Driven: SEAT Ibiza Cupra

Around a decade ago, SEAT's was one of the most extrovert hot hatch ranges around. Finished in eye-watering shades of lemon yellow, lime green or... er... orange orange, they left you in no doubt of what SEAT stood for: loud, proud Latin exuberance.

The product usually didn't disappoint, either. From the Ibiza GTI, which offered the chunky build of a Polo in an altogether more exciting package, to the Leon Cupra R, which was managed to be everything the Mk4 Golf GTI should have been, SEAT earned itself a reputation for producing good value, well built and genuinely exciting hot hatches with a bit of Mediterranean flair.

Latest Cupra looks good on paper
Latest Cupra looks good on paper
But today, Skoda's vRS range has encroached on SEAT's old stomping ground. It's there that many people are turning these days if they want a fast VW without the associated price. The new Octavia vRS looks like being better value than the upcoming Leon Cupra, much the same car under the skin. Meanwhile, the Fabia vRS is just as quick as the Ibiza Cupra, and costs a grand less. It even comes in yellow these days.

Up the creek
So where does that leave the Ibiza? Up the creek without a paddle, it would seem. Indeed, the latest iteration of the Cupra has struggled to capture the British public’s imagination in the way previous generations have. So, with the aid of a mid-life facelift, can it still make a case for itself?

On styling alone, the answer is ‘yes’. The tweaked front and rear bumpers with cleaner, sharper lines, new HID headlamps, and new 17” wheels result in a punchy-looking little car that feels more at ease with its slightly offbeat creases and chunky shoulders. A classic beauty it still ain’t – but it’s undoubtedly sporty and, refreshingly, looks more like a proper hatch than some of the current, mini-MPV-ish crop.

Shame about that gearbox
Shame about that gearbox
The engine and gearbox remain largely unchanged, so you’ll still get a 1.4-litre twin-charged unit with 180hp and a seven-speed DSG for your cash. And it’s here that things start to get tricky for the Cupra, as that gearbox has its flaws. It struggles to respond quickly enough under harder driving conditions, and even in manual mode it’ll change gear for you when you reach the red line. But worst of all, our test car consistently failed to downshift when we asked it to, leaving us both having to brake harder to counter the lack of expected engine braking into a corner, as well as in too high a gear for the exit. Bung it in auto mode, and it’s smooth and capable, but in manual mode, when you really want it to be involving, it can fall short.

Heart of the matter
Fortunately, the engine goes some way towards making up for the gearbox’s pitfalls, providing a solid wall of torque no matter where you are in the rev range – ideal if the downshift hasn’t happened and you do find yourself leaving the corner with 2,000rpm on the clock. 0-62 comes up in 6.9sec, and the Cupra maxes out at 142mph. It makes a great noise, too, with a hint of supercharger whine audible through a warbly, induction-heavy engine note. It might just be the best part of the car.

Chassis feels good; steering less so
Chassis feels good; steering less so
The chassis, too, is excellent. Tweaks to the rear suspension have resulted in a mature, sure-footed feeling that’s instantly engaging, and leaves you happy to throw the little Ibiza around. The XDS electronic diff system works well, providing plenty of front end grip, even if you hoof the throttle out of a sharp corner. The ESP can be a touch heavy-handed, though, and even with it ‘off’, still cuts in to prevent any sort of tail-out behaviour or throttle adjustability. Which is a shame, as beneath it all the chassis feels like it wants to entertain, with a sharp turn-in and plenty of feel - but before it can show you what it’s truly capable of, the electro-nanny pops in to spoil the fun.

The steering, though, could be better – it's a touch on the light side, and while it provides just about enough feel to keep the Cupra involving, it does have a mushy quality that’s slightly offputting at first. Bear with it, and you get used to it, but it still doesn’t offer the same level of feedback as, say, a Ford or Renault hot hatch. 'Mushy' is a term that could be applied to the brake pedal feel, too; while a hefty stomp will stop the car, the squidginess on the way there isn't exactly confidence-inspiring.

Ibiza looks good, but is that really enough?
Ibiza looks good, but is that really enough?
Interference fit
It's not a bad car, this. Those who want some pace and some style, but aren’t really hardcore edge of the, er, SEAT driving enthusiasts, will find it perfectly adequate. It’s a very pleasant place to be, with great ride quality, a high-quality, tactile interior, and plenty of toys. What it isn’t, however, is the next great driver’s hot hatch. But the pity of it all is that beneath the layers of electronics, the Ibiza feels as though it has the makings of an excellent driver’s car.

So, SEAT, what better way to show us some of that Latin tempestuousness than by ditching the acronyms and selling us a limited-run, cut-price, Cup-style version that’s pared to the bone? Do that, and we suspect the Ibiza would suddenly find itself with a compelling raison d'etre. Until then, though, as pleasant as it is, it’s hard to find a reason to choose the SEAT over the Skoda or VW equivalents when the former is cheaper, the latter will hold its value better, and both offer a very similar driving experience.

1,390cc 4-cyl, direct injection
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch auto, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 180@6,200rpm
Torque (lb ft): 184@2,000rpm
0-62mph: 6.9sec
Top speed: 142mph
Weight: 1,259kg
MPG: 47.9mpg (combined)
CO2: 139g/km
Price: £18,570

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Comments (38) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Andy ap 29 Jan 2013

    So theyve improved the ride quality then.....about time. I think these look great although the original 6j version is still my favorite. Owning the previous 6l cupra means i hope theyve ironed out its foibles but it seems like theyve made some others worse. I think the 6l's esp even in 'off' mode is very subtle and flattering. although you do still know its there. And my cars chassis got criticized for not being complete but i think the sus is more the failing. now it seems its gone the other way.

  • dukebox9reg 29 Jan 2013

    Its a common theme with SEAT, for every face lift they soften the suspension. The facelift Leon is sooo much nicer to drive than the pre-FL.

    It's a shame that the Ibiza doesn't distance itself a bit more against the Polo and Fabia in the same way SEAT does with the Leon by offering a little bit more power than their cousins. Would be the only way that it could really battle the Skoda's price advantage and VW's perceived build quality.

  • Baryonyx 29 Jan 2013

    SEAT have lost the character they had ten years ago. Look at the now, they look like bland Audi/Skoda-ish offerings. Inevitable, but a shame when they used to make this:

  • CedricN 29 Jan 2013

    I stood with the choice of chosing this or the skoda as a company leasing car. AFter driving both the choice was easy, the skoda just felt grey and boring inside and out (price difference were very small /month, dont need the high hat room you got in the skoda). The Seat always looks like a really nice car every time you leave it in the parking lot and take a look bakc over your shouldersmile

    Anyways its a absolutely brilliant car as a daily driver. The DSG is a dream in heavy traffic and around town, but it really is also the part that takes away some fun on twisty roads (not many tours per year though frown ). But yours seems strange, it never fails to downshifts, if your not forcing it to 10k rpm, although it will upshift by itself, and thats annoying when you drive on a track. Agree with the engine, all small cars feel slow when i switch car, low rev supercharger should be mandatory by EU law on small engine, aboslutely brilliant to just fly away from 1500rpms, very useful around town smile

    I hope though that they have fixed the oil consupmption, my is at 2 stroke levels and VW thinks its fine ( Filling up 12 liters between services could otherwise seems to much outside the VAG world). Im glad its not my private car.

  • va1o 29 Jan 2013

    I like it but it looks a bit expensive compared to say the new Fiesta ST, which will handle a lot better. I think the Polo BlueGT is a better all round car if you want a quick-ish VAG supermini.

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