It is ‘third-time-lucky’ for VW Group’s Spanish arm, Seat, suggests Iain Robertson, in the brand’s transition from 80s’ Fiat-based Iberian state transportation, to early VW ownership and, now, its latest adrenaline-fuelled, top-selling and exciting phase.
When the ‘grate’ (sic.) Generalissimo Franco ran Spain with his iron rod of dictatorship, another republican state lent it its car-making potential; Fiat. Not quite the same situation as Communist-overrun Czechoslovakia, once Franco’s responsibilities ceased, the country still had its disastrous fleets of outmoded Fiats, which did very little for building its reputation. On the other hand, the Czechs had been swamped with rear-engined and rather dull Communist era products, including Zaporozhets, Volgas, the occasional Zil, or Zim, and of course Skodas. It was easier for Skoda to build a fresh repute than Seat.
Early business visitors to the Iberian peninsula, who desired a rental car, often had to deal with a circus troupe’s choice of wobbly-wheeled, bald-tyred and dud suspension Seats (by the way, the name was an acronym, which stood for Sociedad Espanola de Automoviles de Turismo), many of which were ‘death-traps’. It is not a good place from which to launch a brand with greater aspirations, when VW Group acquired it lock, stock and barrel in 1986. It got off to a shaky start and sales went up and down like a yoyo through most of its re-formative years.
Not so long ago, VW sought openly to hive-off its Spanish subsidiary. However, it was given a ‘final shot’; the result of which has been an upwards trajectory and positive growth in an otherwise depressed new car scene (almost 63,000 sales in the UK alone last year, for a market share of 2.66%). At last, Seat appears to have shaken off its grim heritage and it ought to be grateful for VW’s patronage. Yet, differentiating one VW Group model from another is now reaching beyond mere ‘badge-engineering’; a factor not aided by Seat’s all-new flagship Tarraco being built in Wolfsburg.
The firm’s Alhambra people-mover is still assembled at the Portuguese Palmela plant that Seat used to share with Ford (Galaxy) and VW (Sharan). Apart from the badging, they were largely identical cars, although the Seat was the one with standard seven seats, standard climate control, standard electric windows all-round and standard plusher interior, combined with a slightly lower price-point. Tarraco’s price-point starts at a value-added £28,335 (1.5TSi SE), rising to £38,055 (2.0TDi Xcellence Lux) at the top-end of the range.
Tarraco also incorporates seven seats and a grander standard specification, allied to a better value proposition than its in-house rival VW Tiguan Plus, in the process maintaining something akin to a marketing advantage. While the styling nuances are slightly different, centring on the new six-sided and blingier radiator grille that will be seen on future Seats, plus a marginally different tail-lamp treatment, some extra trim embellishments and an all-LED lighting array, the biggest surprise appears to be a more engaging driving experience, which I have to admit, I did not anticipate.
Although the entry-level 1.5-litre turbo-petrol was unavailable to drive, a premium of £1,475 put me into a 2.0-litre TDi (6-speed manual) in SE trim and, armed with 147bhp, up to 47.9mpg, £210 annual road tax and a familiar delicious spread of pulling power (0-60mph in 9.5s; top speed of 126mph), the Tarraco impresses with its wieldiness, agility and verve. Confirming its Seat-ness, the closer to top-end 2.0TSi DSG 4Drive (187bhp, 30.7mpg, £530 road tax and £38,605 price tag) was clearly better equipped but was no less engaging to drive (0-60mph in 7.7s; top speed 131mph). Tarraco may not be the largest in class but it can live up to a Seat expectation of being the sportiest and most agile.
With up to six driving modes available on the VW Group’s MQB-A (long wheelbase) platform architecture, even when the Tarraco rides on the optional 20.0-inch diameter machined alloy wheels (the largest ever fitted to any Seat; 17.0, 18.0 and 19.0-inch alternatives are either standard, or up-spec’d options), which look truly wonderful, its ride quality remains consistently compliant. Mind you, it conceals its 1.63-tonne bulk very well, despite being 4.7m long, 1.8m wide and almost 1.7m tall, its 2.79m wheelbase assures the commensurate blend of interior space and better dynamic balance. The front-wheel drive version handles sublimely well, with taut body control, minimal roll and substantial amounts of grip. Pushing it hard around a deserted roundabout, it displays plough-on understeer ultimately, which can be corrected smoothly by lifting one’s right foot off the accelerator pedal. The AWD version (4Drive, in Seat-speak) was even brisker in extreme cornering manoeuvres, understeering eventually but remaining safely neutral most of the time. Tarraco is easily the best in class for chassis dynamics.
While the denim-style seats (leather in the higher specifications) look relatively flat and shapeless on first acquaintance, they prove to be exceptionally comfortable, hold-in occupants securely and are supportive, with all the padding in the right places. Space in the ‘kids-only’ rearmost row is very limited but the cabin is otherwise an airy and roomy environment and, even with all seven seats erected, there is still a modest boot space available. An optional (at lower grades) panoramic sunroof provides even greater airiness to the cabin. The soft-touch dashboard benefits from VW Group’s configurable digital instrument display, supplemented by a large touch-screen at the top of the centre stack. The typical VW Group controls and switchgear package is logical and easy to use and, with plenty of storage slots available, Tarraco’s role as both practical family and company car is abundantly clear.
As a measure of the brand’s greater confidence, Seat’s future will centre on a number of hybrid and EV developments and a plug-in version of Tarraco will arrive next year. Four trim levels are available: SE, SE-Tech, Xcellence and Xcellence Lux, although ‘First Edition’ variants are also available for a short period. Both connectivity and the customary plethora of driver/safety aids are bang up-to-date.
Seat is riding the crest of a wave at present and its all-new Tarraco creates a defined signature in the upper-medium sector of the SUV scene, notable for the availability of (for the first time on a Seat model) 20.0-inch diameter alloy wheels that add to its style proposition, Tarraco verges on being the real class of the field, a factor that might be confirmed once the FR versions arrive.