Design is in the driver's seat

The seats in the SEAT 600: basic, but an improvement on a saddle. Photograph: Drew Gibson for the Guardian

The modern car seat is a sophisticated bit of kit. It might have heating elements fitted so that your backside is the first part of your body to warm up on a winter's morning. It can be adjusted to suit not just short or long legs, but for height, so that shorter drivers get a better view and are placed more precisely in front of the steering wheel. And if you don't fancy pulling a lever, the seat can be moved at the press of a switch and lumbar support can be adjusted for comfort.

Related: How the headlamp became the star of road safety

All this versatility isn't confined to the front seats. The rear seats in SEAT's new Ateca SUV are split 60:40 and can be folded flat together or individually. With a flick of a lever, they can even be folded from the luggage area.

Contrast all this technology with the seats in the 1957 SEAT 600. Those seats are essentially chairs, with the only thought involved going into the pattern and colours of their cloth upholstery. A modern car seat is carefully engineered to help protect the driver and passengers in the event of an accident. The foams and the shape of the seat base are designed to reduce what is called submarining, in which the body slides downwards and tries to slip under the seatbelt. The goal is to design a seat that keeps the body in a position in which the seatbelts and airbags do the optimum job of protection.

The seats in the Ateca are designed to be comfortable and safe, yet remarkably weigh less than those in the venerable 600. Photograph: SEAT

But we mustn't be too harsh on the old car; there was far less emphasis on safety in the 1950s. And this was a car that would be sold to many people who had never owned a car before; a seat was far more comfortable than a saddle, whether on a bicycle or a horse. There is also something to be said for a simple seat. A car seat does not have to be big and chunky to be comfortable, and classic cars such as the SEAT 600 can have extremely basic chairs fitted that were, at the time, a revelation in comfort.

Weight is the enemy of economy and emissions: the heavier the vehicle, the more power is required to move it along. The challenge for engineers today is to retain the comfort and safety of a modern car seat but to reduce its weight. They are constantly experimenting with new materials, often organic, to shave grams from every single area, and to make electric motors, when fitted, lighter. The driver's seat of the Ateca weighs just 21kg – less than that in the SEAT 600 – and the combined weight of all the seats is only 70kg, making them another triumph of modern car design.

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