Of the numerous Volkswagen Group brands, Spain's Seat ("SAY-ott") is the runt of the litter. It operates at a loss -- and usually has since VW took control in 1986, not long after Fiat had cut its own costly ties with Seat. There's nothing wrong with Seat cars. They're VWs and Audis under the skin, and those skins are not bad. Giugiaro even had a hand in some, but they rarely sold as well as required for profitability.
Seat's profit problems have consumed the careers of many top executives, Spanish and German alike, but it hasn't been as hard on designers. Upon joining VW from Alfa Romeo, Walter de'Silva headed Seat design before moving to Audi and then leading the whole of VW Group design. In fact, when he hired de'Silva, Ferdinand Piech had wanted Seat to become Alfa Romeo in sporting purpose, although he has now decided to try to buy the real thing.
I've known Luc Donckerwolke, Seat's design chief today, since he was a student. He cut a brilliant path through the VW Group, doing great work at Škoda, another VW acquisition that -- like Seat -- makes good German-engineered cars at lower prices. His success there earned him a move to Italy for Lamborghini, where he headed the team that concocted the Gallardo. I suggested at the time that he'd perhaps had more assistance than needed [Design Analysis, September 2003], but the grand lines were his. Donckerwolke wondered what he'd done wrong when he was sent to Spain. The answer: nothing. He'd done his job too well, and VW wanted him to fix Seat. It's not quite done yet, but this electric concept car tells us that the next generation of Seats, based as they will be on this car's themes, will be very well-designed and will offer astonishing value.
The IBE is approximately the size and packaging equivalent of the 1970s VW Scirocco, but it's more aerodynamic and much safer (for occupants and pedestrians alike). With the best VW Group engines, it would likely be highly sought after. Remember that Audi, Škoda, and Seat all share VW platform engineering, tuned to the requirements of a specific market. Yes, they compete with each other, but that's OK as long as the cars look really different, unlike the old GM's infamous Fortune cover cars. The key is keeping separate design studios where the cars are made, then hiring really good designers and turning them loose with the fixed hard points. One has to wonder where GM would be today if engineering had stayed in Warren but styling was dispersed to Detroit, Flint, Lansing, and Pontiac.
The basic form of this car is almost as attractively pudgy as the Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint Zagato of long ago, but the IBE has been ameliorated and pointed up -- literally and figuratively -- with sharp, clear lines that provide visual interest and disguise its front-wheel-drive proportions. Not spectacular, it was nonetheless one of the best concepts at the recent Paris show.
FRONT 3/4 VIEW
1. The roundness of the basic form is easily observed by looking across to the opposite side or by standing behind and looking at the profile falling away.
2. The break line in the hood is just right, simply the intersection of two volumes, with no raised or lowered section involved, often referred to as "like the crease pressed in trousers."
3. The slight joggle in the upper windshield perimeter line provides visual interest with no loss of visibility for the driver.
4. Yes, this concept is an electric car, but this grille opening is big enough for an internal-combustion engine's extreme cooling needs.
5. This diagonal strut provides a nice counter to multiple lines running the opposite way, providing two triangular openings that could cool the front brakes.
6. The headlamp cluster expresses the central decorative design of the IBE-sharpness juxtaposed to what is finally a rather soft basic form.
7. The hard surface break line derived from the outboard edge of the headlamps turns toward the center, softening slightly to a radius below the symbolic grille.
8. Notice that the biggest spaces in the wheels are defined as curved-edge triangles, completing the theme on the side view.
9. These softly rising lines are basically parallel and are in opposition to those above and below them.
10. Parallel horizontal lines, one the base of the body, the other a surprising rib, serve to make the body seem longer than it is.
11. Also purely horizontal is the rib that grows out of the rear quarter panel, providing a shoulder above it and a shadow beneath, all around the back end of the body.
12. The surface above the front wheel is voluptuous, emphasizing roundness but contained within sharp lines and surface breaks, a splendid sculptural composition.
13. Even the mirror fairings are triangulated in the side view.
14. Extending the roof past the backlight improves aerodynamics.
15. The change from side to rear is marked by another "pressed" crease line caused by the intersection of two surfaces, as on the hood, eliminating any hint of being pudgy.
16. The wheels are framed in round openings, with soft surfaces above the wheels meeting a vertical plane that defines the opening with a band all the way around it. If this is common to many designs, it's because it works so well.
DIRECT REAR VIEW
17. Note how the three rear triangles-two lamps and the lower vent-are themselves arranged in a bigger triangle, emphasized by crease lines across the bumper fascia. The body may be amorphously rounded, but the surface decoration is tightly controlled and geometric.
18. This hockey-stick design theme also recalls electronic printed circuit boards. It is used nicely and consistently on the footrest, pedals, and sill plates.
19. The elegantly simple and highly inviting seat design could very easily be put into production without the slightest change. It's encouraging to see such realistic things in concept cars; it means we might be able to enjoy them ourselves in the near future.
20. A second interior theme is the parallel lines seen on the steering-wheel rim where you typically wouldn't grip it, carried through into the tunnel between the seats.
21. Triangles won't work for everything, but pointed trapezoidal forms will. So we see them in vents, door handles, and even in the rearview mirror of this interior, which is airy, spacious, and elegant for a small coupe.
22. A triangular mirror wouldn't be efficient or safe, but we see the triangle theme's "pointedness" carried to the outside edge of the main viewing area.