New model investment is much more than mere money
One sector of the world’s motor industry is in constant and excited upheaval at present, which led Iain Robertson into delving a little deeper into what constitutes the ideal SUV/crossover, as the UK market hurtles towards a record 3m new car registrations by year-end.
Trying to place a finger directly on the cause of swelling and relentless sales (or more precisely, registrations) in the burgeoning SUV/crossover sector is swept up in a morass of political, commercial and social needs. It seems as though everybody and his dog is keen to experience and live with a crossover vehicle, almost regardless of model, transmission (i.e. whether or not it has 2 or 4WD) and brand recognition, across all classes.
It is inevitable that we feel that we are losing our independence and personal mobility, spied-on by more cameras than ever, caught-up in endless traffic problems, legislated against heavily and placed under interminable financial pressures. The only obvious choice left open to us, is to muscle out of the constraints and seek freedom, preferably without a half-coating of woad (the natural blue dye that comes from the plant ‘isatis tinctoria’, made famous by an abbreviated Australian actor in the movie ‘Braveheart’). We all need to drive an SUV (or so it would seem)!
If you have ever wondered what it takes to bring a new SUV to market, I was privy to a most fascinating array of numbers and details from the Seat Ateca design team. This new car is yet another to factor into the blend and is not set to arrive until September this year. However, it should perform well in a market, where it is becoming increasingly tough to tell one brand offering from the next (although Suzuki and its Vitara does stand out, a factor that you can check from our most recent test of that model).
As a priority, a name was determined. This alone is a withering, time-consuming and legal issues-packed gesture, when unique model names are increasingly hard to arrive at. Bear in mind that, because Seat is one of a group of brands, it has to be Volkswagen main board approved and to work in international markets, without creating either insult, or mockery.
Mitsubishi learned the folly of that, when introducing its Starion (or ‘Stallion’) sports model, a name that worked with oriental pronunciation but, into a western ‘pony-car’ market, did not translate so readily. That company is not alone and Subaru has broken the golden reversing rule that turns its Levorg model into Grovel. There are far worse examples but the word ‘wanker’ is not really allowed on these pages.
Back to the Seat. Having selected a name that nobody else has registered, 1,400 consecutive days, featuring more than 1,000 overall, detail sketches and artwork, 5 tonnes of modelling clay and in excess of 1,000-litres of paint are employed by a team of around thirty people to develop the new car.
Defining the model’s DNA is a vital step that must be incorporated and a map is generated and followed slavishly by everyone in the team, for the four years of effort to be expended. However, putting a bunch of creative types to work demands very judicious management. The motion from ‘what we want’ to ‘where we need to be’ is a well-practised art form in its own right but it needs to be controlled very carefully, otherwise you will end up with a vehicle designed by committee, or a Ssangyong, as it is known.
From the drawings, the translation to essential digital media and Computer Aided Design (CAD) takes place. The various volumes are formulated electronically and the basis for all future technical monitoring is established. Without the finite attention to detail, panel gaps and other aspects would be unbefitting of a modern motorcar and the robots working the production lines would not be armed with appropriate instructions. The process of refining the car’s outline for aerodynamic performance will also be delved into.
The next stage is building the clay model in life-size form. It weighs around four tonnes, hence the need for such a large amount of clay, and it is into this model that many of the styling nuances will be scraped and scratched before it, too, is transposed to a digital format. It remains the best way to see how minor styling differences can be incorporated. The clay work ceases with the final ‘frozen’ model, which is painted in a representative choice of colour.
It will have been agreed by all management levels at Seat Cars, including accounts, engineering (which is formulating its own working models, unsurprisingly), parts ordering, marketing and sales, as well as the higher-ups within Volkswagen Group. All the while, the Team Leader will spend every waking hour to ensure that balance is retained, despite the fact that innumerable arguments, sorry, discussion groups are raised to avoid a desertion from the outline plan.
Colour and trim detailing comes next and advanced computer modelling allows the operator to perceive the effects of light and shade on specific colours, patterns and trim designs. Other design influences are taken into account by attending fashion shows and relating with style houses around the world solidly for two years prior to the car’s final state of being exhibited and readied for sale. The idea is to obtain as many market trends as possible from other fields of design, which will help to create a market acceptable end-product. From over 1,000-litres of paint and hundreds of tonal and textural finishes, only around 12 actually make it to the final model palette.
In the meantime, although working tangentially, various components that make up the final car have to be designed and developed and priced out. That means working with first-line suppliers, to ensure that they can not only meet demand but comply in quality terms, because any new vehicle is likely to need a raft of totally new items (lights, wheels, brakes, badges and so on).
Although it seems like an after-thought, the last pre-production aspect is that of ergonomics, the science of making things fit and work with human physiology and physicality. After all, if the driving position is uncomfortable for anybody within specific height, girth and weight parameters, which are necessarily broad in number and range, from the smallest person to the largest, they will raise unwanted criticism, which could be injurious to the future success of the car. This is where the positioning of the central touch-screen is determined, as it is the most vital of modern in-car controls, including the customary steering column stalks, of course. The bottom-line is that the car interior needs to be tactile, useful and efficient, factors that determine the positioning of surface textures, storage slots and regularly used switchgear.
Finally, while this sounds intense, bear in mind that the design department, the trim shop, the engineers and even the line-workers are already shaping up the next model in the range, as part of an on-going process that is more closely akin to painting the Forth Bridge…it never stops…even though a new rust-inhibiting ICI paint has been introduced to that crossover. The total car development cost, including tooling, reached £180m for Seat, in Barcelona, with several of the overheads offset against shared components and a Group platform, all from the larger Volkswagen Group. It might look expensive but some car companies do spend considerably more on their new models, especially if they break new ground.
Some development mileage needs to be put on the first production run models, before they are made in any volumes, even though running prototypes (mules), some of which bear zero resemblance to the final article, will have been trialling specific components and running gear for at least two years prior to the car’s launch.
The next stage is exposition. While carmakers like to coincide their latest offerings with an international motor show or two, it is not always possible and there are very few ‘secret’ models out there, as sneak previews and ‘leaks’ to the media ensure that information is available for weeks and sometimes months ahead of a public viewing. Naturally, people like me are needed to pave the way with (preferably) positive launch stories, which does not make the task any easier.
Conclusion: I can tell you that the Seat Ateca is a purposeful machine. It does look different to its many rivals and it is likely to be ‘market-priced’, when it hits dealerships, which means a starting price in the region of £18,000, rising to around £30,000, once the options and performance boxes have been ticked. Naturally, Seat will major its attention on the lower end, to draw potential customers in, even though, as market forces inform us, the best-selling versions are closer to the top of the tree. Whatever, do take a closer look at Ateca, when Seat launches it this September.