Motoring: Road Test: Seat's benchmark: A Volkswagen made in Spain and dressed by an Italian: Roger Bell greets the Seat Cordoba

Seat is on the verge of achieving a goal that once seemed beyond its grasp: to capture 1 per cent of the UK's car market. The Spanish wing of the Volkswagen empire (which also embraces Audi and Skoda) has struggled to establish brand awareness in Britain, where the name is short on both image and glamour.

Rising sales suggest that the message is getting through: some Seats are not bad, and some rather good. This is not surprisingly, since they are durable VWs made in low-cost Spain and wearing smart Italian clothes.

The latest in the Seat line is the Cordoba, a four-door saloon based on the Ibiza hatchback. As small, booted cars are not exactly fashionable (Vauxhall and VW dropped theirs), the Cordoba faces little direct competition.

To size the Cordoba up, look upon it as a cross between Seat's Ibiza and Toledo, or the VW Polo and Golf. There are several variants: prices range from pounds 9,095 for the base 1.6 to pounds 11,995 for the nifty 2.0 GTi.

There are also a couple of 1.9-litre diesels (including a super-green turbo that is far too noisy) and the 90bhp, petrol- engined 1.8. All use front-wheel-drive VW powertrains.

Extending the tail into a boot increases weight a little, but the consequent loss of performance is hardly noticeable. The 1.8 is a sweet, nippy car with a flexible engine that pulls eagerly in the mid-speed ranges.

Power-assisted steering, now more common on cheaper, lighter cars, makes the Cordoba undemanding to manoeuvre and park. Only in the sporting GTi is the loss of 'feel' likely to be a problem. Although the 1.8GLX seems a bit lurchy when cornered hard, it normally handles tidily and rides the bumps well.

By limiting rearward adjustment of the front seats, Seat has made the Cordoba seem passably roomy in the back. The wheelbase, a major influence on interior space, is the same as that of the 1biza hatchback; most of the car's extra length goes into a boot that, according to Seat, is bigger than that of a Ford Granada. It can be extended by folding the rear seats forward.

Step from a German Golf into a Spanish Cordoba and there is a strong sense of deja vu. The layout of the dashboard, the feel of the switchgear and the appearance of the instruments strongly reflect their Volkswagen ancestry. So do the comfortable driving position and firm seats. The cabin is characteristically sombre, too.

But the Cordoba is none the worse for reflecting the integrity and solidity of its parent company. Relate the price to the 1.8GLX's quality, ability and equipment (including alloy wheels, sunroof, electric windows), and Seat's aspirations do not seem ambitious.

SPECIFICATIONS

Seat Cordoba 1.8GLX, pounds 10,895.

Engine: 1781cc, four cylinders, eight valves, 90bhp at 5500rpm. Five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive. Performance: 0-60mph in 11.5 seconds, top speed 113mph; touring, 37mpg unleaded.

COMPARISONS

Citroen ZX 1.8 Aura, pounds 12,065.

Accomplished five-door hatchback, not available as saloon. A little roomier than the smaller Cordoba, performance similar. Pleasant and easy to drive. Sharp handling, strong grip. Recommended.

Fiat Tempra 1.6ie, pounds 10,550.

Four-door, booted version of Tipo hatchback. Better-equipped SX costs pounds 11,600. Roomy, well-packaged, but not as well made or finished as new Punto, which raises Fiat quality. Lively performance from vroomy engine.

Ford Escort 1.6LX, pounds 11,130.

This four-door Escort saloon costs the same as the five-door hatchback. Better than it was following facelift, but no front-runner in a class of high achievers.

Honda Civic 1.5LSi saloon, pounds 11,645.

Prettier, more accommodating car than the three-door hatchback, which costs pounds 650 less. The dullard of the Civic range, lacking the zap of more potent models. Pleasant, easy car to drive; performance roughly the same as Cordoba 1.8.

Rover 414Si, pounds 11,435.

Honda Concerto-based four-door saloon powered by Rover's K-series engine. Unremarkable performance, but mechanically sweet. Classy cabin a cut above Cordoba's.

(Photograph omitted)

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