Spanish flair, German engineering and no more talk of Alfa Romeo – Seat's new boss reveals his vision

Luca de Meo with Seat Leon Cross Sport
Luca de Meo has only been in charge of Seat for a few months

Luca de Meo is well travelled across the European motor industry, but can he turn around the fortunes of Volkswagen's ailing Spanish patient?

Some years ago, Seat remodelled itself as the Spanish version of Alfa Romeo, verbal shorthand for where the company wanted itself to be. You might argue these days that with smart, sassy and fine handling cars like the latest Ibiza and Leon, Seat is doing a better imitation of Alfa Romeo than Alfa Romeo itself. As if to prove the point, Seat recently appointed a former MD of Alfa Romeo, Luca de Meo, as chief executive.

He was the mercurial marketing genius behind the launch of Fiat's new 500 city car in 2007, before moving to Alfa Romeo and then being poached by the VW Group, which Seat is a part of, in 2009. What's more, de Meo is credited as one of the sharpest marketing brains in the car industry and one of the good guys.

Originally a student at the scientific high school of Pescara, he joined Renault in 1992, then moved to Toyota in 1998, before joining Fiat in 2002. He's bright, personable and fun, with great sprezzatura style. He also “gets it” in a way that few motor industry bosses do. So does his arrival at Seat mean the company has finally achieved its long-held ambition of being Spain's Alfa Romeo?

After thinking for a moment, de Meo doesn't take the bait. "Benchmarking branding simply doesn't work," he says. "You always end up second best. So while I can understand the aspiration, it's not the right thing to do."

While at Fiat, de Meo masterminded the launch of the 500 city car

So, if it's not a Spanish Alfa Romeo, what is this small Spanish car maker; state founded and owned, before a partnership with Fiat and then its purchase by Volkswagen in 1986?

Well, until September 17 this year when the first revelations of the world-changing diesel-emission cheating scandal broke, Seat was seen by many as VW's Stalingrad, underperforming and loss making, with a stultifying and eclectic range of cars that simply didn't sell. Essentially, everything that the successful Slovakian car maker, Skoda, had been under VW ownership, Seat was not.

And despite VW sending some of its best generals (Brit James Muir, German Jürgen Stackmann) to the Iberian Peninsula campaign, it continues to lose money. Now de Meo has been “encouraged” to move South and enjoy the weather at Martorell near Barcelona, site of Seat’s HQ and its 450,000-car-a-year factory. So is this post a poisoned chalice?

Normally VW Group executives have 100 days of silence after taking up a new post, but de Meo isn't a “normal” VW exec and less than three months into the job he's going on record in his big, glassy office overlooking a motorway intersection with the mountains in the far distance. While he was, for a relatively brief period, marketing head at Seat, he's been doing his homework in his new post, meeting people and asking questions.

The latest Leon hatchback is stylish and good to drive

He admits that his researches have revealed that his might not be the easiest of jobs, but he credits his predecessors for the range of ever-better new models, which have laid foundations for what could be a resurgence at the Spanish car maker. "It's a huge challenge," says de Meo, "but there have also been huge improvements in the last five years under James and Jürgen.

"I think the organisation [Seat] is much better than the picture we show on the outside," he adds. "This is a very, very good company, with flair and flexibility and a German chassis at the heart of the machine, but it has issues with awareness, visibility and image."

Of course anyone taking a top job at any VW Group company right now might be considered completely certifiable, but de Meo says that there are some advantages in being seen as a Spanish car maker far from VW's self-inflicted contortions. "Not a lot of people make the association with Seat and the VW Group," he says, "and that has been a pity at times. But since a lot of the debate [about the emissions cheating] has been on the corporate and financial sides, VW has taken the heat and we are below the line."   

There are still some stinkers in the Seat range, in particular the Toledo

Nevertheless, de Meo says there have been effects on Seat in the rental and one-day hire fleets. "They have alternatives," he says, ruefully. "[We] will have to keep reminding them that a solution is coming, it will not cost them anything and we will not hide anything." He says that when the fixes come out of VW, he's got the spare capacity in the workshops and has been transparent with the authorities and "quick on the clarity."

At the 2015 Geneva motor show, Stackmann talked about the “Leonisation” of the product range and revealed that Seat would be introducing two SUVs based on the Leon and Ibiza respectively. He also, like de Meo, said getting Seat back into profit is "a huge challenge". And while the brand strategy of targeting wealthier, older customers and spritzing up the dealerships is a well-trodden route, Seat is going to need more than that to establish itself in customers' minds. Is the Spanish connection important?

In truth, de Meo blows hot and cold on the company's Spanish roots and positively sprints away from any comment on Catalan nationalism.

"I want to get out of ethnic branding," he says. "We are global and we are local, and local is Barcelona. People expect something of substance and flair to come out of Barcelona and it's true, people do feel different here." He gestures out of the window at the gorgeously warm winter sunshine.

Seat previewed the first of its planned SUVs with the IBX concept of 2011

This is de Meo's first stab at being fully in charge of a whole car company (he dismisses Lancia and Alfa Romeo as being too tied in with Fiat's engineering and market planning) and he's determined to bring all his experience to book in the role. Yet his precise thoughts here are difficult to skewer.

If not entirely Spanish, or Catalan, neither wholly sporting (though he acknowledges the importance of the Cupra brand), or SUV based, or entirely fashion orientated, or practical, I'm still left wondering just what a Seat actually is. It builds Audi's Q3 SUV at Martorell, yet its own SUV (and the stultifying Toledo) will be built by Skoda in the Czech republic. The Mii city car is built in Bratislava alongside VW's Up and Skoda's Citigo, and the Alhambra people carrier in Portugal alongside VW's Sharan.

"We need our own formula," says de Meo. "I hope to make Seat even more unique, but with some continuity." When he said it, I thought I understood, but as soon as I walked out of his office, those words' meaning powdered into dust.

There's simply no one more qualified than de Meo to try to make a decent fist of this underperforming Spanish brand, but it's more than just a huge challenge; it's a stupendous challenge. Almost as big, in fact, as the problem of relaunching the Alfa Romeo brand. From the frying pan to the fire – good luck with that one, Luca.

For all the latest news, advice and reviews from Telegraph Cars, sign up to our weekly newsletter by entering your email here

Seat Ibiza review

Seat Leon review