The most dangerous review I've ever written: The SEAT Arona
If you never hear from me again, this is why...
Over the years there have been many incredible examples of hacks going to extreme and sometimes even life-threatening lengths in the pursuit of maintaining their journalistic integrity . Whether it’s daring to challenge the word of a fascist dictator knowing full-well they could end up spending the rest of their life in a squalid foreign prison. Or running head first into the middle of a warzone to convey the heart-wrenching suffering of the people caught in the crossfire, these brave souls choose to take the risks others would shy away from.
Obviously, road-testing cars is about seven million times less fraught than appearing live on the News at Ten with someone launching rockets at you. However, what I’m doing this week is perhaps the most dangerous thing anyone who writes about cars can embark upon. In fact, it is so perilous that I’m not sure anyone has ever dared attempt it before, it could even be a world first. I’m going to review my fiancée’s new car.
I’m going to have to tread a fine line here. On the one hand, if I’m mean about my soon-to-be wife's new car, which she is very proud of, I’ll be lucky to escape from the encounter without serious internal injuries. On the other, if I’m nice about it, everyone on the internet will call me a sell-out and will come marching over the hill with pitchforks and flaming torches.
That speed bump was 3ft high until the Arona came along to pummel it into the ground.
Unfortunately for my future domestic arrangements though, there are several problems to address. Chief amongst which is the name of the car; the first word is ‘SEAT’ and if I’m being honest I’ve always found writing about SEAT’s to be a bit like writing about the inside of a ping-pong ball. What is there to say? “Erm, it’s a Volkswagen. But it’s built in Spain, and it’s cheaper than a Volkswagen, but it’s not as cheap as a Skoda. Which is also a Volkswagen, but is built in the Czech Republic.” Then there's the second word which is ‘Arona’. This isn’t great either, because not only does it sound like ‘aroma’ which could just as easily put you in mind of the ‘aroma of dog shit’ as it could the ‘aroma of a lovely floral bouquet’, but it also means that the car in question is a small SUV crossover, and mentioning small SUV crossovers on DRIVETRIBE is a little bit like bringing Stormy Daniels as your plus-one to dinner at the White House. It’s not really the done thing.
Sadly for the naysayers, like the aforementioned Ms Daniels, these Tonka-toy style jacked up hatchbacks are incredibly popular at the moment. You only need to look at just how many of the damn things have been foist upon us recently. There's the little Citroen C3 Aircross which you may have seen undergoing some unconventional testing on The Grand Tour recently, then there's the Ford EcoSport, the Hyundai Kona and whatever that Vauxhall one is called. They're everywhere, and if you don't like them then look at it this way; every time someone who doesn't care about cars buys an EcoSport or a Kona, their manufacturers get some more money to spend on building Mustangs and i30N's for the people that do.
Interior is familiar VAG. Top-spec Xcellence model very well equipped.
So, the Arona then. Is there anything here for people who do care about cars? Well the engines and running gear are all lifted directly from elsewhere in the VW empire. This is promising, because the myopic three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine is more or less identical to the one you'll find in the VW up! GTI. I like this engine very much, it seems to turn any car that it is fitted in into a bit of a hoon machine. This is mostly because of the rorty, almost cartoon-ish 'half-a-911' noise it makes when you give it some stick. The problem with this is that pinning it is such good fun, you tend to zoom about the place at 6000rpm all the time, which is alright in the featherweight up! but in the heavier Arona it becomes noisy at higher speeds and is quite bad for fuel consumption. I had a petrol on test a while back and averaged just 38 MPG.
This means that like Beloved, you'll probably go for the diesel. Which is the ubiquitous 1.6 TDI as seen in everything from the Skoda Scala to the Audi Q2. There is really only one way to describe this engine: It is a device for propelling a moving vehicle. You couldn't exactly call it interesting or exciting. However aside from a bit of clatter when cold it's more refined and more frugal than the pez powered version. It also had a decent slug of torque, 184 lbs/ft to be exact, and this works well with the seven-speed DSG auto 'box to give the Arona more overtaking punch than the figures would suggest. Speaking of the DSG transmission, I'd say that as a £600 option, it is worth having for two reasons. Firstly, it is by far and away the best automatic transmission in the small car sector, and secondly the manually-equipped Arona I drove previously had a bit of a notchy, baulky change which was for me the weakest link in the driving experience.
Arona's boot easily large enough for the sort of case Bond villans use to launch nuclear weapons.
