A loveable Iberian terrier – just give it a little time

Price: £15,130
Engine capacity: 1.2 litres
Top speed (mph): 1070-62 mph (seconds): 13.9
Fuel economy (mpg): 80.7
CO2 emissions (g/km):

The Seat Ibiza might well be the king of the superminis – as stylish a small, cheap(ish) car as you'll find on the road since its first incarnation in 1984. It's the Spanish brand's biggest seller in the UK and the biggest-selling model of any car in its home nation. Also, it shares its name with a party island. Seat's hatchback might be the coolest practical little car out there. For some reason, though, I find myself rolling through rural Worcestershire in the Ibiza's estate version, the ST. It's not quite the same.

First impressions aren't too great, either. Compared to its hatchback and coupé brethren, it looks slightly off-kilter – the lardy estate boot incongruous in a small car setting. Early dabbles with the 1.2-litre diesel engine aren't too promising, either. On a once-around-the-block, getting-to-know-you trip, I'm taken by surprise a few times by the sluggish response of both the five-speed manual gearbox and the groggy, noisy diesel engine.

Once on the motorway, though, these fears recede. It may lack oompf, but the ST handles well and the three-cylinder engine (offering 75ps/4000rpm) trundles along rather nicely.

As the engine size and the car's body shape suggest, this isn't a model for zipping around the neighbourhood looking flash – you'll want the 2-litre coupé for that – but, after a couple of days' careering around England I began to love the ST. More in an admiring, avuncular, way than in teenage lust, but still...

Its mileage confirmed the attraction. While it didn't quite give me the promised 80mpg, one tank of diesel managed to take me from London to Stratford to Worcester to Manchester and back to London again. Not bad at all.

You can imagine, then, that – given the proven reliability of cars in the Volkswagen family – this would be an extremely cheap car to live with. Not only is it efficient fuel-wise, but Seat's Ecomotive engine is clean enough to discount you from vehicle excise duty. Result. If you've got a young family, it's probably as good an option as you can get for around the £15,000 mark.

That's specifically a young family, though. Because the 430-litre boot offers so much space that my adult passengers found leg-room in the back seat to be at something of a premium, though it would be plenty for almost all but the lankiest of under-15s.

There are a few other slightly irksome aspects. Firstly, the boot opens via a pivoting handle in the shape of Seat's "S" logo. It feels far too flimsy for repeated clumsy yanks. Also annoying is the driver's armrest, which, if left down during town driving, gets in the way of the gear stick. Perhaps most annoying is the MP3 connection. The Ibiza offers a handy digital USB port but, for one specific player (the little-known Apple iPod), you need – in order to control it from the stereo – a special Seat iPod lead. Thankfully, there's also an analogue port, which offers a slightly cheaper way of connecting the two.

Once I'd ditched my initial skepticism (and got my iPod working), though, I began to love this little, practical terrier. Similar superminis – including the Ibiza's cousins, the VW Polo and Skoda Fabia – will do a similar job, but for an affordable, pleasing family drive it ought to be somewhere near the top of your list.

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