In Spain and elsewhere, motorists take a seat at the wheel of a SEAT

Few Americans have even seen a SEAT (SAY-at), much less driven one. But wave down a cab outside your hotel here and it will probably be a SEAT; or read the signposts on 1,100 new-car dealerships in Spain and most likely they'll say SEAT as well. SEAT is Spain's nationalized carmaker, not a place to sit down.

The Spanish-built cars are also seen outside Spain, from the streets of Western Europe to South America and the Mideast. SEAT, in fact, has 7 percent of the total new-car market in Israel. It will soon send its cars to Scandinavia and Britain, and to Canada later this year or in early '86. Beyond that, the company is casting an eye toward the United States.

Since the early 1950s SEAT, an acronym for Sociedad Espaola de Autom'oviles de Turisco SA, has been selling Italian Fiats with a few Iberian twists. But in 1980, Fiat opted out of the partnership. SEAT has replaced its ``Fiat connection'' with Volkswagenwerk AG.

SEAT also has turned to Italy's Giorgetto Giugiaro, who styled the Volkswagen Golf plus a few dozen other cars around the world, and to Porsche and Karmann of West Germany. The result is the Ibiza, named for a popular Spanish resort island in the Mediterranean.

The 5-passenger, 3-door Ibiza, with a front engine and front drive, is a combination of characteristic German engineering and Italian flair. ``We want our cars to have good looks, a reliable engine, and perky performance,'' comments Juan Manuel Rodr'iguez Jado, director of export operations at SEAT.

The Ibiza is a ``pretty-well-equipped car,'' Mr. Rodr'iguez adds, and so is not the cheapest vehicle on the road. In other words, it is not a ``people's car'' in the sense of the old Volkswagen beetle. ``We will not fight a price war and we will not go up-market to compete with the supersophisticated companies because we don't have that kind of product.''

A drive from Madrid to Chinch'on, a village about an hour outside Madrid, gave a good chance to test the Ibiza, both in traffic and out, as well as on a variety of road surfaces and elevations. Handling was good, as expected, given the fact that Porsche provided the two gasoline engines -- 1.2 and 1.5 liters -- plus the gearbox.

``They have the right spirit there,'' Rodr'iguez says of Porsche's research works at Weissach, near Stuttgart.

The front suspension is MacPherson strut, while the independent rear design uses a transverse leaf spring. Brakes are disc in front and drums in back. The dashboard design is . . . well, different, and the arrangement of some of the hand controls may seem a little strange. If sent to the US, the car could run into some of the same problems the French carmakers have had with their independent arrangement of instruments and controls.

Like the Mercedes-Benz 190 and new midrange cars, the Ibiza uses a single-blade windshield wiper.

SEAT, saddled with all the excessive staff and work crew of a government-owned manufacturing arm, has done a good job with its new small car, but there's significant room for improvement if it wants to sell the car more widely in the world. The interior trim could be dressed up, for example, and a tight standard should be maintained on quality.

Emphasizing its intention to ``make it'' in the marketplace, the company spent an estimated $850,000 last November on advertising to launch the new car, several times what a Spanish company might expect to spend.

Beyond the hatchback Ibiza, SEAT is planning a 5-door model and a notchback.

Charles E. Dole is the Monitor's automotive editor.


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