New model army

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Seat Ibiza GTi

A new category seems to crop up every five minutes in the motor industry. It is the manufacturers’ way of telling us that its latest model is ‘individual’, and thus has no direct competition. This is a dubious premise, as there are always appropriate alternatives unless someone builds a car so ridiculous that no one will buy it (though even the Reliant Kitten has its fans), and no self-respecting manufacturer will copy it.

The new ‘interclass’ Seat range is neither a supermini nor a lower-medium saloon. The flagship is the three-door, two-litre GTi model which by all accounts is a head-on rival for the Vauxhall Astra 1.8 GSi. The latter is a tad larger, but unless you’re a Peregrine Falcon you’d be hard pushed to tell the two apart at a mere glance.

The latest Ibiza is the first Volkswagen Group vehicle to be conceived outside Germany and its aerodynamically efficient form hides none of its predecessor’s components. The chassis, which borrows a few ideas from the Toledo, will form the base for some forthcoming VW models.

With the new Ibiza, Seat sought simultaneously to improve rigidity and lose weight. In certain areas, say the Spanish, the car has been ‘over-designed’ to cope adequately with the most stressful of high-performance parameters (to be provided, in this case, by the forthcoming 130 bhp Cordoba). And there is no doubt that build quality has improved. The influence of parent company VW is apparent, but though it feels like a VW in some respects, you can still appreciate that a touch of the old Seat character prevails.

For £11,250, the 2.0 GTi comes fairly well equipped, with power steering, electric windows, sunroof, alloy wheels, security system with immobiliser and a sporting interior. For an extra £600 you can also have ABS and traction control.

Performance from the trusty old 115 bhp Golf-derived eight-valve unit is brisk, though not exhilarating, and Seat claims a top speed of 121 mph and that the 0-60 mph dash can be achieved in 10s.

The Ibiza is a tall car, and feels it. Headroom is certainly generous, as is general accommodation for a car of this size. Good vision (despite the shallow rear screen) and power steering are bonuses when parking or trundling round town. Refinement is excellent – noise intrusion is subdued and London’s notorious pot holes were absorbed without fuss. However, no sporting/comfort combination could ever be perfect and the ride is reminiscent of first-generation Peugeot 205s, tending to be a tad bouncy at the rear end.

There is certainly little to criticise in the handling department. The GTi will roll because of its relatively high centre of gravity, but its composure when cornering under power gives the driver a degree of confidence that could not be matched in many other performance hatches. The communicative steering is faithful to driver inputs, and the chassis responds with razor sharp turn-in followed by surprisingly little understeer for a front wheel-drive car. Traction control comes into play in extreme situations but not obtrusively, so the driver is still allowed more than a degree of responsibility for his actions. It doesn’t kill engine revs completely, and forward progress isn’t sledgehammered.

As with any car, if you get stupid behind the wheel, you’ll get bitten. But it takes a great deal of provocation to unsettle the GTi. It may not grip like a gecko on a ceiling but there’s more than sufficient to cope with the power, while the high wheelbase/overall length ratio endows the GTi with almost lizard-like agility.

Progress will not be hampered by the smooth (but not Japanese slick) gearchange. However, the spongy brakes (never VW’s trump card) may persuade you to back-off earlier.

Though the Ibiza is no tarmac-ripper, its spread of mid-range torque certainly makes it perky and it has bottom-end power that would put some 16-valvers to shame. For the money you pay (particularly to insure it), you’ll be hard pushed to find a better combination of cross-country ability and refinement.

If the Ibiza does not sell in the UK, especially now that Seat’s advanced new Martorell factory can turn out 1,000 per day, then there’s no justice. R R B