Volkswagen's Spanish arm, Seat, has started producing the third-generation Leon at its main plant at Martorell near Barcelona. The new car is one of the most important in the company's history.
Seat began life as a maker of Fiats under licence before being brought into the Volkswagen fold in 1986 but has found it harder than its Czech stablemate Skoda to carve out its own niche. The company currently has a strong model line-up but attractive cars such as the Alhambra people-carrier and the tiny Mii differ little from their Volkswagen-badged counterparts. They are also produced at other Volkswagen group factories so they don't contribute to capacity utilisation at Martorell.
The burden of defining and projecting what Seat is all about instead falls heavily on the core Ibiza and Leon models; the company makes these cars itself, and also enjoys a lot more scope to do its own thing in terms of design as well. The current Ibiza, based on the same platform as the Volkswagen Polo, is one of the most visually attractive small cars on sale, and now the Golf-sized Leon gets a similar look. Under the skin, the Leon is the third car to get the Volkswagen group's new MQB platform which also underpins the new Golf and Audi A3, both of which have been very well received.
Seat has invested about £650 million in product development and factory facilities in order to bring the new Leon to the market. The first cars will be five-door hatchbacks but an estate and a three-door hatch will arrive by 2014.