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SEAT Ibiza SC 1.4 Sport

Click to view picture galleryThe new three-door SEAT Ibiza is
  called SportCoupe (or SC as SEAT
  is now advertising them) and there
  are two problems with that claim:
  they are not sporty except in looks;
  and not really a coupe...

THE IBIZA IS SEAT'S BEST SELLING MODEL RANGE. The five-door version joined the UK market in July this year and the three-door models called SC or SportCoupe went on sale in October (2008) with prices ranging from 8,595 to 10,895, 400 less per derivative than five-door models.

The line up for both three- and five-door models is the same: S, S A/C, SE and Sport with 1.2-litre (69bhp), 1.4-litre (84bhp) and 1.6-litre (104bhp) petrol engine options. Diesel engines will be added next year, as will be Cupra and FR variants. The VW family 1.4-litre TSI turbocharged petrol unit is rumoured to be on its way as well.

That sporty little turbocharged petrol engine is just what the new Ibiza range needs. The Ibiza is smartly styled; the specification is good as is the value for money but the current range of engines is pretty poor in today's motoring world.

To make matters worse, the new three-door versions are called SportCoupe (or SC as they are now advertising them) and there are two problems with that claim: they are not sporty except in looks; and not really a coupe.

Traditionally, the Ibiza has seen 60% of its UK sales go to three-door models; 70% of Ibiza customers are retail buyers; and the 1.4-litre engine is the most popular, as is SE specification. Until the recent downturn in the market, the SEAT brand was gaining in popularity but their registrations so far this year are down 13% — a bit more than the industry average.

The appeal of SEAT has traditionally come from younger buyers who associated themselves with the manufacturer's motorsport activities in the World Touring Car Champions. Up until the market slowdown there had also been increasing interest from active, mature customers who were attracted by SEAT's youthful 'auto-emocion' advertising strapline. As today's buyers — particularly older downsizers — now look for smartly styled, high specification and value for money, the Ibiza could be on their shopping list. Competitors include the excellent new Ford Fiesta, Vauxhall Corsa, Renault Clio and Mazda 2.

I'm no great fan of three-door superminis for two reasons. Here's why: in this traffic-congested, highly-taxed world the 'supermini' is a compact, easy-to-use, easy-to-drive, easy-to-park car for everyday use. So if you have rear seats, why not have rear side doors too? It makes access for rear passengers easier and if you just want to put a coat or bag on the rear seats, then that is easier as well. Many three-door hatchbacks have wide front doors that are difficult to open fully in car parks without banging the adjacent cars. Making matters worse for the three-door Ibiza SportCoupe is its restrictive headroom (a penalty of the rear low roofline) is not a user-friendly car. And while it might look sporty, it isn't in performance terms. In other words, the five-door models are best.

I have one more issue. For safety reasons an Electronic Stability Programme (ESP) should these days be a standard fit item on all cars, just as airbags and anti-lock brakes are. In fact, the function will soon be mandatory in new cars as decreed by European law. Manufacturers spend fortunes achieving high Euro NCAP safety ratings for their models and then leave out a 280 bit of safety kit!

My test model was the SEAT Ibiza SC 1.4 Sport — or, to give it its original nomenclature, SportCoupe 1.4 Sport. 'SC' seems to be the latest way of referring to this model in SEAT's advertising and PR material. Perhaps the over-use of the word Sports — given the actual performance — was deemed a bit too much.

With its pronounced styling lines, wedge shape, wide wheelarches and sculptured side panels, the car looks really smart — as does the likeable SEAT front-end. The new Ibiza was the first model to use the new VW 'supermini' platform — the wheelbase is extended by 7mm and the front and rear tracks are wider, so the with the lower roofline the SC has a squat visual stance on the road. However, for the practical reasons already mentioned, the three-door layout is not for me. In addition to the drawbacks already noted, the rear legroom is tight and the sloping tailgate limits the height in the rear load space.

All SC models have electric front windows, ABS braking, tinted glass, multi-speaker sound system, remote central locking and speed sensitive electro-hydraulic power steering. Air conditioning becomes standard on SE variants as does a trip computer, electrically adjustable and heated door mirrors, front fog lights, split-folding rear seat backs and alloy wheels. Overall, the SE provides the most sensible choice of specification. The Sport specification adds sports suspension, sports seats, larger 16-inch alloy wheels with low profile tyres and leather trim for the gear knob and steering wheel.

The SC 1.4 Sport costs 10,295 — good value for money if you don't count the performance element. My test car had even larger — 17-inch — alloy wheels that looked good but destroyed the ride comfort when used in conjunction with the sports suspension and low profile tyres of the SC Sport. A definite case of fashion over function.

Having driven the SE five-door models at the Ibiza press launch, I found them to be underpowered but excellent in the handling and comfort department. The suspension was well able to cope with poor road surfaces without the car becoming unsettled.

Now, a few months later, we get a three-door model with Sports specification: sports suspension, low profile tyres and big wheels. Ride comfort is nonexistent; the suspension is too firm to absorb shocks from potholes and therefore unsettles the car all the time. The steering is still sharp and the grip levels good but the low profile tyres transmit a huge amount of road noise into the car.

As for the 1.4-litre, 84bhp petrol engine — do not associate this unit with the 'Sport' branding for this model. The four-cylinder unit is noisy although it revs freely enough, as it needs to do to get the performance from it. You quickly get to know the gearbox pretty well!

With just 97lb ft of torque developed from 3,800rpm there just isn't enough power to get the car moving and once you get to driving up hills, change down the gears early is essential to keep the engine on song.

The trouble is that to obtain the relatively-low CO2 emissions and official fuel economy figures, SEAt have made the gearing so tall that it really gives this engine no chance to perform. It will be fine for commuting into towns and on the open motorways if not fully loaded, but in real life it is not only hard work to drive but equally hard on the backside.

So, in its favour, the SC 1.4 Sport offers good value, sporty looks, good cornering grip and is fairly economical to run. Winning few friends is its noisy engine, tall gearing that dulls performance and rigid sport suspension and tyres that between them spoil ride comfort and unsettle the car. And there's really no excuse for not fitting ESP as standard. — David Miles

SEAT Ibiza SC 1.4 Sport
| 10,295
Maximum speed: 108mph | 0-62mph: 11.8 seconds
Overall test MPG: 36.4mpg | Power: 84bhp | Torque: 97lb ft
CO2 149g/km | VED Band C 120 | Insurance group tbc