Alejandro Mesonero-Romanos is a designer who knows exactly what he wants when he embarks on the creation of a new car: “Proportions: they are 70% of the success of any new model. It is the ratio between length, width, height, together with wheel size and the position of the A-pillars. It is as ‘simple’ as that.”
So it might be thought that as Design Director of the Volkswagen Group’s Spanish SEAT brand, he would have been a shade uneasy about the decision made by the parent company’s German HQ that a new modular platform configuration—designated MQB (Modularer Querbaukasteron (Modular Transverse Matrix) previously described by AEI)—conceived and born in Wolfsburg must be used for all appropriate models.
But the independently minded, car-centric Mesonero-Romanos was totally relaxed about it. Speaking at the launch of the León SC (Coupe), he said: “Spanish engineers played a significant part in the development of the MQB platform—as did engineers in other Volkswagen Group brands. So it was configured to a significant degree with the third-generation SEAT León in mind. Its modularity means we can each have different wheelbase, track, height, or overall length dimensions. For example, the wheelbase of the new SC is 35 mm shorter than that of the five-door hatchback version of the car.”
Only the area between the front axle and the front bulkhead (which incorporates the HVAC system), the pedal box, and the engine position are configuration fixtures, which left Mesonero-Romanos and his 120-strong design team huge freedom to give the programs under his direction the southern European signature that distinguishes them from their MQB relatives.
With the Audi A3, VW Golf, Škoda Octavia, and multi-variant León range (hatchback, SC, and just announced wagon), all sitting on the same modular underpinnings, the formula for the MQB platform might now be regarded as QED.
And there are more MQB-based models to come.
The design flexibility provided by MQB is such that the León SC is not just a three-door version of the five-door hatch. Aesthetically, everything from the A-pillar rearward is distinct from the five-door, and the roofline is lower. SEAT places the emphasis on a dynamic styling signature that gives its latest models a clear separation from other VW Group products.
The VW Group Main Board, which has to sign off every design proposed by its 12 brands, gave the green light to the third-generation León lineup almost four years ago.
Each brand has a design director who is overseen by Group Design Director Walter de Silva. Says Mesonero-Romanos: “He ensures that the brand designers do not tread on each other’s toes. It doesn’t make sense for Group brands to design, say, six cars for the same market segment, so although we share the same platforms, we adjust strategies. If we want something special pushed through, Walter will help us, while making sure that it meshes with the other brands.” The León was designed entirely in Spain and developed at SEAT’s Centro Técnico (Technology Center) facility at Martorell near Barcelona.
But the company makes use of expertise across the VW Group, with designers exchanged between brands. SEAT’s extensive virtual design systems reflect those used by all VW brands: “We have the same processes used by every design studio in the group so we can easily exchange data as well as people; everything is fully compatible.”
With a vast range of components including powertrains shared (the SC range starts with VW’s very smooth 77-kW/103-hp 1.2-L gasoline engine), this interchange is essential.
Mesonero-Romanos said the latest León design had progressed smoothly. “It was not a difficult birth. This is a straightforward car with nothing that can be taken away without altering the signature of the design. What is not liked in the VW Group is complex design. That is a question of culture rather than cost.”
However, there is an element of complexity—albeit geometrical—about the León SC’s styling. It is sharp-edged and rests very much on triangularity. There are triangles in many aspects of the car, from its dashboard vents to its door mirrors, headlamps, and hood creases.
“I was rather unpopular with the engineers at one time when I wanted very sharp body creases, particularly at the rear of the car,” says Mesonero-Romanos. “Stamping was an extremely big challenge. Sheet metal, of course, has bending limits, and many parts were broken in the pursuit of what had been shown in the sketches of the SC. But we achieved it—and now the engineers are rightly very proud of what they did!”
Mesonero-Romanos is diplomatic about SEAT’s products compared with those of its ultimate parent, Volkswagen. “The León is no better or worse than a Golf, but it looks different and is very distinctive. For buyers, it is all about what is in an individual’s eye and mind; some may prefer the Golf, but naturally we prefer our car! It is a question of taste—like seeing two beautiful women at a party...”
As well as its proportions, Mesonero-Romanos singles out a car’s “face” as a salient aspect of its design, about which he holds very strong views; he does not like excessively wraparound headlamps that stretch almost to the A-pillars, nor huge front grilles that look more as if the car is attached to them than vice-versa. “We prefer to be more subtle. We don’t need to ‘yell’ as do several designs. Around 20% of some headlamp designs are just cosmetic; we design for a practical purpose.”
It is for that reason that he does not believe electric and/or hybrid cars—which SEAT is expected to produce soon—should look markedly different to regular internal-combustion powered models. Only when alternative powertrain packaging is very significantly smaller would he consider a radical design direction change. “At present, I do not see the need to shout, ‘Hey—I’m electric!’”
What Mesonero-Romanos would like to see at some time in the future is the emergence of new “back to basics” two-seat roadsters. “Today, we have become very lazy with everything powered and button-controlled.” He does not believe that drivers should be given systems that they do not necessarily need. “So, maybe a new spyder with wind-up windows, a normal pull-on handbrake, and a folding canvas roof that can be opened and shut with one hand from the driving seat would be fun. But such a car wouldn’t be ‘retro,’ and it would have to be safe, logical, and have high quality.”
Sounds like a perfect application of an added MQB facet: Modern Quick Basic.