BY JONATHAN CROUCH
Think SEAT and what comes to mind? You might well ask. That's a pity since the Spanish company has spent a great deal of advertising money on trying to convince new car buyers that the Cordoba saloon and coupe range have built-in 'passion' and 'Iberian flair'. More importantly, SEAT quality is now as good as parent company VW's, yet misplaced caution by many used buyers means the all-too-rare Cordobas are still seriously undervalued, compared to many rivals. The Cordoba has always been priced cheaper than its natural rivals to give SEAT dealers something of an advantage over the opposition. For the used buyer, this is great news, for under the skin, the Cordoba shares its chassis with the acclaimed VW Polo. The same quality, durability and roominess apply, yet it comes much cheaper.
Models Covered: Saloon, Vario estate, coupe 1.4, 1.6, 1.8, 2.0, 1.9 turbo diesel [CLS, SE, CLX, GLX, SX, SXE, TD GLX, TDi SE, TDi SXE]
The Cordoba's Polo heritage is a strongpoint, as the VW supermini's chassis is arguably still the best in its class. SEAT's version of the Polo saloon actually arrived before the VW, in May 1994. Engines were shared with other models of the Volkswagen group, so, for example, the hottest Cordoba uses the Golf GTI's 2.0-litre engine. Diesels are all 1.9-litre units. The range was revised in 1995, with a new 1.4-litre base model appearing below the existing 1.6-litre entry level cars. Though it lacked only a sunroof, the 1.4 CLS was never a popular seller, compared with its bigger-engined brothers and was soon dropped from the price lists. For the 1997 model year, air conditioning was standardised and a 2.0-litre 16-valve engine added to the SX range. The 1.4-litre range was expanded slightly in summer 1997, when the new '1998' models arrived. Apart from the new 1.4 SE, the rest of the range was rationalised to four saloons and two coupes, though virtually every model was equipped with air conditioning. A few months later, a Vario estate version was launched with 1.6-litre petrol and 1.9-litre TDi engines. By 1999, the 1.4-litre model had been dropped as had the 1.6-litre coupe. Visual tweaks to all three Cordoba body styles at the end of 1999 were supposed to suggest a family likeness to the larger Toledo. Hence a more aggressive front end dominated by a prominent new front grille featuring the SEAT 'S'. At the nicely resculpted rear, the prominent badge doubled as a boot release. As before, saloon and 'Vario' estate bodystyles were on offer with a coupe due later, with an engine choice initially restricted as previously to just 1.6-litre petrol and 1.9-litre turbo diesel power. The new cabin was, quite simply, unrecognisable from that of the old model. Shiny plastic gave way to an upmarket look that wouldn't be out of place on a luxurious saloon costing £10,000 more. A screen mounted in the centre console displayed time, exterior temperature and climate-control air conditioning settings. More supportive seats and a three-spoke airbag-equipped leather-trimmed steering wheel also added to the quality feel. Throughout, that other SEAT strongpoint, the three-year warranty, remained. The warranty even transfers to the car's next owner. For the used buyer considering a late model car, that's a major plus.
What You Get
Both four and two-door versions have always been very well equipped, with a driver's airbag, air conditioning (from '97 on), power steering, electric windows and good quality audio equipment all available, often as standard equipment. Buyers of the SXE-spec saloons and SX coupes also get twin airbags, an alarm, sunroof, and remote central locking. Though access through the rather narrow rear doors of the saloons is somewhat restrictive (reminding you that this car is actually a great deal more compact than it looks), once you're inside the tastefully trimmed cabin, there's a surprising amount of space. Certainly, there's plenty of room for four full-sized adults and even more space for their luggage.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
Volkswagen reliability comes as standard on the Cordoba and that's one of the major reasons why SEATs are now sought after as reliable, though still budget-priced, used cars. There is one area to be wary of and it centres on the diesel cars. The 1.9-litre engines are big and heavy given the size of the car, so check the front shock absorbers for premature wear. You may also notice the tyres are a bit frayed at the edges. Make sure any diesel or turbo diesel has had regular oil and filter changes, as a lack of regular maintenance could mean an early grave for these otherwise extremely long-lived and reliable motors.
(Based on a Cordoba 1.6 GLX - approx) A new clutch will be in the region of £180-£200 and a full exhaust should be very close to the same. Brake pads are just under £30 a set, while an alternator will be around £190-£210 and a replacement headlamp roughly £40. It would cost you about £100-150 for a starter motor and £150-£300 for a radiator.
On the Road
This is one of the few small cars you'd have no problems taking on a long motorway trip. Even four-up, you don't feel particularly claustrophobic, thanks to the glassy cabin and class-leading headroom. At the wheel, SEAT's smallest cars are right up there with the class leaders. The chunky steering wheel is positioned exactly where you'd want it and the fascia moulding is of high-quality plastic with all controls readily to hand. The VW-derived column stalks and instruments are all models of legibility too.
It's easy to see why the Cordoba has been so well received in other European markets. Though success here has been modest to date, the SEAT name and image seems to be finally gathering a strong, loyal following. The chances are that when it comes time for you to sell, used values may be better than they are now.