Launching a new car to steal the hearts of thousands? Hoping to lure sales away from rival makes? Then you had better find yourself a niche in the market. And if the obvious niches are full, the solution is simple: create a new one.

That is why the Seat Ibiza, sophisticated successor to the angular-looking mechanical hotch-potch that previously bore the name, is bigger than the average supermini but smaller than the average family hatchback. Or, more appositely, bigger than a Volkswagen Polo but smaller than a Golf.

The Spanish maker is owned by the Volkswagen group, and its products bear a close resemblance to those of its parent. But it makes sense for each company to market products that do not clash head-on: that way the group should - in theory - gain more sales overall. So, following on from the Toledo, a Golf-based hatchback whose long tail and enormous boot position it between the Golf and Passat, we have the second VW-influenced Seat. Its underpinnings, incidentally, will form the basis of the next generation Polo, though that car will have a smaller body.

Confused? Then try this. With a size span from 1.3 litres (CL) to 2.0 litres (GTi), the Ibiza's engine range starts a shade smaller than those of rivals half a size-class higher, such as the Golf (VR6 excepted), but finishes up at a comparable capacity. This is indeed an in-between car, making a version such as the 1.8 GLX five-door, tested here, hard to pigeonhole.

Whether the new Ibiza, styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro's Ital Design studio, is pretty is debatable. Its high-waisted, smooth-sided, rounded form is certainly distinctive, though once Fiat's new Punto goes on sale here, that distinctiveness, from the side view at least, will be diluted. That is what happens when two major manufacturers commission similar-sized cars from the same designer at the same time.

What you will not find in the Ibiza is an especially voluminous cabin. Seat makes great play of the car's height, and it is indeed a haven for hat wearers, but not everyone wants to sit bolt upright. More noticeable is the lack of rear legroom - fine by supermini standards, below par for the class above - and the lack of width. This, above all, is what makes the Seat feel like the small car it is pretending not to be.

If you want the impression confirmed, just open the rear hatch. The boot is narrow front-to-back, but the load space is tall. The family's holiday chattels will not be squeezed in there, though.

But let us forget the aspirations, and go for a drive. First, take in the well-designed dashboard, with smooth contours and easy switchgear, then enjoy the cracked-ice-pattern upholstery. This is a welcoming, comfortable, well-equipped interior, better made than any Seat's before.

On the road, the car feels uncannily like a smaller, handier Golf. Power steering takes the effort out of guiding the fattish tyres, but the responses are solid, reassuring and, well, Golf-like, with added entertainment. There is quite a lot of body lean in corners, but ample grip and good damping of body movement keeps the Seat tracking true and its occupants unflustered.

It is a quiet car, too, helped by a smooth engine that delivers plenty of punch without calling for lots of revs. This relaxed running, helped by a light and smooth gearchange, makes a powerful argument for the big-engine/small-car concept. Just as well, then, that you don't have to work it hard, because it gets a lot more vocal at high engine speeds.

So, that is Seat's social-climbing supermini. It mixes Germanic sense with Spanish flair, just as Seat's advertisements suggest. If you would like a Golf, but can manage without the space, this is your car.


Seat Ibiza 1.8 GLX, pounds 10,495. Engine: 1,781cc, four cylinders, 90bhp at 5,500rpm. Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive. Performance: top speed 113mph,

0-60mph in 12.3 seconds. Fuel consumption: 32-37mpg.


Citroen ZX Avantage 1.4 5-door, pounds 9,995. Half a size up from the Seat, this Citroen lacks little in pace and gains in space. Equipment is comparable, except that there is no power steering. Great handling, supple ride, well made, finevalue.

Honda Civic LSi 3-door, pounds 10,995. With two fewer doors, it is less versatile than the Seat, but the 1.5-litre engine gives peppy performance and good economy. High build quality, sharp handling and plentiful equipment; lacking in cabin space.

Renault Clio 1.8 RT 5-door, pounds 10,850. The Ibiza's closest conceptual rival, with largish engine in a small body. The Renault is livelier, rides better and is more fun, though the cabin is more cramped and driving position poor.

Vauxhall Corsa 1.4 GLS 5-door, pounds 9,010. A little more compact than the Seat, this 82bhp model gives nothing away in interior space or standard equipment. Performance compares well, too. Looks the better buy.

Volkswagen Golf 1.6 CL, pounds 11,099. The staple product from Seat's parent company is unquestionably roomier. You pay a bit more, and lose out on electric windows and engine performance, but you end up with more car.

(Photograph omitted)

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