Luca de Meo was given a task last November: make perennial money-loser Seat a winner for parent Volkswagen Group. De Meo inherited a brand that was making progress toward that goal. Seat is now targeting a wider customer base after years of trying to lure young buyers looking for sporty models at a budget price. The Italian-born executive, who has worked for Renault, Toyota, Lancia, Fiat, Alfa Romeo, VW and Audi, discussed his road map for Seat with Automotive News Europe Editor Luca Ciferri. They met on the sidelines of the unveiling of Seat's first SUV, the Ateca, last month in Barcelona.
How will you reposition Seat?
The guys before me tried to move the brand from its youthful, sporty positioning into a more mainstream position. That is a tough place to be, but it is where we have to be if we want to grow our volume. We have to get out of the shadow. The company has the basics that are needed to succeed: 1,000 engineers in our Martorell r&d center and the ability to meet high-quality standards that we gain from building vehicles for Audi [the Q3]. In the past, Seat was satisfied with being a follower, now we have to create our own road by identifying areas where we want to be more cutting edge. Infotainment could be one.
What is Seat's midterm volume target?
I have one, but I prefer to communicate my goal using a segment-by-segment, bottom-up philosophy. You start to be noticed when you have a 5 percent share of a segment. At 10 percent, you become relevant on the shopping list. At 20 percent, you become a top player. In Europe we are above 5 percent with the Leon [compact] and almost there with the Ibiza [subcompact]. Our Alhambra large minivan [with its 17.5 percent share] is second only to the segment leader, the VW Sharan.
What about in minicars and sedans?
We sell very low volumes of the Mii [minicar, a derivative of the VW Up] and Toledo [compact sedan, a derivative of the Skoda Rapid]. This confirms my belief that we should avoid badge engineering as much as possible. It's true that it costs little, but it also adds little or no margin and hurts the brand image.
Why is the Leon doing so well?
For a brand like Seat, success in the compact segment is not a given. We have seen other brands fail when they have tried to move up from minicars to compacts, which is Europe's toughest segment. I think the Leon perfectly epitomizes the new image of Seat: great design, emotion, dynamics, but also practicality and more choices for the customer. The first Leon was sold only as a five-door hatchback. The new Leon added a three-door hatch and a wagon, two variants whose combined volume accounted for half of Leon sales last year, which grew 4.4 percent to 160,900 units, making it the best-selling Seat model.