You know which carmaker is woefully unknown in America? SEAT, from Spain. The company started out making license-built Fiats (including some unique variations of their own) and then was absorbed into the global amoeba of the VW Group, where it remains to this day. SEAT has been sort of the VW Group’s sporty-focused arm, but it remains a mystery to most mainstream Americans. I suspect a lot of the problem comes from difficulties in Googling car-related things with the word “seat,” since that often ends up in results about, well, car seats. But there are lots of important things to know about SEAT, including the detail I want to talk to you about today: the second-gen SEAT Leon’s amazing rear door handles, which were partially integrated into the rear side window glass.
Why hasn’t this method been incorporated into every supercar since this time? It feels so unexpected and cool! Let’s take a deeper look at this.
Also, it’s worth noting that the Leon I think is one of those cars that would be great to import in a few years’ time, once it’s legal. Same platform as the VW Golf, and there were hot versions with up to about 260 hp and a six-speed manual. These were seriously fun little hot hatches, and would make a great GTI alternative. Plus, SEAT had fun in the ads for these, getting all sinister:
Other ads got weirdly philosophical:
Back to the door handles, though. Here’s a closer look:
What’s incredible about this design is that I think it is unique in the whole grand automotive world; integrating functional elements onto glass has always been sort of a show/concept car fetish. In the real world, the grim truth about the difficulties of manufacture usually make this sort of thing unlikely. In fact, one of the only other remotely analogous examples I can think of is the Maserati Khasmin, which mounted its taillights on a piece of glass at the rear:
The Leon’s rear door handle is different, though. Like a number of other usually sporty-tinged four doors, the rear door handle has been hidden on the C-pillar, in the upper door frame itself. In most applications, this type of door handle is usually handled something like this, as in this Toyota C-HR:
This is just one example, but a lot of cars take a similar approach. There’s a sort of half-assed attempt to hide the handle in the door trim or on the pillar somewhere, so as not to break up the lines of the car, but the result usually looks a bit clunky and the handle can be hard to find.
The other really common way to do this is just put the door handle, in black, on a little black panel that could have been a window, if there was anyone around who cared enough to spend the extra money, which there wasn’t. A great example of this is that Chevy Sonic up there. This prevents the handle from marring the overall design, but still looks and feels kind of partial-buttock’d.
But, the Leon’s approach doesn’t try to hide the handle, really. Well, it does in part, as the latching mechanism is hidden, but the part that’s important – where your fingers need to go – is obvious, and yet somehow doesn’t break up the lines of the car because it’s integrated into the side quarter window glass itself.
It’s subtle, but striking at the same time, not an easy pairing to achieve. I remember I first noticed this while walking down a road in Barcelona, and that little scalloped area of glass caught my eye immediately. I’d never heard of this before, but once I noticed it I couldn’t get it out of my head.
So, how the hell did SEAT pull this off? The sharp, deep concave section isn’t the sort of thing you can normally do with automotive glass, right? I did a bit of digging, and found a press release from 2007, from GE Plastics, that explains it all. Here, look:
“To streamline the Leon with a “dynamic line,” SEAT decided to add a rear quarter window with a built-in recessed hand grip that provides access to a hidden door handle. This design would eliminate the traditional, obtrusive rear door handle. The integration would also provide part consolidation.
However, the quarter window’s recessed hand grip and curved shape exceeded the limitations of glass. This application required a material with exceptional design freedom to create the unique window shape. The search for a better material also offered the chance to find a lighter-weight replacement for the glass to promote better fuel economy.”
Ah, it’s not really glass at all! So, what is it?
“SEAT selected tough, crystal-clear Lexan LS2 polycarbonate (PC) resin, matching the glass color of the vehicle, plus a silicone topcoat for weathering and abrasion resistance. Lexan resin is widely used in the automotive industry for complex glazing and lighting applications that do not lend themselves to glass. In addition, Lexan resin is significantly lighter in weight than glass, helping to improve fuel efficiency.
“GE worked closely with Freeglass to enable the success of this challenging application,” said Volker Kessler, Automotive Industry Manager for Body Panels and Glazing, GE Plastics. “We added value to the design and manufacturing process with predictive tools such as part fill simulations, and color-matching services. Our Center of Excellence for Glazing in the Netherlands played a key role in this collaboration.”
It’s Lexan! A resin! This is not especially common in production cars, so that makes it even more novel. Plus, of course the Center of Excellence for Glazing in the Netherlands was involved here. Who among us hasn’t had some sort of glazing-related run-in with that Dutch Center of Excellence before? If there’s some crazy shit going down in glazing, you know those crazy motherespecters are in the mix, somehow.
What I don’t get is why this hasn’t been picked up by more carmakers? It seems like there’s a lot that could be done with Lexan windows like these, right? Imagine a tailgate where the window was huge and incorporated the rear badge/handle right in the glass? That’d be cool as hell! Or lights in the glass! Why are we sleeping on this?
Oh, there’s another cool, under-appreciated thing about the Leon. See if you can spot it in this picture:
See what I’m getting at? No? Lemme help you:
The wipers. They park vertically at the A-pillars! They’re even enclosed in the pillar a bit there. It’s cool as hell, and, even better, I bet it keeps the wipers from getting all clogged with leaves and pine needles and crap like they do when they’re at the base of the windshield. Again, why has no other carmaker parked wipers this way? I mean, it seems the eventually-upcoming Tesla Cybertruck will have a vertically-parked wiper, but that implementation looks a lot clunkier than the Leon’s.
This little hot hatch is full of great design details, and, from everything I’ve read, is a blast to drive. It’s time we gave these little SEATs some thought here in the US. These will be available for import in 2032; that’s not so far away, really!