SEAT's (pron. SEY-AT) Italian CEO, Luca de Meo, was astonished when he arrived in Barcelona eighteen months ago to find marketing analysts griping about the brand's marked skew toward younger buyers.
The forty-eight-year-old De Meo, who had previously worked for Fiat and Toyota, exclaimed, "Guys, I have spent my entire career working on PowerPoint presentations to show how we could rejuvenate our customer base!"
The average age of SEAT's European customers is about forty-three; eight to ten years younger than that of competing brands. SEAT will tell you that this is because of the Latin flair which it projects. As its brand blurb states, "Our story begins in a beautiful land: Spain. A country by the sea, full of light, art, and passion."
People, the company says, expect SEAT to be warm - to express the spirit of Barcelona.
Certainly, SEAT is one of the pillars of Spain's economy. Many, if not all, of its cars are born in Martorell, an industrial town thirty kilometers northwest of Barcelona.
However, despite being the only Spanish company that can design and engineer its own cars, SEAT sells less than half a million cars per year and is below the radar of most buyers.
A more likely reason for the brand's popularity with youth is that SEAT builds mostly small cars, in the city and subcompact segments.
Yet as SEAT customers have matured, started families, and seen an increase in their disposable income, the brand has not had the larger vehicles needed to retain them.
SEAT has put fairly few resources into sedans, for instance, and will soon drop the slow-selling Toledo. The Alhambra people-carrier, too, will be gone. "We do not want to do that bodystyle anymore," SEAT design boss Alejandro Mesonero told AutoExpress magazine.
So, what will SEAT build to expand its customer base? This year, the brand has launched its first SUV. That, says CEO de Meo, is "where the money is today."
Two more SUVs, smaller and larger than the new Ateca will follow within the next year.
Based on the Volkswagen Tiguan, the SEAT Ateca has risen to challenge the Nissan Qashqai, Europe's default choice among small sport-utilities for growing families. It's the Spanish brand's first SUV, and in base models comes with a one-liter turbocharged engine. The ride is a bit harsh on poor roads, as in many modern – and especially German – cars, but the chassis and steering are pleasantly responsive. The rear swallows two adults and luggage for four, and interior quality matches or beats everything this side of an Audi Q2 (with which the Ateca shares componentry) or Peugeot 3008. A three-hundred-horsepower "Cupra" version is coming.
SEAT has for thirty years been a member of the Volkswagen empire. Prior to VW, SEAT technology was largely rooted in old Fiats and the brand was known for value rather than vigor.
Volkswagen's hopes of turning SEAT into a Spanish Alfa Romeo gradually dimmed as the brand grappled with underused capacity and heavy discounting – often, both at once.
The brand was in 2016 profitable after a decade of losses, and this looks set to continue on the back of the Ateca and a new version of its emblematic Ibiza compact, the brand's oldest nameplate and its best seller. SEAT is moving more models with higher specifications, with a new flagship trim called "Xcellence." Meanwhile, to motivate its youthful customer base, SEAT will sell its cars with more internet services, including software to route drivers around traffic jams. The brand is wooing experts from technology firms and opened a research lab in Barcelona in April.
DeMeo promises there will be no further talk of Alfa. "Benchmarking branding simply doesn't work. You always end up second best. So while I can understand the aspiration, it's not the right thing to do," he told Britain's Telegraph newspaper.
However, he remains bullish on the strategy of German technology and Latin flair. The Ateca will no doubt sell well, and SEAT could probably move more than sixty thousand this year – if it had the capacity to make more.
Roll on the next two SUVs, then: the smaller Arona and larger, seven-seat Formentor. Both are named after areas of Spain, "Arona" originating from a municipality in the southern part of Tenerife (in Spain's Canary islands), and Cap De Formentor being a cape at the eastern end of Majorca in the Balearic islands.