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Retro Road Test – 1989 SEAT Ibiza Mk1

Old cars have a habit of turning the most seasoned motorists into gibbering learner drivers, but I wasn’t expecting to be quite as flummoxed by SEAT’s immaculate Mk1 Ibiza supermini as I was when first climbing aboard.

It was nothing to do with the control layout, though SEAT’s experimentation with interior features delivered a car shorn of indicator and wiper stalks upon its 1984 debut.

SEAT Ibiza lights

Instead, the Ibiza features an unusual rocker on the left-hand control pod to operate the former (click it up to indicate right, down to indicate left), while wiper speeds are controlled via a recalcitrant sliding switch on the right-hand pod.

Other minor functions are handled by switches big enough to be correctly pressed by even the clumsiest of thumbs. Designers of in-car touchscreen systems take note. The remaining controls and dials are equally simple – you get a speedometer, fuel and temperature gauges and a large SEAT badge in the instrument cluster; the heating controls comprise fully three sliding switches and no more, and the radio is… just a radio.

SEAT Ibiza interior

No, my confusion stemmed from the car’s vague prosthetic limb of a gearlever, and a clutch whose biting point seemed to be somewhere over by the back seat. The former made finding first an act of guesswork and hope. The latter meant that when I eventually found first, I second-guessed my selection until the very last second, when my left hoof was almost entirely clear of the clutch pedal.

Once underway the process became much easier, the gearbox happy to return actual gears with each bout of blind stick-stirring. The engine thrashed away vibrantly too, though a momentary lapse of journalistic investigation precludes me telling you what sort of an engine it is. I have no idea of the capacity; only that it’s a small-capacity carb’d four-pot with little interest in swift progress.

SEAT Ibiza rear

And yet, it’s highly enjoyable. Modern cars the Ibiza’s size are fantastically easy to drive next to their quarter-century old predecessors, and doubless more reliable too.

But if you learned to drive any time between around 1985 and the early 2000s, your first car was probably similar to this Ibiza – heavy unassisted steering, plastic-fantastic dash, a noisy engine, no electronic gizmos and quite wonderful visibility.

SEAT Ibiza dials

That encourages you to corner with abandon, and the car’s narrow tyres never offer enough grip that a sudden lack of it becomes a problem. Window wound down to ease a condensation issue, I quickly adopted a “head out of the window” attitude around the tight right-handers of Millbrook Proving Ground’s winding city course, and all those first-car memories came flooding back.

Lots of space, too. Penned by Italdesign, the Ibiza isn’t dissimilar to Fiats of the era – indeed, the SEAT is loosely related to the old Fiat Ritmo/Strada. The boxy shape was quite in vogue back then, and while it’s not much of a looker now the Ibiza’s interior makes many modern superminis look a bit dark and pokey, particularly in the rear.

SEAT Ibiza front


I’d not particularly like to drive a Mk1 Ibiza every day. The noise would soon become tiresome and its mechanical integrity would always be in question – while taking photos, the little SEAT was leaving pretty rainbow-coloured puddles on the wet tarmac.

But so far removed are cars like the Ibiza from modern vehicles you could legitimately run one as a classic vehicle these days, as the driving experience it offers is like no car you can buy today. As a vehicle to toddle into town and back on a weekend, or head to a country pub, it would be quite ideal. One wonders whether similar will be written of its 2014 equivalent in another 25 years?

If classic cars aren’t your thing, check out our full summary of the modern-day SEAT Ibiza alongside reviews, stats, photos and videos!

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