What is it?
The SEAT Arona is the brand’s second and smallest SUV, competing in a mushrooming market.
Distinctive styling, competent on-road performance, extensive standard safety package
The SEAT Arona is a distinctive addition to a market of many similar vehicles. It matches the best of its rivals for practicality, quality and equipment, but it adds a quality driving performance that many of those rivals lack.
This is a highly accomplished small SUV and should become one of the biggest sellers in the sector.
After a 2017 in which every second new car tested appeared to be a small SUV, 2018 starts in a similar fashion. Latest to enter this now so crowded market is the SEAT Arona, but the Spanish brand remains convinced it can take a slice of the action with only its second SUV.
The optimism is perhaps well founded. SEAT’s first SUV, the Ateca, launched in the autumn of 2016 and there has been a waiting list for them ever since.
Partly as a result, SEAT’s UK reputation is rocketing, sales up 18% in 2017, in a market that overall slipped more than 5%. And it is easy to see why everyone wants to launch into the small SUV market, when demand for such cars has blossomed by 30% in just two years.
SEAT appears to be the guinea pig for Volkswagen Group chassis – always the first of the four brands to launch a model on new underpinnings. So it is with the Arona, which uses the MQB O platform – this debuted under the latest SEAT Ibiza supermini launched in 2017. VW plans its own small SUV on the platform, the T-Cross, but we won’t see that until later in the year.
Why is MQB O important? Because it is versatile, and light, which all adds up to a more efficient car, and one able to offer a lot more space inside, particularly in the rear seats and the boot.
Being a SEAT, however, the new model has to maintain the brand’s reputation for more distinctive looks, and a dash of style is sorely needed in a market sector that is gaining many innocuous members not very distinguishable from each other.
The Arona is certainly not innocuous – its visual appeal doesn’t quite go as radical as, say, the Citroën C3 Aircross, but it is certainly purposeful. The exterior styling is clearly related to its larger sister the Ateca, with sharp lines and muscular creases giving the car more presence than several of its ever-growing numbers of rivals.
Buying and owning a SEAT Arona
The SEAT Arona follows the modus operandi for the segment to the letter. It is a car compact on the outside and spacious within, with the high-up driving position that is one of the prime appeals to the growing numbers of small SUV buyers.
The car goes on sale with a five-strong engine line-up, that will be familiar to anyone that knows the Volkswagen group – the range is almost identical to that offered in the new VW Polo supermini that we tested only a week before the Arona.
Three petrol units are expected to command the vast majority of sales – particularly as almost three-quarters of Arona buyers will be paying for the car themselves rather than driving it as a company vehicle. The choices are a three-cylinder 1.0-litre unit with either 95 or 115hp, and a 1.5 of 150hp. Those who want diesel can choose between 1.6 engines with 95 or 115hp.
The 95hp units, petrol or diesel, are supplied with five-speed manual gearboxes, a six-speed version standard across the rest of the range, though the 115hp petrol unit can also be had with a seven-speed automatic transmission. And as is the norm in this market, this is an SUV with off-roader styling but no all-wheel-drive option – SEAT says there isn’t a market for it.
Where the Arona does depart radically from the norm is in its trim levels. We’ve all heard about the ‘trend to personalisation’ resulting in sometimes hundreds of equipment and colour combinations on offer. Well, SEAT says that its research suggests buyers are being overwhelmed by such choices.
So instead of a basic trim and a whole load of options on top, all of the Arona options have been grouped into six ‘Easy Trim’ packs, the idea being that you simply make three choices when buying the car – engine, colour and trim pack.
Effectively the extra specification that most customers choose is already loaded on – for example, all of the trim packs include metallic paint and a twin-colour roof. And this also affects the prices – while at first glance Arona prices might seem more expensive than rivals, they already include the extras that buyers of competing cars would have to add on top.
Particularly impressive is the Arona’s standard safety package. Autonomous emergency braking, with pedestrian recognition, is included on all cars, as is a speed limiter and hill hold, contributing to a top five-star Euro NCAP safety rating. Extra systems such as blind-spot detection and rear cross traffic alerts are offered further up the range.
Inside the SEAT Arona
The Arona is a spacious vehicle within, especially in the rear where the car comfortably outstretches recently launched rivals such as the Hyundai Kona.
While there are belts for three in the back, a trio of adults will be rather too cosy, but one should remember this is a supermini SUV – consider it a four-seater and it knocks virtually all rivals aside, both in legroom and especially headroom.
It’s not quite as versatile as some rivals – one can’t slide the rear seats, for example, to prioritise people or luggage space. But considering that as well as rear seat space the 400-litre boot is some 46 litres more than the segment-setting Nissan Juke, and 39 better than the equally-new Kona, the SEAT certainly impresses.
Once settled into a driving position that is not as high up as some rivals, the cockpit ahead will be familiar to anyone who has driven a SEAT Ibiza, being virtually the same. It’s practical, with quality controls, but the overall impression is dulled by an excess of cold, grey plastic.
The Easy Trim concept ensures that equipment levels are high, however. All cars, for example, come with a central touchscreen, and the five-inch version of the entry-level SE trim jumps to eight inches on every grade above.
Unless finance is scarce the SE, costing from £16,555 should be dismissed. The infotainment system on the second level, SE Technology, offers so much more for an extra £990, including navigation and Smartphone compatibility through the Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Mirrorlink systems. Wireless smartphone charging and parking sensors are also included from this level.
Above SE Technology, the trims split dependent on whether one desires sporty (FR, FR Sport) or luxury (Xcellence, Xcellence Lux), the most expensive version being the Xcellence Lux with the 115hp diesel at £24,235.
Driving the SEAT Arona
At the launch event, The Car Expert drove the expected biggest-selling version of the Arona, the FR model with the 115hp petrol engine, and the more powerful 150hp TSI Evo variant.
The 115hp engine is well suited to its surroundings, and responds rapidly and smoothly. Its pulling power from low revs is impressive, almost diesel-like, and with no hint of coarseness unless worked very hard.
The larger unit is not surprisingly rather swifter, and turns the Arona into quite a performance SUV. But alongside the 1.0-litre, it seems an unnecessary extravagance.
One less impressive aspect of our cars was the manual gear shift – it felt surprisingly woolly for today’s market, encouraging a couple of mis-shifts.
A theme of all the recent small SUVs tested has been pretty uninspiring ride quality, but the Arona does rather better than most, at least the 1.0-litre version, which on the launch route was only unsettled by very uneven road surfaces.
The higher trims and bigger engine gain Dynamic Chassis Control, altering the suspension response, and the Drive Profile system, which switches the steering and throttle response between normal, eco, sport or individual modes. Alloy wheel sizes also increase from 17 to 18in, and all of this appears to combine very well.
The car’s cornering ability matches its ride comfort – it is well composed and precise, while not offering too much to excite an enthusiastic driver. However all things are relative, and again in its handling the Arona stands firmly above its rivals. It turns in as pointed, stays pleasingly upright and maintains high grip levels throughout a bend – definitely the most satisfying driving ability we’ve experienced on the recent crop of small SUVs.
SEAT came late to the compact SUV sector with the Ateca and immediately carved itself a sizable slice of the market. Now it looks set to do just the same in the smaller SUV market.
The SEAT Arona matches the best of its rivals in terms of space, quality and equipment. But in terms of its drivetrains and on-road performance it steps ahead of the competition – in a sector that is becoming known for practical vehicles that are only adequate on the road, it bucks the trend by delivering a satisfying drive.
The Arona is by no means the cheapest small SUV on the market, but it is one of the best, and will become a very significant model in the SEAT line up.