SEAT, Skoda and Volkswagen: what’s the difference?
All three brands are owned by the same company, but each has a distinct identity. We explain what to expect from SEAT, Skoda and Volkswagen
SEAT, Skoda and Volkswagen sold over 350,000 new cars between them in the UK last year. While the majority of those sales went to VW, well over 100,000 buyers chose a SEAT or a Skoda. So what draws people to one of these three brands, rather than another?
They’re all owned by the giant Volkswagen Aktiengesellschaft Group (Volkswagen AG) and many cars from SEAT, Skoda and Volkswagen are built on mechanically similar underpinnings, or ‘platforms’. Does that mean their cars are essentially the same? Here, we delve into these three popular carmakers, explaining what you can reasonably expect from them and highlighting the various models, trims and characteristics each brand is known for.
Although we could arguably have included Audi in this comparison (it’s also owned by Volkswagen AG), you can find a summary of Audi in our piece that compares the premium carmaker with BMW and Mercedes. We’ve also excluded Bentley, Lamborghini and Bugatti for obvious reasons, though Volkswagen AG also owns these three brands. Porsche doesn’t get a look in here either, even though it has a (long, convoluted and sometimes acrimonious) relationship with the Volkswagen Group.
We'll look at SEAT here on page one, but click here to go straight to our analysis of Skoda; if it’s Volkswagen you’d like to know more about, click here to go directly to the last page. If you’re interested in further brand comparisons, meanwhile, make your way over to our piece pitching Ford against Vauxhall.
A note on parts sharing
Many SEATs, Skodas and Volkswagens have an analogue with other Volkswagen Group cars. The Skoda Fabia is mechanically similar to the SEAT Ibiza and the Volkswagen Polo, the SEAT Leon corresponds to the Skoda Octavia and Volkswagen Golf, while the SEAT Alhambra people-carrier shares many parts with the Volkswagen Sharan.
These are just a few examples, and many other mechanically similar models exist within the Volkswagen Group of car companies. Volkswagen AG’s modular ‘MQB’ platform allows engines and axles to be mounted using the same components and dimensions regardless of car, although the overall length and width of this mechanical ‘skeleton’ can be altered as required.
It’s such a successful formula that you might not always be able to tell: few would imagine the Audi TT sports car shares some of its mechanical DNA with the Volkswagen Tiguan SUV – but never underestimate what can be achieved by fitting different steering and suspension setups in addition to altering a car’s overall size and shape.
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SEAT, short for Sociedad Española de Automóviles de Turismo (the Spanish Society of Touring Cars) is based in Martorell, near Barcelona in northeastern Spain. SEAT was originally devised in the 1940s, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that Spain’s economy settled down following the civil war of the 1930s and SEAT became fully established under the supervision of the Spanish government.
SEAT had a longstanding relationship with Fiat from the 1950s to the 1980s, and shortly after this ended it was taken over by the Volkswagen Group.
SEAT has six key models, starting with the Mii city car (which is mechanically identical to the Skoda Citigo and VW up!), then moving on to the small Ibiza hatchback, the mid-size Toledo hatchback and the larger Leon family hatchback. It also makes the seven-seater Alhambra MPV and the recently introduced Ateca SUV.
Both the Ibiza and Leon are offered as five-door models as well as in three-door formats known respectively as the Ibiza SC and Leon SC, with SC standing for ‘sports coupe’. The Ibiza ST and the Leon ST (short for ‘sports tourer’) are the estate versions of these two cars.
SEAT also makes the Ibiza Cupra and Leon Cupra, which are performance-orientated versions of the standard cars with powerful turbocharged engines; the former comes with three doors only, while the latter is available as a three or five-door hatchback as well as in ST estate form. The SEAT Leon X-perience, meanwhile, is a raised Leon with chunkier bumpers and four-wheel drive.
Although different cars get slightly different specifications, most SEATs are available in entry-level S, mid-range SE and top-spec FR-Line form; the latter prioritises sporty looks, and some FR-line models have firmer suspension for a more involving drive. Ecomotive SEATs have been tweaked for maximum efficiency and minimal emissions.
While it’s fair to say there are many similarities between SEATs and other cars in the Volkswagen Group (just compare the Alhambra’s dashboard with the VW Sharan’s), SEAT does have a distinct identity and buyers tend to expect the following characteristics from their cars:
A sporty driving experience: although it sits on the same ‘MQB’ platform that underpins many Volkswagen Group cars (including the VW Golf), the SEAT Leon is sharper to drive than the Golf, with more feelsome steering and slightly less body lean when cornering – although the trade-off for this is that it’s not quite as good at soaking up potholes. The Leon also comes with a ‘Driver Profile’ system as standard, which allows you to switch between Eco, Normal and Sport modes depending on your mood. SEAT’s Cupra models, meanwhile, are also known for their thrilling driving experience and powerful engines.
It’s not just the Leon that offers an engaging driving experience: if you order the large seven-seater Alhambra people carrier in one of the top two trim levels with the most powerful engine, it comes with a limited-slip differential. This is a specialist driver aid normally found in performance cars; its inclusion, even as an option, with a large MPV tells you all you need to know about SEAT’s driver-orientated priorities.
Stylish looks: for many car buyers, appearances are a top priority, and some consider SEATs to be better-looking than equivalent Skodas or Volkswagens. Many SEATs feature dramatic ‘creases’ in their bodywork, intended to emphasise motion and give an assertive stance, while the brand has been quoted as saying its image is “dynamic, young-spirited and design-driven”.
The latest in-car technology: to go with that young image, many SEATs come laden with the latest in-car technology. This includes a dedicated smartphone app called ‘SEAT Drive’ that allows you to monitor the car’s fuel economy and mechanical status. SEAT’s ‘Full Link’ setup, meanwhile, offers Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, as well as a Mirrorlink system. Together, these essentially make the car’s infotainment screen an extension of your phone, something that’s likely to hold greatest appeal for younger drivers. Look out for the special-edition ‘Connect’ trim if you want your SEAT to come with the latest technological integration.
Anything else to know?
SEAT came 18th out of 32 manufacturers in our 2016 Driver Power customer satisfaction survey, with strong results for performance and in-car technology; seat comfort and build quality were areas that garnered less praise. SEAT’s three-year warranty is average and comes with no mileage cap for the first two years, after which a 60,000-mile limit is introduced. SEAT customers can buy an extra one or two years’ protection (capped at 75,000 and 90,000 miles respectively) for between £149 and £750, depending on the length of the policy and the model being covered.
Most exclusive model: the five-door SEAT Leon Cupra ‘Black’ comes in at about £34,000 if you add an automatic gearbox and the ‘Sub8’ performance pack. This features beefier brakes, exclusive 19-inch alloy wheels and special racetrack-biased tyres. You can get a more expensive SEAT, though: choose the Alhambra people carrier in top-spec FR-Line trim with the 181bhp diesel engine and an automatic gearbox and you’re looking at a cool £36,000.
The one you’ll probably buy: although it’s only just gone on sale, the new SEAT Ateca SUV is well-built, roomy, good to drive and, with the entry-level S model starting at just under £18,000, attractively priced. All in all, SEAT’s first-ever SUV makes a very compelling case for itself.