JUST mention the word Spain and lots of images spring to mind. Sand, sea, Sangria, sun and summer holidays are probably the most likely, although in recent years after the problems with the Euro some Scots may also be thinking of self-inflicted overspending and staggering credit card statements.
Spain’s economy may have stalled from the boom times of the latter part of the last century but one area is actually doing pretty well.
Away from the sun-kissed resorts on the Costa Blanca, Spain’s car industry leader, Seat, has had a record-breaking half-year in 2013, putting almost 23,000 cars on the roads of Europe in that time. That’s almost 20 per cent up on last year’s figures and means it is poised to have a bumper year, helped by the introduction of the latest version of its iconic family hatchback, the Leon.
The new five-door saloon, launched only a few months ago, has gone down well and now the three-door sports coupe version, rather unimaginatively called the SC, has arrived to much praise. At first sight it looks similar to the five-door, but in fact it’s completely different all the way from the A-pillar back with a lower roofline and a more squat, athletic and sporty look. The tailgate has a steeper slope and the extended wheel arches make it seem more powerful with broader shoulders. In the absence of the back doors, the designers have done some nice work to reduce the size and shape of the rear windows but the most noticeable feature is the sharp crease down the rear quarter.
Most of us probably wouldn’t notice, but it’s the sort of thing designers get very excited about and apparently this particular crease is way up there in the exciting-body-crease stakes.
The man who created it is Seat’s head honcho designer Alejandro Mesonero-Romanos, who apart from having a pretty large business card just to fit his name on, waxes lyrically about the Leon crease and the sharp lines he has introduced across the Seat range since he took over two years ago.
He was determined to give today’s Seat cars a distinctive arrowhead appearance and family face rather than the rather bland look they’ve had in the recent past, where they’ve struggled to find their niche in the parent VAG group among Skoda, VW and Audi. He says the Leon SC is the arrowhead in its purest form from the headlights to the tailpipe and he believes it’s the company’s best-looking car ever.
I think Señor Mesonero-Romanos could have gone further and come up with something more dramatic, but he’s happier with what might be seen as a more cautious approach. Without naming specific competitor brands – although he hinted strongly at certain French marques – Mesonero-Romanos warns against “over-designing”, where the looks take over from practicality .
Seat’s tag line is “Enjoyneering” – a combination of Spanish flair and design and German engineering – which is clever but not as sexy as its previous “autoemocion”.
Where that engineering is important of course is on the road and that’s where the sporty FR version in particular, comes into its own. The test car had the 2.0-litre diesel engine with 148bhp of power – there’s a brawnier 182bhp version also – and certainly it was happy to get up and go and feel secure and stable in a range of conditions and road surfaces. It came with almost £3,500-worth of extras, including leather upholstery, 18-inch alloys, automatic wipers and lights and a Driver Assist Pack which, on top of a comprehensive LED lighting system, has a Tiredness Recognition function.
It learns the pilot’s driving style over a long journey and if it senses a deviation from it, issues warning signals. There’s also Lane Assist, which I found a little disconcerting. Using a camera on the rear-view mirror, it views lane markings and if it detects a drift towards another lane, will correct the steering to keep it back on the straight and narrow. Not just that, but it will even steer the car round a bend.
On the recommendation of an engineer, I put it to the test by lifting my hands from the wheel on a gentle sweep in the road and sure enough, it guides the car round before issuing a warning beep and a disciplinary note on the display to take control of the steering. All very interesting, but it could be seen as part of the trend towards taking away responsibility for control from the driver.
Seat has aspirations to become a bigger player in the European car business. If Señor Mesonero-Romanos and the company keeps coming up with the likes of the Leon SC, it will get there sooner rather than later.
CAR Seat Leon SC FR 2.0 TDI 150PS
PRICE £21,085 (£24,420 as tested)
CO2 EMISSIONS 106 g/km
PERFORMANCE Max speed 134 mph; 0-62 mph 8.4 secs
FUEL CONSUMPTION (combined) 69mpg