Handling? Obviously if you're planning to take your small SEAT on a helmswrighty tour of Europe's Alpine passes then the Ibiza is going to be a better bet. Despite what the brochure might say there's no getting away from the laws of physics. That said, the Arona really isn't too bad. There's still an inescapable hint of disconcerting lean when you first fling it into a bend, a combination of the raised ride height, high-ish geared steering and longer travel dampers causes things to get momentarily floaty, but once you've set the desired course the SEAT clings on rather impressively. At the junction where the M25 meets the A21 in Kent there is a superb long left-hander with an ever tightening line which I often use to test grip levels in all sorts of cars. According to my own personal scale, any car that still feels planted all the way around this corner at more than 55mph gets a pass, the Arona managed a respectable 59.
That's not bad, and it's especially not bad when you head for a town and discover that this chunky little car is seemingly impervious to the effects of the speed bump. This is very important round where I live because the roads, which wouldn't pass muster in Syria let alone Sussex, are so awful that a trip around town in something like a BMW M4 would result in the need for a six month course of intensive physiotherapy whilst the driver learns to walk again. Not so in the SEAT, which even on the optional 17-inch alloys is able to deal with the pot-holes and idiotically high speed bumps admirably. It's not Rolls-Royce Phantom-perfect, but for a supermini on stilts it's pretty bloody good.
The interior isn't bad either, but on the basis that most of the switchgear has already been tried and tested in the Golf, Polo, Ibiza, Octavia etc. etc. that isn't really a surprise. What is a surprise is that for some bizarre reason someone at SEAT has decided to glue a big white slab of what appears to be the same kind of plastic that VHS tapes came in to the middle of the dashboard. I don't know if it's there just to distract you from the stark functionality of the rest of the interior, but it's crap and it needs to go. Also, it seems that they couldn't be bothered to move the engine start button from the left side to the right of the centre console for RHD cars. Little things guys, little things.
Three-cylinder petrol motor lifted from up! GTI is fun but thrashy. 1.6 TDI more refined.
It's a hard car to sum up really. The Arona is never going to win the award for 'Most popular car on DRIVETRIBE' and there is still a part of me that wants to hate it purely because I can't help get over the suspicion that an Ibiza would be more enjoyable to drive, better to look at and cost less money. Like all crossovers you get the impression that the Arona is more of a marketing exercise rather than a car developed to meet any real need, and if I'm honest I was all ready to risk being left single and alone in the world by saying so in print, all in the name of journalistic integrity. However, there are two things about this car which are very good. Firstly, it costs £23,860. Which for a brand new high riding five-seater with an automatic gearbox, Apple CarPlay, metallic paint and all the other goodies that this fully-loaded Xcellence version comes with, really isn't bad at all.
Then there's the clincher; I have two dogs. One of which is the most stubborn creature ever to have walked the earth. In the eight years he has been alive I've lost count of the amount of hours I have spent trying to persuade him to jump into the backs of hundreds of different cars, but no. He just sits there staring blankly up at me from the pavement until I have to lift him into the car like an invalid, it doesn't matter whether the car in question is a £500 Fiesta or a brand new BMW. But yesterday I took him out to the Arona fully expecting another battle of wills in which I lose and the neighbours walk past to see me heaving my own recalcitrant beagle into the back of the car whilst hissing "You hairy bastard" at him like a mental.
But when presented with the open back end of the Arona, to my utter disbelief, he took one sniff and jumped straight in. Because he was high up, unlike in an Ibiza, he could see the outside world whizz by as we drove along with a waggy tail and a cheeky grin on his face. Not only did this make me very happy, it also made my fiancée very happy too. We had a lovely day out together and to me that's well worth the trade-off for a little bit of on-the-limit handling prowess or a sloping coupe-style roofline.
For others, it might not be. But just so you're aware, as you power out of a hairpin bend enjoying the low centre of gravity and handling balance of your hatchback, we'll know that you don't love your dog. More importantly it also means that I can end this review on a high note, and as such, I'm not going to be murdered.
THE TECHNICAL BIT - SEAT ARONA 1.6TDI XCELLENCE DSG
Engine: 1598cc Diesel, 4 cylinders, Turbocharged. Transmission: 7-Speed Automatic. Power: 95 BHP. Torque: 184 lbs/ft. Driven wheels: Front Wheel Drive. 0-62 MPH: 12.8 secs. Top Speed: 108 MPH Economy: 67.3 MPG Combined. Price: £23,860