In the hot seat: our first drive of the new SEAT Arona
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There are two car brands that place a silver “S” badge on the grille of their cars, one world-famous in New Zealand, the other not so much. The former is Suzuki of course, the company that largely invented the small SUV with the ubiquitous Vitara.
The other is SEAT, the Spanish side of the Volkswagen Group, offering automobiles that are as tasty and spicy as tapas, instead of dishing up the usual four-wheeled bratwurst and sauerkraut.
It’s fitting that SEAT has just released its own small SUV here, given the badging similarity with the category-creating Vitara. Meet the new Arona.
According to SEAT New Zealand’s James Yates, the Arona is the first Volkswagen Group SUV to compete in the “A0” category as defined by the likes of best-sellers like the Hyundai Kona, Mazda CX-3, Vitara and Honda H-RV.
Surely that’s overlooking the Volkswagen CrossPolo TSI, which is also a high-riding, front-wheel-drive, urban-focused five-door wagon and shares much both mechanically and structurally with the Arona.
At $30,490, the CrossPolo sits smack in the middle of the pricing territory targeted by SEAT NZ for the two-model Arona range. The latter kicks off with the $29,900 Arona Style, arguably a better match to the Volkswagen alternative in terms of its equipment and detailing than the more driver-focused $33,900 Arona FR.
The FR tempts buyers with a sportier 17-inch wheel/tyre platform (Style: 16-inch), more supportive sports seats, LED driving lights and tail-lights, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitors, and added driving modes and wheel-mounted shift paddles for the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox that drives both Arona models.
Both 1200-plus kg Aronas are powered by the same 1-litre three-cylinder turbopetrol engine as the CrossPolo. This generates 85kW of power and 200Nm of force; modest peaks that give little impression of the healthy mid-range performance of the Arona.
That is because this boosted engine always feels willing to get on with the task at hand, and emits a similarly onorous soundtrack to most triples.
An Arona can evidently accelerate from 0-100km/h in 10s and sip fuel at a rate of 5-litres each 100km over combined city/highway lab tests conducted to European standards; figures that overlay those of the CrossPolo.
The main advantages over the VW-badged competitor are the SEAT’s larger 400-litre boot and the extra roominess the Arona provides for rear bench passengers. However, for those seeking “SEAT-ness” to match this sensibility, it’s worth spending the extra on the FR.
For SEAT is lumped in with other performance brands within a sub-group of the Volkswagen Empire, inhabiting a battle fleet that includes heavy-hitters such as Audi, Lamborghini, Porsche, and Ducati. The cars should therefore induce excitement visually and dynamically. This the Arona FR does, just.
It helps that the lines drawn by the FR’s LED driving lights mimic the shape of a Ducati Panigale sportsbike’s headlights (at least when viewed by this particular ducastista), and the larger wheels fill in the gaps between the wheel arches and the tyres more.
The interior of the FR also creates a greater sense of occasion when you clamber inside, lifting your legs across the higher seat bolsters to rest them on upholstery that is stitched with red thread and has sportier graphics applied to it.
On the move, there’s little doubt that the Arona FR is targeted at more enthusiastic drivers. There’s a choice of shift modes for the gearbox, and “sport” is particularly adept at keeping engine force on the boil.
The latter may make the shift paddles attached to the FR steering wheel unnecessary, but it’s still satisfying to bang the Arona down a couple of gears on the approach to a tight corner and hear the three-cylinder engine moan on the overrun.
Turn-in to said corner is sweeter in the FR due to the stiffer sidewalls of the tyres fitted to the model, and there is enough tactile feel for traction imparted through the steering wheel for drivers to avoid triggering the stability system with their right feet when powering out of the corner again.
In a class that is increasingly adept at improving chassis dynamics, the handling prowess of the Arona FR is right up with smart kids such as Toyota’s C-HR.
This does come at some cost to the more cosseting ride of the Arona Style however, and the cheaper SEAT SUV earns its place in the lineup purely as a CrossPolo alternative with extra cabin space and a more defined SUV image.
Though the driving aids of the Style no longer include the blind-spot monitors or adaptive cruise, there’s still a reversing camera, auto-operation lights and wipers, autonomous emergency braking at urban speeds, hill hold control, and auto-parking to help you out.
The new Arona range is available from the solitary SEAT dealership in Auckland, but there is a giant motor corporation behind the currently Lilliputian efforts to distribute the brand in New Zealand. And don’t let that Suzuki-like silver “S” on the grille snuff out your interest in these Spanish Volkswagens.
SEAT is about to launch its own performance brand: Cupra, which features a bronze-gold badge with an edgy devilish shape.
Seems the performance of the Cupras will be equally evil.