This is the new Seat Ibiza Cupra, and it’s an absolutely fantastic little car. It’s to be expected; the Spanish arm of the Volkswagen Group has form in this area, and we love the current Leon Cupra in both hatchback and wagon forms. Here, that formula has been distilled and simplified into a great little hot hatch.
The Volkswagen Polo GTI, on which this car is based, is a solid if overly sanitised attempt at the baby hot hatch thing. You’d imagine Seat would take that capability and inject some pizazz, but it’s been having something of an identity crisis recently as VAG tries to make it grow up. So, the question is this: can the Ibiza shake off the Polo’s sensibilities while retaining its capabilities? Oh, and then there’s the small matter of rivalling the universally lauded Ford Fiesta ST; this new, hot Ibiza has a hell of a fight on its hands.
We travelled to Barcelona, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, to get to grips with the new Ibiza Cupra in its homeland. These baby hot hatches arguably have to straddle the line between performance and practicality even better than their bigger siblings - especially now the likes of the Focus RS have smashed through the wholly unpractical 300bhp barrier - so the Spanish city’s mix of unrelentingly twisty mountain passes that snake beneath the magnificent Montserrat rock formation, and tight, packed city streets that are home to a cacophony of culture, make it the perfect place to put the car through its paces.
The first thing that strikes you as you park your backside in the driver’s seat is that the interior is so VW Group it hurts. Everything looks and feels a lot like it does in a Polo, which isn’t inherently bad, I just want a Seat to feel a bit different and somehow quirky. Then you see the manual shifter and realise Seat hasn’t completely lost touch with its old fun self just yet, as there’s no automatic here.
Not that you’ll really be stirring away when the road gets twisty. This car gets the Polo’s 1.8-litre TSI engine, with its turbocharger and combined direct and indirect injection. The headline performance figures are 189bhp, up 12bhp from the previous generation Cupra, and a 0-62mph time of 6.7sec, which underlines this extra poke. The real story, though, is the torque; now at 236lb ft, it’s up a hefty 52lb ft from before, with peak twist delivered from just 1450rpm and remaining constant before tailing off at around 4200rpm.
What these numbers translate to on the road is highly impressive any-gear performance. In a car like this, you’d typically expect to be fizzing the engine high in the range, but the Ibiza’s far more malleable than that. The launch route includes a closed section of road for our hooning pleasure; a collection of tight switchbacks, double apices and cambers that vary from corner to corner. What you quickly learn is that while most of the slower corners feel like second-gear jobs, you can actually get a smoother, punchier exit staying in third.
This closed section of road also gave me the unusual joy of finding the car’s limits, and while it’s naturally easy to induce understeer if you plant your foot too early, the car is surprisingly resistant to washing wide thanks to the XDS electronic differential (nowhere near as capable as the VAQ mechanical kit but more than good enough for this power output). Turn traction control to Sport, however, and it’s easy to spin the fronts if you’re too enthusiastic, prompting the not-as-off-as-you-thought-it-was TCS to cut in once it’s had enough of your hooliganism.
Turning TCS to Sport is a separate function that you’ll find within the car’s menus; hitting the prominent Sport button on the dash will leave TCS standard, but it will stiffen the suspension by 18 per cent compared to the standard mode, as well as introduce some much needed weight to the steering. It does feel a touch soft and artificial, though in such a small, light car it’s not as much of an issue as it might be elsewhere.
When really pushing on, the Ibiza Cupra is far more composed than a car of this size has any right to be. Tight and twisty corners are its forte, as it’s mightily chuckable while remaining relatively settled; play with the weight transfer and you’ll notice the car begin to move about before settling into itself. It’s relatively (and perhaps unfortunately) rather sensible and idiot proof, meaning those with the skill might miss the ability to induce lift-off oversteer with ease. It remains to be seen whether it’s as composed on Britain’s broken blacktop, but I’d guess it’ll cope well.
Summarising this car isn’t simple. As you’d expect from a VW Group motor, it’s brilliantly capable; it feels faster than its power output implies, and its road holding abilities are akin to that of much pricier machines. The interior is of the highest quality, and the infotainment system is one of the best - it has integrated Android Auto, MirrorLink and Apple Car Play, which is massively useful no matter what phone you have (and the latter of which works absolutely flawlessly).
On the flip side, Seat has become a bit too sensible. It’s under pressure from VW’s higher-ups to become more mature, but, in my opinion, that shouldn’t be what Seat is about. You don’t want beige sensibility, you want something that’ll make you giggle, and by taking that away VW Group is at risk of chopping off the wild side that offers a welcome antidote to its serious premium brands. I’m sure they’ve crunched the numbers and decided it makes business sense, but it is a shame to see Seat reigned in.
That being said, the Seat Ibiza Cupra is a fantastic thing. My overriding feeling after walking away from the car was one of positivity. So how does it compare to that absurdly good Fiesta ST? Well, the Fiesta’s achilles heel is its ride, and I reckon it’s here that the Spaniard has it beat, having a much more pliant ride that’d be far easier to live with day to day. It’s also of a higher quality inside, as Ford has that incredible knack of building funky interiors that somehow seem out of date five minutes after the car goes on sale. That torque map also means it’s easier to drive fast without scrabbling at the limit, though that does make it a little less exciting.
If your purchase decision is purely down to dynamism, the Ford is still the one to beat; nothing can quite match up to its brilliance in that department. Where the Ibiza Cupra excels is in making itself wonderfully approachable; the interior is solid, its power is usable and the ride won’t drive you mad. It makes a few compromises, and could do with letting its extrovert personality come out a bit more, but it most certainly won’t leave you disappointed.