Spanish brand SEAT is pondering a return to Australia as soon as 2016, with CEO Juergen Stackmann confident its sporty range would fit in well locally if given the chance.
Speaking with CarAdvice at the 2014 Paris motor show, Stackmann admitted the brand’s focus remained on Europe, where it is defying the weak market with strong growth, but also said its mooted launch in China soon could open the door to a wider Asia Pacific rollout.
“Australia is clearly in our map. But we have to take it step by step,” Stackmann said. “We are investigating and analysing opportunities in China, and once we’re in the region obviously we’ll look into Australia as well.”
“From the response we have been receiving recently, I think the new Leon range clearly fits the Australian market. And with the SUV coming soon in 2016, that would be an appropriate time to enter the market."
Stackmann appeared to demonstrate an awareness of the issues that affected recent entrants to the local market such as Opel (which pulled out after just 12 months) and Infiniti (which has had limited success), stating the need to have a fresh model range from launch and co-operation from affiliates such as owner Volkswagen and fellow VW Group brand Skoda.
The Spanish brand has also previously pulled out of the Australian market in 1999 after a five-year stint. Global sales peaked in 2000 at around 500,000 units.
SEAT ended the first half of 2014 with 200,200 vehicles delivered globally, 9.9 per cent more than in the first half of 2013 and its best result of the past six years having exceeded the 200,000-unit half-yearly mark for the first time since the beginning of the GFC in 2008.
Opel and Infiniti launched with an ageing line-up, and this is an area SEAT recognises it must avoid. The SEAT Leon small car is still fresh, being a derivation of the seventh-generation VW Golf, but would be four-years old by 2016, though the hotted-up Cupra version would be a contender in our strong hot-hatch market.
Globally, SEAT is differentiated from Skoda by its focus on sporty and edgy styling, compared with Skoda’s emphasis on practicality and affordability. With Australia being a performance-oriented market the Cupra would, on the face of things, be a solid fit. But the SUV is the money shot (previewed by the IBX concept in the top image).
The ideal timing for an Australian re-launch, Stackmann said, would be anywhere from 2016 when the company launches the production Leon-based compact SUV, which also has the same VW Group MQB architecture as the Golf, Skoda Octavia and Audi A3, among others.
“Basically, I think it’s an interesting market, not easy as we know these days, because you [have] manufacturers that have left the country recently, but obviously it’s a strong industry, strong demand and there’s a car culture that fits our brand’s DNA quite well,” Stackmann continued.
“But we do need the right lineup of cars to start with and I think the Leon family range plus the SUV coming will [hypothetically] provide a very nice starting point.”
In addition to the Leon, Seat offers the Mii, a derivative of the axed-in-Australia Volkswagen Up!. It also sells the Ibiza light-car, the Toledo — essentially a fettled Skoda Rapid — the all-new Leon X-perience crossover and the Alhambra people-mover.
Of course, there are stumbling blocks beyond the actual line-up. Firstly, Australia is among the world’s most congested markets already, and sales this year are trending down, meaning they need to be stolen from elsewhere — no mean feat without much brand awareness. In addition, there are cost pressures depending on the relative strength of the Euro.
Stackmann also said Seat’s affiliation with the VW Group could help it ride out the bumps here, though at times one could argue the Volkswagen’s sharp local prices hurt its Skoda brand’s launch.
“Obviously the brands are run on their own… but we cooperate where it makes sense,” he said. “As the Volkswagen Group is a strong player in Australia that would actually make a re-entry of the brand much easier, would facilitate to build up an operation much quicker.”