THE big kick-off may still be weeks away but SEAT has the players in place to reach for the stars.
That’s the view of the Spanish car maker’s global chief Luca de Meo who insists: “We’re now ready to play in the Champions League.”
Spearheading the largest product offensive in the brand’s history is the latest generation of its most successful model, the Ibiza.
And what better location to launch a model built in Barcelona than another city steeped in European football folklore, Liverpool.
From the Shankly Hotel venue named after the club’s most iconic manager, Bill Shankly, at that.
By the end of this year SEAT will have added four new cars – Ateca, Leon, Ibiza and Arona – to its expanding range, meaning the Volkswagen-owned company’s products will cover 80 per cent of the UK market.
But there’s no doubt the Ibiza, which has sold 5.4 million examples of the popular supermini since its arrival in 1984, is the star attraction.
In fact such is the confidence Volkswagen has in SEAT that the Ibiza has been chosen as the first model to be built on the group’s new platform – using 900 robots and 4,000 welding points to guarantee its strength.
With time-honoured rivals like the Ford Fiesta, Vauxhall Corsa and VW Polo to contend with, the Ibiza has its work cut out, though de Meo is far from fazed by the task, asserting it is designed to be the ‘best small car in Europe’.
Given that the Ibiza has the youngest customer base of any supermini by a full 10 years, its design had to be both fresh and young while maintaining a mature balance.
And the newcomer, now available only in five-door form, certainly looks the part with a streamlined style that has a sportier look with a real edge to it, highlighted by its stand-out triangular headlights.
In showrooms from this week, the new fifth generation Ibiza is up for grabs with a choice of three 1.0-litre petrol engines and four trim grades – S, SE, FR and a new Xcellence version.
The first option, costing from £13,130, is a three cylinder unit developing 75PS and boasting an average 57.6 miles per gallon.
There are also 1.0 turbocharged petrol engines with 95 or 115PS, to be followed later this year by a new 1.5 TSI unit producing 150PS and destined for the FR warm hatch variant.
SEAT expects the SE grade to prove the most popular, prices for a 75PS 1.0 SE starting at £14,000 but including a comprehensive list of standard kit.
Inside there’s a greater perception of space than before from a car that’s actually 87mm wider and fractionally both lower and shorter. Upshot is better rear legroom and more headroom from seats that are now wider too.
Most noticeable of all though is the boot, now boasting a 355-litre capacity making it better than anything you will find in the supermini class.
Technology and safety, as you would expect, have moved to a new level and include Front Assist, touchscreen, hill hold, front curtain airbags and a multi collision braking system from entry grade and the likes of front and rear parking sensors, rear view camera and Full Link connectivity on the higher specs.
Attractive features like Adaptive Cruise Control (£170), a Beats sound system (£365) and full LED lights (£480) are on the extra cost options list.
Emotional appeal and styling apart, the area that will define the new Ibiza is in the way it drives, and a launch route from Liverpool, across the Wirral peninsula and through North Wales to the spectacular Llyn Brenig reservoir on the Denbigh moors brought out the best in the car.
Pick of the versions available for test was the 115PS Ibiza FR, capable of 0-62mph in 9.3 seconds, though we returned a good 20mpg short of the official Combined figure of 60.1 miles per gallon.
Pushed fairly hard to highlight any flaws in ride quality, vibration or harshness, the Ibiza proved comfortable, quiet and very agile.
Like its slightly less powerful stablemate the 95PS model, which we drove in Xcellence trim (£17,310 before options), it is a dynamically rewarding car to drive.
It’s an indication of how SEAT is now operating in Premier League of car manufacturers – it made an operating profit of 143 million euros last year – and has announced not only a new large SUV for next year but also its first electric car in 2019.