SEAT enters the hotly-contested B-SUV crossover segment with only its second-ever vehicle of this type, this time called the Arona. It uses the same chassis as its Ibiza stablemate and the resulting vehicle should be one of the first names on your shopping list if this is the sort of car that really floats your metaphorical boat, as it's truly excellent in all departments save interior design flair - and perhaps the Arona's best feature is its vibrant handling.
In the metal
When it comes to these high-riding city machines - because, let's face it, for all their ground clearance and SUV-facsimile appearances, crossovers are not intended to leave the tarmac - half the battle in getting prospective customers into showrooms is won by having eye-catching exterior design. So the SEAT Arona makes an immediate, positive impact. Looking like exactly what you might expect of such a machine (it's essentially a slightly shrunken Ateca with strong sprinkling of Ibiza thrown in for good measure), it's beautifully proportional, handsome from all angles and it looks particularly good in some of the bright body colours with the jazzy contrast roof shades, all separated by that little 'X'-branded detail on the C-pillar.
And as we move inside the Arona, the quality of the cabin's finishing is not in doubt. Models with the eight-inch colour touchscreen for the infotainment (that's all Irish variants except the entry-level S base spec) have a nice focal point for the dashboard and there's a good solidity to the major controls and switchgear. The seating position is high without feeling precariously lofty, visibility out - including in the rear three-quarters, which looks like it might be a weak point from the exterior styling - is superb, space is good all round and there's a large-for-the-class 400-litre boot at the rear, and everything is presented in a logical and orderly fashion. It's just a shame that, for all the exterior funkiness, the interior of the Arona is so visually plain. Some strips of trim across the main fascia and on the door cards can come in a contrast finish, but in essence it's again a lot of charcoal plastics that are unyielding to the touch. SEATs never have bad cabins, they're far from that, but by the standards of the rest of the Volkswagen Group, this notable lack of interior pizzazz feels strangely puzzling. Especially in a car aimed at a youthful demographic, like this crossover.
By the prevailing chassis standards of the B-segment crossover crowd, the SEAT Arona is a little peach. Sitting on the new 'MQB A0' underpinnings, that have previously been used on the company's Ibiza supermini and the all-new Volkswagen Polo MkVI, is the key to the Arona's road-holding success, because it drives to all intents and purposes like a really well-sorted five-door hatch - kind of like a SEAT Leon, if you will, but on the shortest of stilts.
From behind the wheel, you'll have a hard time reminding yourself that this thing is more than 1.5 metres tall with 190mm of ground clearance and a higher hip point for the occupants, because it turns-in, grips and finds traction in a manner that completely outclasses many of the staid, comfort-orientated chassis set-ups you'll find elsewhere in this class. There's genuine pleasure to be had in punting the Arona along at a fair old lick, the lack of body roll being a particular highlight when you load up the lateral g-forces through faster corners. Like so many modern cars that have to function at their best in cities, the biggest let-down on this dynamic score is the overly-light, feedback-free steering, but at least SEAT has made sure what weight there is to its action is consistent, while it is quick and precise.
What we're saying here is that you adapt to what information you've got at your fingertips and quickly build a genuine rapport with the Arona, enjoying its eager front end and sharp responses. All the launch drivetrains are largely excellent, while the five- and six-speed manual transmissions are taut and sweet-of-throw, plus the brakes do a fine job of bringing the whole shebang back down to saner speeds if you're driving quickly. The diesel Arona is fine but not ground-breaking, while the 150hp 1.5-litre Evo feels livelier for in-gear acceleration on the motorway, if not massively quicker for blasting through the gearbox at full throttle than the 115hp 1.0 TSI - which makes this petrol option our choice for the Arona. It's a lovely all-rounder, it bestows more than enough pace on the SEAT crossover, it has that typically great, off-beat three-cylinder sound and it's reasonably cheap to buy and run. You could go for the 95hp variant of the same engine, although it feels like slightly too little power in too big a car, really, so stick at 115hp.
Nevertheless, all this back-road fun will count for naught if the SEAT is a hard-riding little so-and-so for the rest of the time... so be delighted that it is nothing of the sort. Sports suspension is fitted to the FR models, but it doesn't ruin the ride, yet the Comfort-spec set-up on all other Aronas provides a wonderful balance of ride comfort and body control. This, coupled with noise suppression that's every bit as good as that on the bigger Ateca, makes the Arona a delight around town, while simultaneously blessing it with truly 'big car' characteristics on motorways and faster, open roads. So in terms of its all-round suite of kinematics, this sleek SEAT crossover doesn't appear to have an obvious weak spot. It's a fabulous little thing to be behind the wheel of.
What you get for your money
Four trim lines are offered here, which run S and then SE, with Xcellence and FR forming a 'wine-glass' structure at the top, whereby one is geared towards luxury and the other to sport, yet for the same price. S is absolutely minimal kit and really only price-point marketing to get a €17,995 windscreen sticker in the mix; in reality, you'll need at least an SE from €20,715, which offers LED daytime running lights, 16-inch alloys, a leather steering wheel and the eight-inch media system as standard. Xcellence and FR (both from €22,815) add bigger alloys, Alcantara upholstery and the option of bi-colour paint finishes, as well as their own specific luxuries such as keyless entry and go, sports detailing and ambient lighting.
All models get six airbags, ABS, ESC with the XDS front differential, Front Assist and two ISOFIX child seat fitting points, while things like adaptive cruise control, Tiredness Detection, Park Distance Control, Park Assist, a rear-view camera, Blind Spot Detection and Rear Cross-Traffic Alert, and auto lights and wipers are all either standard fit or options higher up the range. Thus, the Arona is well-equipped by the standards of the competition.
The SEAT Arona's job gets even harder before it gets into its stride, what with the sudden burst of fresh metal in this market segment - new Korean entries in the form of the Hyundai Kona and Kia Stonic ensure there's a mass of choice for the B-segment crossover buyer like never before. However, with its crisp chassis, great looks and usual great SEAT blend of plenty of equipment for a reasonable price, the Arona - rather like its big-brother Ateca in the class above - looks like it is the one to beat in its highly competitive segment. It does everything you could want of one of these urban run-arounds, while simultaneously driving in a manner that's befitting of a decent five-door hatchback. It's currently our first recommendation if you're buying something of this ilk.