It’s time for me to show my dumb midwestern Americanness, and y’all, I’m sorry. I have a lot of European and South American Twitter followers. I drive an Italian car. I was a weird car nerd for most of my life, complete with a rehearsed sales pitch about why we should petition the government to bring Peugeot and Renault back to the United States. My parents didn’t need a Ford Econoline, they should have been driving a Peugeot 807, dammit! Still, with all my Euro-car love, I fail to understand SEAT’s purpose.
The UK press tells me that SEAT is supposed to be a somewhat budget, but the sportier arm of Volkswagen, but to me, it’s Pontiac, but for Europeans. Let the feather-ruffling commence.
I can hear dozens of you frothing at the mouth now: “Pontiac isn’t sporty, it only made pieces of shit!” And yes! You’d be right! There was little to like about Pontiac’s pre-death lineup, filled to the brim with cynical bottom-dollar GM parts bin mashups. And yet, they were sporty. At least, sporty, if you look at them in a very specific vacuum, that only made sense to legacy GM sedan buyers.
See, back in the day, GM’s umpteen brands had a hierarchy that made sense back in the 1960s and 1970s. Chevy, was the “everyday” brand, but if you wanted a sportier, engaging to drive, you’d buy a Pontiac. Back then, GM’s brands had a degree of autonomy, Pontiac developed its own engines, suspension tuning, and styling that at times set them apart from their pedestrian Chevrolet brethren. Over the years, Pontiac’s autonomy would be further reduced until it became a generic GM parts bin dumping ground for the almost-stylish, but very budget level takes on GM’s sedans.
But even the parts bin specials were sporty! Or, kind of sporty if you only look at them in context with one other GM model. The Pontiac G6 and 2004 to 2007 Chevrolet Malibu are probably the best examples of that “sporty in a vacuum” concept. But, the G6 is sporty compared to the Malibu; its proto-four-door-coupe-esque styling was edgier than the upright roofline of the Malibu. The G6’s steering, powertrain options (you could get a manual!) were more engaging than the Malibu’s, too. Were these cars sporty compared to a Mazda 6 or Honda Accord? Ha, hell no.
Anyways, Pontiac’s legitimate sports pedigree from cars like the Tempest or GTO eventually gave way to the only slightly sporty, only in a vacuum special we got for at least a decade and a half before Pontiac was taken out back and shot.
SEAT is kind of the same way. In the mid-2000s, SEAT’s lineup looked so different than a contemporary Volkswagen, Skoda, or Audi. Bubbly, racy styling, and interiors that weren’t so obvious that they were just standard Volkswagen switchgear. They had Cupra, a sporty trim that was different from whatever Volkswagen was slinging, even if they used a lot of the same parts.
Today’s SEAT seems completely purposeless. The cars themselves look fine, but they don’t seem very unique, to my faraway American eyes. Where’s the nutmeg? The Cinnamon? The Sugar? Are Europeans really preferring to buy the Leon or Ibiza over a Golf or Polo?
In 2008, the G6 was sportier compared to the 2004-2007 Malibu, but in 2008, the Malibu was completely redesigned. The 2008 Malibu was one of GM US’s game-changing sedans, with much-improved quality, styling, and driving dynamics that put it about on par as the Mazda 6 or Honda Accord. At the very least, it beat the brakes off GM’s own placeholder sporty sedan, the Pontiac G6. Now, there was no reason at all for Pontiac to exist, everything they sold was a worse, uglier Chevy, that didn’t even have the pretense of being sporty anymore. The new Chevys were pretty well resolved, now. GM finally put real effort into making a good-to-drive sedan, and with it, undid the raison d’etre for its sporty brand.
I haven’t had experience with SEAT products, I’ve never been to Europe or Mexico where they’re sold. Yet, I wonder if SEAT’s raison d’etre is quickly evaporating. In the era of parts sharing, and platform modularity, I can’t imagine that a SEAT Leon is that different from a VW Golf. Heck, the very popular SEAT Ateca is only a fascia swap away from being our US-market Volkswagen Taos. Why does SEAT exist? This is just Pontiac, y’all.
I’ll have to get some seat time with a SEAT, maybe that Auto Emocion will change my mind, and I’ll fall in love with the brand like millions of folks have worldwide.