Review and road test of the SEAT Ibiza (1985 - 1999)
BY JONATHAN CROUCH
SEAT's first generation Ibiza was designed in a great hurry when the company's owner, Volkswagen, decided its newly bought Spanish offshoot should have a car sized halfway between the Polo and Golf. VW's own engineers were unable to do the job quickly, so almost all the work was subcontracted to VW's traditional supply partners. The Ibiza received an Italian-designed body and what were called 'System-Porsche' engines. Built in Spain, it was a true European car.
The Porsche-designed engines were used as a unique selling point, but as SEAT's early advertising concentrated on 'technology without frontiers', rather than telling us how to pronounce the company's name, buyers got confused. Still, the Ibiza deserved more success than it had. The cars were basically sound though the build quality of early examples was not the best. Later Ibizas are cheap now, though not deservedly so.
The curvy second generation car was a very different proposition and put many of the early model's problems right thanks to a vast amount of extra VW influence. It's now a sound used buy.
The third-generation car was announced towards the end of 1999. Essentially a major facelift of its predecessor, there were over 6,000 changes including new styling front and rear, a much-improved cabin with all-new dashboard and a revised engine line-up.
First generation Ibiza - 1985 to 1993: (900cc 3 & 5 door Hatchback [Designer, Disco, Special] / 1.2 3 & 5 door Hatchback [L, Junior, Special, CLX, CLXi, Friend, GL, Crono, XL, GLX, SLXi, Comfort] / 1.5 3 & 5 door Hatchback [GL, Crono, GLX, GLXi, SXi] / 1.7 diesel 3 & 5 door Hatchback [Special, SL, GLX, SLX])
Second generation Ibiza - 1993 to 1999: (1.0 3dr Hatchback [CL] / 1.3 3 & 5dr Hatchback [CLi, CLX, GLX] / 1.4 3 & 5dr Hatchback [CLS, CLX, Salsa, GLX] / 1.3 5dr Hatchback [GLX, S] / 1.8 3 & 5dr Hatchback [GLXi, GTi] / 2.0 3dr Hatchback [GTi, GT E] / 1.9 D 3 & 5dr Hatchback [CL, CLS, Salsa, CLX])
The Ibiza re-launched the SEAT name here in October 1985. The first cars were three doors and featured a 1.2 or 1.5-litre engine. The base model was called LE; the mid-ranger GL and the top-spec was called GLX. Exactly one year later, the five-door cars were released. The range was rationalised, with the base model now known as Designer and the 1.2 GLX was discontinued.
A 900cc Designer price-leader appeared with the three-door body in March 1987 and was dropped eighteen months later. Its replacement was renamed Disco and a five-door version appeared called Comfort.
April 1989 brought yet more changes. The grille was now painted to match the body colour and the bumpers became black. The base car's name changed yet again, this time to Special. Three months later, a mildly sporting derivative appeared called SXi. It had a 1.5-litre engine and featured spoilers and front fog lamps. Yet another model, the XLS, joined the range in January 1990 as did a new 1.7-litre diesel Special four months later.
July 1991 saw a freshening of the range, with a new grille and smoked tail lamps for all models along with a black-painted tailgate panel. The following January, a new 1.7-litre engine appeared in the new Sportline model. Fuel injection and catalysts were added to all System Porsche engines in July 1992 and the Ibiza's all-new new replacement arrived in January 1993.
Second generation Ibiza
The second generation Ibiza was a very different proposition from the first, thanks to the £152 million spent in getting it right. VW Polo and Golf parts were used liberally and build quality was almost as good. The line-up offered a choice of a 1.9-litre diesel and five petrol engines (1.05, 1.4, 1.6, 2.0 and 1.8-litre 16v with a 2.0 16v added in 1997). The three and five-door bodyshells were larger, too, their dimensions placing the Ibiza somewhere between a supermini Corsa and a family-sized Escort.
What You Get
In first generation Ibiza terms, presuming you go for the bigger engined variants, you get a good little car that looks modern, offers a pleasant drive and offers the novelty of an engine with the word 'Porsche' stamped on it. Reliability is pretty good if you stick with the newer cars and equipment levels are not too bad either. The main attraction is the cheapness of these cars, without the nastiness. With a second generation Ibiza you could argue that it's a more spacious VW Polo without the price tag. The styling is certainly up to the minute and the cabin is virtually interchangeable with the VW.
What to Look For
Most of this concerns first generation Ibizas, since the newer ones are not only younger but were better-built from the start. Don't worry too much about rattly engines. Both the old Fiat 900cc motor and the newer Porsche engines are known for this. "They all do that, sir" is, for once, true. Rust is more of a concern, though really only on early cars. The tailgate, wheel arches and the bonnet's leading edge are all notorious so have a good look everywhere. Spanish build quality was not always what it is today so the interior fittings may have worked their way loose. For the money, you must expect some faults but generally, most cars are within acceptable standards.
(Approx - for First generation Ibiza - 1993 5dr model) A clutch assembly is around £100. Front brake pads are about £25 and rear brake pads are about £30 and an alternator is about £80. Starter motors retail at close to £70, a radiator is about £110, a headlamp about £65, while a full exhaust system (without catalyst) should cost you around £90.
On the Road
The first generation Ibizas were designed mainly for the home market, as well as traditional SEAT markets like France, Portugal and Italy where rural roads often leave a lot to be desired. The suspension is a bit on the roly-poly side but the road-holding is fine, so don't be too alarmed by the lean when cornering. The trade-off is a good ride and the Ibiza is also a roomy car so you can't complain about safe, predictable if rather uninvolved handling too much when there are compensations.
Second generation Ibiza
The second generation Ibiza wasn't just better-built; it was better to drive too. And it was rapid; the 1.6-litre S version for example, makes sixty from rest in an entertaining 12.7 seconds on the way to a top speed of 103mph. The hard-riding but fun GTis were even faster, of course. Among the long list of passive safety features are side impact protecting door bars, the very latest crumple zone design and doors designed to remain opening even after a very heavy impact. Inside the car, there's a collapsible steering column and front seats equipped with reinforced bases to prevent occupants from 'submarining' underneath their seatbelts.
The toughness and rigidity of this bodyshell has also produced a very refined little car, in contrast to previous Seat models. You'll appreciate that on the move, this is one of the few small cars you'd have no problems with taking on a long motorway trip. In fact, you could even do so four-up, thanks to the glassy cabin and class-leading headroom.
To call this a poor-man's Polo is perhaps unfair to both SEAT and Volkswagen. Towards the end of the Ibiza's life, it got close to VW's standards of build quality and reliability and first generation cars are almost embarrassingly cheap now. So, for those in the know and who want something with a bit of Iberian character, the Ibiza could well be worth a look.
SEAT Ibiza (1985 - 1999) review by JONATHAN CROUCH