This could be fun. It’s the latest I-beefa with 180hp, a seven-speed double-clutch automated gearbox, a sporty three-door body and (we’re promised) a dash of that special ‘emo-thhhh-ion’ stuff that SEAT distils from the Spanish sunshine and splashes generously over its hot hatch line-up. Hola!
Those SEAT marketing campaigns have obviously made a mark on me, because as the wheels of our Easy Jet touch down on Spanish soil for the new Ibiza Cupra 1.4 TSI 180 international launch I confess to feeling just a little
myself at the prospect of driving the latest version of this popular hot hatch. Or perhaps it is the memory of driving Renault’s joyfully-unfettered Clio 200 Cup a couple of months back that is getting the juices flowing, and the hope that this would-be rival will be just as stimulating.
The £15,995 Cupra makes its 180bhp from a unique-to-SEAT version of the VW Group’s 170bhp 1.4 litre four, featuring twin-charging and direct injection. SEAT engineers have raised the output by tweaking the ECU, so maximum power is now available at 6200rpm instead of 6000rpm, and turbo pressure boosted from 2,000 to 2,150mb.
Maximum torque is delivered from 2500 to 4000rpm, and at a quoted 184lb ft the torque figure is the maximum the seven-speed version of VW Group’s DSG transmission is engineered to handle – so little scope for flash remaps here!
Approaching the ranks of test cars lined-up at the airport car park under the baking sunshine, things are looking promising. To my eyes the latest Ibiza Cupra is a sporty little number, with swoopy swage lines slashing across the bonnet and doors, a rakish coupe-like profile and suitably aggressive-looking air-ducts in its lower front and rear appendages. (We met the chap responsible at the bar later - Christopher Axe, head of SEAT design, who it turns out is also a PH Shed Of The Week enthusiast, and a self-confessed PH classifieds addict. Top bloke!)
Inside the cabin, the little Ibiza plays its part well, too. There’s a sporty-looking instrument pack comprising large rev-counter and speedo in a neat cowling ahead of the driver, large circular air vents, and a grippy flat-bottomed steering wheel that sits really well in your hands. The chairs are comfortable too, with sufficient adjustment to make sure anyone can get their toes on the aluminium pedals and their hand on the leather-clad control stick for the unique-in-class DSG gearbox.
So far so good then, and it’s all going to sound pretty exciting down at the Dog & Duck. I mean to say, who else are you going to know with a hot 180bhp supermini that boasts an automated double-clutch seven-speed gearbox, with a pair of race car-style paddle-shifters on the wheel? Exactly, you ain’t!
Talk is cheap though, and to earn its spurs this new Cupra is going to have to work those Spanish horses hard. A flick through the press info reveals a kerb weight of 1172kgs, which is usefully lower than the Clio 200 Cup’s 1200kgs (in spite of the extra weight of the DSG box), but there’s that 20bhp power deficit to factor into the equation. Renault quotes a torque figure of around 160lb ft for its simpler 1998cc N/A four cylinder, which is in turn significantly down on the SEAT’s 184lb ft. Swings and roundabouts, I guess, a point proven by the near identical claimed acceleration times, although the Clio does just nudge ahead of the SEAT on the 0-62mph sprint with a 6.9sec time playing 7.2secs. Both are said to reach 140mph, which isn’t too shabby either.
Out on the road, the SEAT feels swift, composed, and comfortable. It rides smoothly around town and at speed, body-roll is decently controlled and there’s plenty of grip at the front end, even under power. The suspension has been upgraded over the Ibiza Sport with 15 percent stiffer coils, stiffer shocks and a 10mm lower ride height, but arguably more significant is the adoption of the latest XDS system that uses ESP sensors and the vehicle brakes to mimic the operation of an LSD – reducing wheel slip on the inside front wheel when cornering fast, and delaying the onset of understeer. The steering is OK too, a little meatier than the Renault’s, if a little less direct, and the brakes can’t really be faulted with beefy 15ins discs providing the stopping power.
All good then? Well no, not really.
Try as I might I just couldn’t get to like this latest Cupra - and the sole significant fly in the ointment is that daft DSG gearbox.
It changes gear inside 500milliseconds, apparently, or as few as 8ms when you’re swapping to an automatically ‘pre-selected’ cog, and in auto mode while cruising the horrid thing shifts as smoothly and as pleasantly as anyone might wish. It also helps improve economy and emissions.
But this is a hot hatch. You’re supposed to enjoy driving it by the scruff of its neck, wringing the performance out of it, thrashing it - and lunging for the next snatched gear-shift at the best speed a mere human can manage is surely more than half the fun.
The DSG-equipped Cupra removes that pleasure at a stroke. When you want to wring some performance out of the beast in S mode, it kicks down aggressively and delivers its acceleration in a manner totally devoid of any satisfaction for the driver. Instead, the Cupra sounds and feels like a CVT-equipped car, all noise and no action – which is ironic as the figures prove. The performance is in there, but it’s delivered so seamlessly you don’t actually notice and if that sounds contradictory, you’re probably right from an engineering perspective.
But hot hatches shouldn’t be about engineering solutions to economy, CO emissions or taxation regimes, they should be engineered to deliver driver engagement or – dare I say – emotion. This one doesn’t quite seem to work on those terms, but drop an old-fashioned gearbox in it and it might.