ibarguchi and Juan Perez. The fourth was by Steve Lewis from the U.K.'
A full-sized styling model was approved last September, and construction of the running prototype began.
'I am really happy with the final result,' de' Silva said. 'To create a new family feeling for Seat had been my obsession since my first day in Martorell. I think the Salsa shows a very good direction.'
But de' Silva said the overall package was also a priority.
'The Salsa is not a 2+2 coupe, but a true four-seater with plenty of luggage space, all within a length of little more than 4 meters,' he said.
De' Silva, 49, is an architect by training. He began working at Fiat's styling center in the early 1970s. He moved to Turin's IdeA Institute in 1979 before taking over Alfa's moribund styling center in 1986.
Alfa Romeo remains in his heart, but Seat is his new life.
'I was able to build a great team here at Seat and Barcelona is a fantastic place to live. My sense is that this area is becoming, for car design, the California of the new millennium. Seat, VW and Renault are already here, Volvo is coming and I think many others will follow.'
For his new team, de' Silva called on two former Alfa colleagues: Wolfgang Egger, the German who was chief designer on the Alfa 166, and Simona Falcinella, an Italian who leads color and trim.
From Lancia he took another Italian, Flavio Manzoni, who designed the interior of the Dialogos concept car.
Two others were taken within the VW Group: Carsten Monnerjan from VW Group's advanced design center in Sitges, Spain, and Tim Pilsbury from VW's main studio in Wolfsburg.
Altogether, Seat Design has about 70 people, most of them Spanish. But among the designers there are three Italians (de' Silva included), two Germans, two Britons and 10 Spaniards.
De' Silva enjoyed the spotlight in Geneva, but shrugged off the praise of those who call him Europe's top design visionary. He admits to having a short-term view of the future.
'I am able to imagine what will be on the market in three or four years' time, but no further,' he said. 'These days, the changes are too rapid. You can't look to the next decade. I think anyone who says, `This will be the right shape for 2025' is just kidding you. For over 40 years, we saw `previews' of how the year 2000 car had to look. They were all wrong.'