“SEAT has been through hell, in a way," asserted Luca de Meo, who became chairman of the Spanish automaker, part of Volkswagen Group, late last year. But after it survived a lengthy recession a recovery is underway, he insisted, in which the company will launch a flurry of new products and spearhead use of new vehicle architecture and technologies through 2020.
In a recent interview with Automotive Engineering in his Martorell office, near Barcelona, de Meo--an executive never at a loss for words--hit back against doubters who say SEAT is a lost cause. The company will be the first VW brand to use the Group’s new MQB A0 platform that will underpin the next generation Ibiza. SEAT also majors on distinctive design, connectivity, sportiness, and a degree of “emotion,” with 48V hybrid powertrain applications also in the pipeline to support and broaden its systems’ repertoire, he reported.
De Meo admitted, however, that SEAT needs to establish a distinct identity, one that can be communicated effectively in a word or short phrase to the public and the business community.
Emerging from VW's shadow
Born in Milan in 1967, de Meo started his career at Renault, before moving to Toyota Europe and then Fiat Group, where he headed the Lancia, Fiat and Alfa Romeo brands. He joined Volkswagen Group in 2009 as head of Marketing for both the Group and the Volkswagen passenger cars brand, before becoming Board member for Sales and Marketing at Audi AG in 2012. Three years later he assumed chairmanship of SEAT.
His experience in the European industry convinces de Meo that SEAT, after breaking even in its last financial year after several of losses, now has the potential of a successful future.
“After just eight weeks I became more and more optimistic about the chances of bringing the organization to the next level," he noted. "In the next 18 months, we will benefit from the biggest product offensive that SEAT has ever had.”
With the advent of the Ateca SUV and a planned crossover wholly developed and manufactured in Spain, SEAT’s market coverage will rise from 55% to 75%, de Meo claimed. “This makes everyone bullish about the future. We are very close to our customers and know what they need," he said, noting that SEAT was the first high volume manufacturer to introduce connected-car technology in the Ibiza. V2V and V2X, he explained, are a vital part of SEAT’s future.
De Meo sees SEAT emerging for the first time from the shadow of other VW brands to look for its own way of doing things. Last year the company spent €586 M on investments and R&D. It has 1000 engineers and specialists who develop suspension, dynamics, and electronic systems, although powertrains are Wolfsburg’s responsibility.
These will continue to include diesels. SEAT was not seriously affected by VW's “dieselgate” emissions scandal, and de Meo remains confident of the technology’s future. “Until you get another technology to meet our customer benefits and requirements, it [diesel] will stay solid," he opined. "People like their diesels for fuel consumption, low CO2 emissions, and torque. There are no longer turbolag or noise negatives. I believe in it.”
There is a continual exchange with VW’s German technology hub regarding SEAT’s requirements. But the company is not mainly serving Spain. Ironically, its biggest market is Germany (where it competes with its "cousin" the VW Golf) followed by Spain, the U.K. and Mexico, where its presence is expanding. The company currently exports to 37 significant markets.
De Meo said he wants to see SEAT eventually taking leadership in some aspects of Group technology although he gave no detail.: “There is something in being a smaller cog in the huge VW Group; we can move a little quicker, and for sure the attitude to achieve is present here," he explained. "The Ibiza has always been the backbone of SEAT and now we have the chance to introduce the MQB A0.”
Diesels over EVs
This new platform will be used for several Group models including the Audi A1, Q3 and Polo. The new A1 will be built by SEAT at Martorell. The factory produced 477,000 SEATs and Audi Q3s last year, the total up 60% over six years.
SEAT’s technology priorities for the next five to 10 years particularly embrace decisions on the connected car, electrification, and autonomous driving. For the two latter, SEAT can access the “technology supermarket” of the VW Group, although SEAT customers generally do not have the purchasing power for costly electric vehicles.
A Leon EV would not find many customers, said de Meo: “I need to concentrate on a technology that brings real CO2 reduction but that our customers can afford. Hybrid is certainly in the SEAT scope but at present that is not likely to be a high volume solution. So even though downsized engines including a 3-cylinder gasoline will be used in products, diesel remains significant.
De Meo plans to continue with SEAT’s motorsport program: “We don’t have a big budget; you would not expect SEAT to go to a major series because we do not have the money.” Is there a cost/benefit figure? As well as the profile motorsport brings to the brand via its high performance Cupra models, there are also some VW Group-wide projects which gain. “The benefit is there—but to build a business case [for motorsports] is always creaky!”
Did this interview take de Meo closer to his missing word? His riposte was pragmatic: “I will come with my one word the next time we see each other….!”