Road Test: Seat Ibiza 1.2 Reference
This is Luc Donckerwolke's first creation for Seat, and the 'architectural' curves of the body signal a new design direction
The new Seat Ibiza closes a circle. It's supposed to be what we used to call a supermini, but it's actually enormous – just as most of its current rivals are.
But there's a precedent here. Where the original Volkswagen Polo was genuinely little, especially compared to the current one which is bigger than a Golf used to be, the original Ibiza was quite a chunky car, as broad as the Fiat Strada, from which it was loosely derived, but with an abruptly chopped rear end to superminimise it.
Model: Seat Ibiza 1.2 Reference
Price: £9,000 approx, on sale from July
Engine: 1,198cc, three cylinders, 12 valves, 70bhp at 5,400rpm, 83lb ft at 3,000rpm
Transmission: five-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Performance: 101mph, 0-62 in 15.0sec, 47.9mpg official average, CO2 139g/km
Do you remember that car? It was the first design from Seat after the company's mid-1980s rebirth as an entity able to make more than just licence-built, re-badged Fiats. In what turned out be an act of premonition, the original Ibiza used engines designed by Porsche. Nowadays, Seat is ensconced within the Volkswagen group, for which it is a "Latin" brand suffused with all those things that connect with the heart rather than the head. That's the idea anyway. And nowadays, Volkswagen is controlled by Porsche. Two circles, then: Porsche and the Ibiza's bulk.
Seat is a "value" brand. Sometimes this has caused the cars to lack sophistication compared to Volkswagens or Audis. They might have hard interior trim instead of soft surfaces, for example, or engines discarded by the German brands in favour of cleverer, newer ones. But Seat is also a "sporty" brand, as demonstrated by its racing programme, so it needs suitable engines. This has been an uneasy mix. Now, though, the neglect is being addressed.
The VW group's small cars have, historically, shared the same underpinnings. Sometimes these must change for a new generation, and which brand gets the new platform first is a signal of VW's nurturing of that brand. Last time it was Skoda (original Fabia); this time it's Seat. Maybe Volkswagen itself will get it next time.
On to this new platform has been built a body that signals a new Seat design direction. The edges are sharper; the front grille is squatter; the curves along the flanks are more, well, architectural. You might say, if primed, that there's a little bit of Lamborghini in it. Seat's current design director is Luc Donckerwolke, late of Lamborghini (he shaped the Gallardo), and the Ibiza is his first Seat creation.
Our test cars are five-doors, but a three-door body style joins the range later. It will look quite different from the five-door and more of a coupé, just as the three-door Vauxhall Corsa does. The Seat Bocanegra "concept" car shown at Geneva previewed the look, and very racy it is.
Donckerwolke talks a lot about the Ibiza's quality, and it is true that the shutlines are tight and neat and the whole car feels tough and solid. But, for all the metallic look of the instrument cluster ("like a sports chronograph" was the intention), there is but a token swathe of padding like an island in a sea of injection-moulded dashboard. This is still no threat to an Audi's perceived plushness, but then no Audi, not even the future A1 compact hatchback, will be as cheap as the entry-level Ibiza's £9,000.
So far, so reasonable. But there's one aspect of the new Ibiza I'm very keen to assess. Seats of the recent past have tended to be uncomfortably harsh on the UK's woeful roads. I remember driving the Sport version of the current Leon and hearing my passenger's words come out in a series of puffs and wobbles as we jolted over the bumps. This was a very immature depiction of sportiness: a rock-hard ride is not the answer.
Here I am in a new Ibiza Sport, with a rather old, 1.9-litre, 105bhp turbodiesel engine which won't be available in the UK until after Ibiza sales start in July. It's the usual cocktail of stiffer springs and dampers, lower-profile tyres and weightier steering (an electro-hydraulic system instead of the more fashionable, slightly more energy-efficient and cheaper all-electric arrangement used in most modern rivals). I brace myself for the first bump.
No need. This Ibiza is taut and responsive, helped by wheels set further apart than the old car's, but it allows its wheels to accommodate a distressed road. There has been a change in outlook in Seat's suspension engineers, and a Sport-badged Ibiza is now a car you could conceivably want, especially as its steering is more natural-feeling than that of most rivals. That old engine is gruff and noisy, though. Better diesels, rather than hand-me-downs, are on the way.
The big seller, apparently, will be the 1.6-litre petrol engine, which also has 105bhp if not the diesel's pulling power, nor its 119g/km CO2 and consequent fuel economy. I encounter this one in the curiously-named Stylance trim level, with plenty of gadgets but gentle suspension. It's less fun to drive than the Sport and makes less of an impression, which some buyers may like. To me, it's just dull. There's also a 1.4 with 85bhp.
And now, the part that probably wasn't in Seat's script. The entry-level Ibiza has a trim level called Reference and a 1.2-litre, three-cylinder engine made by Skoda, which generates up to 70bhp. It's by some margin the slowest Ibiza, and its 139g/km isn't very special by today's standards, but it's much the most enjoyable engine to drive behind. It delivers its modest energy willingly, with surprising pull from low speeds, and it has that deep, musical note typical of a "three". It never sounds like it's working as hard as it really is, and it gives the Ibiza a personality lacking in its uninspired four-cylinder engines. Not for the first time, cheapest is best.
Of course, there will be more Ibizas in the future, including a racy FR with a 1.4-litre turbo engine and a racier Cupra with the 1.8-litre, 160bhp turbo much praised in other VW group cars. There will be DSG sequential transmissions, too, with seven gears. But the basic Ibiza might just remain the most charming of all even if, for all the new range's commendable weight-saving over the old car, it's still heavier than the current class leader, the excellent Mazda 2.
Mazda 2 1.3 TS: £8,499
It has the lesser 75bhp engine and lacks some of the Ibiza's equipment, but this cheapest version of Mazda's light, agile, handsome supermini makes the Seat look expensive.
Peugeot 207 1.4 Urban 5dr: £9,895
This most basic 207 again has a 75bhp engine but the excess weight blunts the pace. It is mainly a good car, however, it costs too much for what it offers.
Skoda Fabia 1.2 12v 1: £8,810
"Full of lovely stuff," says the ad, but not much equipment in this cheapest guise. It's lovely to drive, though, thanks to that same three-cylinder engine. A top-quality car.