Island life: 30 years of the Seat Ibiza

4 June 2014

Seat Ibiza mk4 and mk1

The early 1980s were not famed as a haven for restraint and good taste. Somehow, the original Seat Ibiza emerged from that exuberant era with dignity intact. As the first product of a newly independent Spanish car company, which had largely produced mildly tweaked Fiats for the previous 30 years, the Ibiza is all the more remarkable. Approaching a well preserved example today, it’s hard to believe the car made its debut in 1984, fully 30 years ago.

The Ibiza’s crisply resolved design is not actually Spanish – it’s the work of Italdesign of Turin. German firm Karmann also helped with the development, while Porsche assisted with both mechanical and interior design. Plus the underlying platform was provided by Fiat’s Strada hatchback. So while the Mk1 Ibiza was not entirely home grown, it probably emerged a better product for all that foreign expertise.

Mk1 Seat Ibiza front view

Today’s fourth-generation Ibiza follows on faithfully in at least one respect. It too appears much more youthful than it really is. The current design arrived in 2008, placing it among the older crop of superminis currently on sale. The sharp-creased panels, the work of Audi A2 designer Luc Donckerwolke, newly arrived from Lamborghini at the time, have weathered well. Sales of the Ibiza during 2013 were the best since the Mk4 arrived, which is not the usual trajectory for a five-year-old car.

Any illusions of modernity quickly evaporate when you fling open the tinny door of the original Ibiza. Automotive interiors have moved on immeasurably in three decades. To modern eyes the cabin looks decidedly empty and indeed kit is so sparse there’s not even a socket to power my satnav. I sink into the saggy, springy tweed and admire the enormous, airbag-free steering wheel. It needs a big circumference for leverage, because there’s not a jot of power assistance through what seems like 10 turns from lock to lock.

Mk1 Seat Ibiza interior

Behind the rubbery wheel lurk an array of switches the like of which I’ve never seen. Lights, wipers, horn and indicators can all be controlled without removing your hands from the wheel, given sufficiently dextrous thumbs. There are no stalks, just big, clacking buttons. The layout looks quaint and quirky now, but you might also argue that it’s a visionary precursor to today’s wheel-mounted controls, minus any tricky rotating electrical connections.

This particular old Ibiza was new in 1989 and boasts a 903cc four-cylinder petrol engine. It left the factory with 43 horses, though I doubt the same number are still inside. On the move the Ibiza smells strongly of leaking hydrocarbons and needs lots of revs to make progress – I’m not sure exactly how many as there’s no rev counter, just a blank third dial featuring a big Seat logo. There are five forward gears to choose from, somewhere on the end of a long-throw gearstick that feels as if it might actually be attached with elastic.

Mk1 Seat Ibiza cockpit

Despite these various shortcomings it’s still possible to see why the old Ibiza was such a hit. More than 1.3 million were built before the Mk2 arrived in 1993. Despite the low power it’s still fun to chuck around, with only 850kg of body mass helping it feel nimble, even on skinny tyres in the wet. It leans and squirms and scrabbles for grip, like a puppy that can’t wait to see what’s happening around the next corner.

A whiff of that eager character can still be discerned in the modern Ibiza, thankfully without the petrol fumes. The modern car feels lighter and more willing to change direction than I’d expected, given that its 1,167kg bulk makes it not exactly the leanest car in its class.

2014 Seat Ibiza SC FR Design rear view

Some of that keenness will be down to the particular model I’ve borrowed. It’s the three-door hatchback version (optimistically dubbed SC for Sport CoupĂ©) in FR Edition trim, which sits one rung away from the most sporty Cupra models in the Ibiza range. It boasts 17-inch alloys, lowered sports suspension, a flat-bottomed steering wheel and a 1.4-litre TSI petrol engine providing more than three times the power of its ancestor at 140PS (138bhp). Together with a torque peak of 250Nm, this is enough to reach 62mph in 7.8 seconds. The old 0.9-litre car, by contrast, took more than 21 seconds to thrash its way to 60mph.

I’ve no idea what kind of fuel economy the original Ibiza might have promised, but the new one has a combined cycle rating of 60.1mpg and CO2 emissions of 109g/km. Those figures will be aided by the presence of Active Cylinder Technology (ACT), which cuts off petrol supply from two of the four pistons when loads are light. The same technology features in other products from the giant Volkswagen group, which has owned Seat outright since 1990, after taking a majority stake in 1986.

2014 Seat Ibiza SC FR Design front interior

Fuel economy would be better still if today’s Ibiza employed VW’s stop-start technology, but that capability doesn’t feature unless customers opt for the Ecomotive edition. The absence of this kind of facility is presumably one of the ways in which Seat sticks to another of its key attributes – reasonable cost. With a starting price of £15,920, the FR Edition Ibiza is £1,790 cheaper than a similarly powered VW Polo BlueGT.

Penny pinching is evident in a few other areas too. For example, the instrument panel has been pared back to the extent that it offers no indication of when the engine is running in two-cylinder mode. Overall the interior ambience is chunky, solid and entirely unadventurous. Sadly there is nothing innovative in here.

2014 Seat Ibiza SC FR Design cockpit

The original Ibiza was a brave attempt to produce a world-class product without the benefit of great experience. It was defiant and perhaps a little gauche as a result. Today’s Ibiza is a completely different proposition – measurably better in almost every regard, but also largely unremarkable.

It’s a shame that there’s so little bravery in the latest Ibiza. But it’s also entirely understandable and probably preferable that a modern Ibiza is really a conservative Volkswagen in disguise. After all, even the original Ibiza would probably not have turned out so well without solid German engineering.

Mk1 Seat Ibiza rear view

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