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SEAT for SA: First drive

2006-02-15 17:14

Egmont Sippel

The impressive SEAT Leon. Click here for SEAT photo galleries

The Spanish car maker SEAT is poised to hit the South African market in June this year, with a line up of no fewer than 14 well-equipped variants - sporting a wide choice of engines and gearboxes - from three different ranges: the Ibiza, Altea and Leon.

Wheels24 drove representative models from all three ranges over the weekend on the Spanish island of Majorca, half an hour by air off the Barcelona coastline.

The Ibiza, to start with, is a mini-hatch based on the current Volkswagen Polo (Mk. IV), which first appeared in 2002.

The Leon is a compact hatch based on the latest VW Golf V.

And the Altea is a mini-MPV, also based on the Golf V platform.

SEAT, of course, is owned by Volkswagen AG and managed by the Audi Brand Group. As such, SEAT is part of the sporty arm of the VW family, together with Audi and Lamborghini.

In South Africa, the brand will be sold by 10 independent dealers.

Servicing, however, will be shared with the closest Audi or VW centre, with the added advantage that a stricken SEAT could still be fixed by an Audi or VW dealer in places sans SEAT representation, courtesy of such a great parts commonality between the brands.

Sporty Volkswagens and De Silva

It comes as no surprise then, to find that the Ibiza, Leon and Altea feel and drive like sporty VWs.

In general they perform and handle a notch better though, albeit on a firmer and less comfortable ride.

Visuals are also far more dramatic and dynamic, especially in terms of exterior styling. And interiors are visually more exciting, in spite of thinner plastics and even components carried over from older-generation VWs.

The killer-punch though, is bang for the buck. Or that's how the theory used to go; SEAT was conceived as a cheaper alternative to equivalent Volkswagens.

Since ex-Alfa Romeo design guru Walter de Silva took over the reigns in Barcelona, however, SEAT has had a make-over of note.

De Silva developed some unique styling themes for the Spanish marque, imbuing it with hot Latin emotion to compliment the sporty nature of SEAT performance and dynamics.

And it's all based on solid German engineering.

Add top-notch standard equipment in South African models, and SEAT will locally be positioned between VW and Audi.

Having driven a couple of the variants in question, we can understand why.

The SEAT Ibiza Cupra

Nuevo Ibiza

First up was the Nuevo Ibiza, as the Spaniards call it - or the new Ibiza, where 'new' means face-lifted. In total, the range now offers 18 models in Spain, with a choice of five trim lines and 11 engines.

Now, for three successive years Britain's What Car? Magazine has voted the Ibiza their favourite super-mini.

Seeing that South Africa has not yet had the privilege of experiencing such an acclaimed little run-about, it just doesn't make sense to go into the particulars of the face-lift.

Even to trained Spanish eyes visual changes might be difficult to spot (new bumpers, lights, etc).

But it's not difficult to grasp the essence of the Ibiza's appeal, especially as expressed in two extremely hot editions known as the 1.8T Cupra and the 1.9 TDI Cupra.

The first is a 3-door petrol tomcat driven by the 132 kW version of VW's lovely - and oh so versatile - 1.8-litre turbo-charged 4-cylinder.

Such power pitches the 1.8T Cupra four-square against the Renault Clio Sport 2.0 (131 kW) and the Peugeot 206 GTi 180 (130 kW), both of which sell for just under R210 000.

The SEAT's advantage though, is that turbo-charger. At the Reef, where the Clio and Pug lose 17% of their power, the Cupra will only lose 5%.

Smooth as silk

At sea level in Spain the 1.8T performed absolutely marvelously in any case, specifically in a body as small and light as the Ibiza's.

The power surge - managed with admirable mechanical precision via an easy 6-speed manual box - is clean and uninterrupted, and builds in tandem with a lovely roarty exhaust note.

Steering is also beefy enough to hold a fast curvy line with confidence. In sharper corners, however, the tail becomes lively under heavy braking on turn-in.

This predilection for a slight tendency to oversteer on entry is a characteristic of almost all SEAT models we have driven on Majorca. And it's fine; the company aims to be sporty, and a lively tail helps.

