Carmakers have their peaks and troughs and last year the volume brand with the most soaring peak was SEAT. Its UK sales rose 18 per cent to pass 56,000. This is a record for the Spanish bit of the VW Group. The picture was the same in mainland Europe.
In the UK it was remarkable because the overall market for new cars fell by 5.65 per cent. Even VW itself could only manage a 0.69 per cent boost, though worth more than 1,400 sales as its market share reached 8.32 per cent – another record and getting near Ford’s dwindling share of 10.2 per cent. VW’s other big brands Skoda (lacking the Yeti at the year-end) and Audi fell back slightly while Bentley, despite its new Bentayga SUV, dropped 10 per cent and 195 valuable sales.
Volkswagen per se has a flourish of newcomers including the T-Roc and the Tiguan Allspace, the sleek Arteon lift-back and right now a new Polo.
This popular supermini uses the latest “group” platform, found under SEAT’s all-new Ibiza and the car tested here, the Arona, a punchy five-door hatchback/crossover. It is made alongside the Polo and the next Audi A1 at SEAT’s factory near Barcelona.
It is the brand’s (and the group’s) first small “crossover”, much smaller than the Ateca which in turn is smaller than the as yet unnamed seven-seat SUV arriving at the end of the year. SEAT is to launch an electric version of its baby mini, the Mii, a tasty new Cupra plus some other bits and bobs making six new models in the next two years – fiesta time for Spain’s carmaker.
The Arona – it’s a locality in Tenerife and in Italy – is the latest in the almost tidal wave of “crossover” and compact SUV models. Head-on rivals include the Hyundai Kona, Kia Stonic. SEAT also names the Citroen C3 Aircross, Nissan Juke, Mini Countryman, Peugeot 2008 and Renault Captur. You should also look at the VW T Roc. Skoda Karoq and Toyota H-CR are a size bigger but there are price overlaps.
Unlike most rivals, SEAT has taken the choice away from the customer and selected just about all the kit you can have in six tiers of trim levels – SE, SE Technology, FR, FR Sport, Xcellence, Xcellence Lux. This means there is no extra charge for metallic paint or a contrast roof colour on any of them. Front radar control is standard, too, as are alloys, cruise control, air conditioning, automatic headlamps and remote locking. The cheapest SE has the 94bhp 1-litre three-cylinder petrol engine at £16,555. A 114bhp DSG automatic SE costs £17,955 and a higher torque 94bhp 1.6 diesel SE is £18,695. The SE Technology looks more tempting, with built-in navigation, an improved media system, with phone links and so on, from £17,545. The only thing missing from my tick-list is a rear camera and the Arona ordering system means that if you want one you’ll have to get the top spec Xcellence Lux – from £22,095 with the 114bhp petrol engine.
The principal options you can select are a spare wheel and tow bar and this paucity of personal choice suggests that the launch slogan of “do your own thing” may more accurately be “do our thing”. The no-options method is meant to make stocking faster for the dealers, with quicker delivery times. It will also make future tax levies based on C02 output simpler to calculate.
Two other engines should be mentioned. There is a 114bhp version of the 1.6 diesel and a 148bhp 1.5 litre petrol “evo”. The 94bhp diesel is offered with DSG gears in the Xcellence versions.
It’s easy to spot the VW Group content in the specifications. These are familiar and popular units. The cabin design also screams VW – calm, dark, clearly instrumented. Outside, there is the familiar and rather tame SEAT grille. The rear is better and has hints of Skoda design.
I tried the 94bhp petrol and diesel versions and the 148bhp evo – all with manual gears. Each was pleasant. The diesel was smooth and flexible. The evo was nippy. The route was a 20-mile loop over flat contours with a mix of urban, rural and motorways. I’d be happy with any of them but the evo costs from £21,270 (in FR trim) and recorded just 29mpg (brochure figure 55.4mpg and 115g). The 94bhp petrol model recorded 34mpg compared with 57.6mpg and 111g in the brochure.
It was left to the 94bhp diesel to post some decent figures, with the trip computer showing 57mpg (brochure 70.6mpg and 105g). On that showing, it’s still a moot point whether it’s worth £2,140 more than the sweet 94bhp petrol engine.
However, contract hire plans may tempt you to diesel. You can have one from £179 a month over three years – £30 a month more than the petrol model (each with a £3,900 down payment and the usual stipulations).
SEAT brass reckon the 114bhp petrol FR will be the biggest seller. It costs £19,895 or £216 a month over three years.
Verdict: Inoffensive, a contender, worth a look.