But until now, the small VW Group subsidiary has remained just that: innovative but insignificant against the much bigger mainstream players. By drawing on the strengths of both partners, allied to a sexy new image, SEAT UK appears to have broken the mould with the new Toledo offering user-choosers a genuine alternative to traditional Renault Laguna/Ford Mondeo/ Vauxhall Vectra fleet favourites. It is expected that 80% of sales will go to British business buyers.
Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly a product of SEAT UK's sales rationale of pegging prices and piling high specification; and there's no better example than the new Toledo. Prices start at just £14,295 on-the-road for the 1.6S, rising to £17,595 for the flagship 2.3 V5, and all Toledos get ABS with traction control, air conditioning, alloy wheels, remote central locking, front electric windows, rake and reach adjustable steering wheel, three-point rear seat belts, twin airbags, height-adjustable front seats and a three-year unlimited mileage warranty as standard.
But with the Toledo, SEAT claims to offer an attribute its competitors can't: strong residual values. Robert Couldwell, business sales marketing manager at SEAT UK, said: 'By recognising that the largest cost of any lease deal is depreciation, we have worked hard to control the supply, warranty, price and model badging of the new car in an effort to raise used residuals.'
Emmox quotes an RV between 40-44%, depending on the model, compared to the company's nadir of just 31.5% two years ago. More interestingly, this beats the Passat 1.8 SE 20v at 39%. It also turns the tables on a running cost comparison too: Emmox predicts 29.44ppm for the Toledo 1.8 SE against the Toyota Avensis 1.8 GLS at 30.48ppm, Alfa Romeo 156 1.8 TS at 34.29ppm and Audi A4 1.8 SE at 34.12ppm. Couldwell added: 'As a result, we are predicting at least a quarter of new Toledo sales will be on contract hire, with 90% of total sales destined for the business sector.'
Using the Mk IV Golf platform, the new Toledo adds to the ever-growing VW Group family tree: Audi A3 and TT coupe, Skoda Octavia, Bora and Beetle. It might be a VW underneath but the low-slung nose, slim headlights and deep front spoiler add a sporting look that should appeal to a younger, more aspirational audience. Simple badging increases appeal with just three trims: S, SE and V5 and four VW-based engine variants: 1.6 16v, 1.8 20v, 1.9 110 TDi and a 2.3 V5 - the first five-cylinder engine in a SEAT, the first over 2.0 litres, and one that takes SEAT into uncharted luxury territory.
Kevin Rose, managing director of SEAT UK says: 'The new Toledo presents the start of a completely new range of cars for SEAT. We reached a watershed in 1995: prior to this we made little impact in the UK. In the last three years sales have doubled, profits are up, product investment has increased tenfold, plus a new brand image.'
Even so, SEAT UK is playing safe with the new car predicting 3,900 sales this year - a tiny 0.7% share of the sector. The 1.8-litre Toledos, in both S and SE guise, will take the bulk of sales (35%), TDis (25%) and V5s (16%).The new Toledo is on sale now and the growing importance of the UK market to SEAT is reflected in the new car becoming the company's first model to be launched simultaneously in the UK and Germany.
Despite a firmer suspension set-up than the Golf, the Toledo's ride is supple and absorbs irregularities in the road surface with aplomb. Grip, too, is impressive. But there's a marked difference in the way this car, like the equally new Volkswagen Bora, performs against the more mature Golf: the greater stiffness of the chassis and the quicker, more direct steering makes the Toledo a fun car to drive. Consequently, it's cross-country where the Toledo really shines, entering corners at higher speeds and sticking to the intended line.
Although the 1.6-litre wasn't available for test, the mid-range 125bhp 1.8-litre 20-valve unit - lifted from the Passat - is the real surprise of the range. Its throaty exhaust note sounds great under hard acceleration and being shorter and weighing less than the Passat, performance is lively: 0-60mph in 10.5secs and a maximum speed of 124mph. In SE guise, the Toledo has full climate control, CD autochanger, rear electric windows, side airbags and cruise control extra.
Quicker still is the flagship 2.3-litre V5. This is not only the first SEAT with an engine over 2.0 litres but also one with more than four cylinders. Developing 150bhp at 5700rpm and 151lb-ft of torque, the V5 delivers strong, smooth performance mated to a delicious five-cylinder warble.
Throttle response is instant and the standard electrically operated leather/ suede sports seats make the V5 a supremely comfortable long-distance cruiser. Maximum speed is 134mph and 0-60mph takes 9.2secs.
Mirroring the marque's core values, SEAT has chosen to drop the 90bhp turbodiesel - which features in the Passat, Golf and Bora - and offer only the more powerful 110bhp version. We've heaped praise on the refinement, performance and economy of this engine before in Fleet News and it performs equally well under the bonnet of the Toledo. With 173lb-ft of torque at just 1,900rpm, acceleration is immediate with 0-60mph taking just 11.2 seconds; top speed is 120mph. But this tells just half the story: at a miserly 56.5mpg combined (1.8 manual 33.6mpg; 2.3 V5 30.4mpg), the Toledo is near the best in class, if not the best.
Slide into the driver's seat, and the first change to grab you over the old model is the vastly-improved quality and level of attention to detail. The driving position is spot-on thanks to the rake and reach adjustable steering wheel, height adjustable seats and proper, foot-size spacing between the pedals. Thank VW for that - but there's no denying SEAT has added its own special flavour to the Toledo's cabin with red-on-black dials, lighter trim materials and a delightfully chunky three-spoke steering wheel.
With the new Toledo, SEAT has produced a car that's hard to fault: even in base trim it offers the best specification versus price in its sector - by a mile -but at the same time doesn't lose sight of what the SEAT name stands for: fun, style and character. Traditional fleet favourites be warned.