Unfortunately, this characteristic is enhanced to almost uncomfortable levels in the Ibiza 1.9 TDI Cupra, the heavier nose seemingly ensuring a tail that is, in relative terms, even lighter and therefore more prone to step out.

Petrol more refined

The TDI is also more difficult to slow down and steers with less precision than the 1.8T, although it feels very stable in a straight line.

The big differences, though, are mechanical. The 1.8T is fast and precise through its box; the TDI slower, more lethargic and a lot noisier.

In fact, noisy clutches have been one of the few weak points on a number of cars we have driven over the weekend, wind-noise around the wipers being the other.

Keeping in mind that Cupra models are supposed to provide the purest high speed driving experiences in the SEAT range, the Ibiza 1.8T simply knocks spots off the 1.9 TDI Cupra. The petrol-turbo sings like a nightingale and the car is faster, smoother and easier to drive than the gruff, boomy turbo-diesel.

The fact that the latter is the most powerful oil burner in its class therefore becomes irrelevant. Differences in refinement are simply too vast for the TDI to compete.

If Audi SA gets the pricing right, the 132 kW 1.8T Ibiza Cupra will become an overnight phenomenon among boy racers.


VW guru Ferdinand Piech was the man who lured Walter de Silva from Alfa. The good doctor's brief to the Italian designer was to create a distinctive and exciting new design language for SEAT.

The idea was to create a Spanish equivalent to Alfa, in terms of emotional appeal - but backed by German engineering.

De Silva's Salsa concept followed soon afterwards, in 2000 on the Geneva Motor Show. One look and it's clear that the new Leon hatch - which debuted last year - was visually developed from Salsa cues.

SEAT Altea

Being built on the Golf V platform, but generally with beefier suspension, it also comes as no surprise to find that the Leon rides like a firmed-up Golf.

Body-roll is less pronounced, though the steering on the 110 kW FSI version felt over-assisted, with lots of understeer if you boot the throttle from the apex in slow corners.

The dash, and especially the centre console, on the other hand, speak of a more sporty character and also of greater maturity in design, doing away with the Golf's "Noddy Car" cabin personality.

Rear legroom is equally good, and the boot is - low and behold - a tad more spacious than the Golf's.

The 136 kW engine that we drove in the FR version of the Leon was certainly not as willing and vivacious as the Golf GTI's 147 kW mill, nor could it match the latter's lively soundtrack. As things stand now, however, the Leon FR will be kitted out with the 147 kW mill for local distribution.

So, how about a roomier, better handling Golf with an exotic Latin character?


If the Ibiza and Leon hatchbacks are poised to alter your view of SEAT, the Altea will be a revelation.

In terms of roominess, it is a rather spacious mini-MPV. In appearance, it sits comfortably between a MPV and a coupe. And in terms of handling, it is surprisingly dynamic.

The Altea dispatches twisties with an aplomb that belies its real purpose.

A huge boot, for instance, can be even further enhanced by lifting the false bottom. And interior space stretching in all directions will easily accommodate five adults with comfort to spare.

On top of that, interesting mechanical choices abound - like mating a DSG gearbox to a diesel mill.

Another technological highlight is that the Altea's FSI engines will, just like the Leon's, be serviced by direct petrol injection.

In the SEAT Altea then, the Renault Scenic and Honda F-RV will face some real competition.


Here is the full range that will debut in SA, in June:

SEAT Ibiza

  • 2.0 5-door manual (85 kW)
  • 1.8T FR 5-dr man (110 kW)
  • 1.9 TDI FR 5-dr man (96 kW)
  • 1.9 TDI Cupra 5-dr man (118 kW)
  • 1.8T Cupra 3-door man (132 kW)

    SEAT Altea

  • 2.0 FSI 6-sp man (110 kW)
  • 2.0 FSI 6-spd tiptronic (110 kW)
  • 2.0 TDI 6-spd man (103 kW)
  • 2.0 TDI 6-spd DSG (103 kW)

    SEAT Leon

  • 2.0 FSI 6-sp man (110 kW)
  • 2.0 FSI 6-spd tiptronic (110 kW)
  • 2.0 TDI 6-spd man (103 kW)
  • 2.0 TDI 6-spd DSG (103 kW)
  • 2.0 TFSI FR 6-spd man (147 kW)

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