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The Seat Ibiza Cupra is fast and green, but is it fun - and in a crowded field of hot superminis, does it do enough to stand out from its rivals?

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Seat is a marque that trades on sporting credentials, and the hot Cupra brand is at the forefront of this strategy, selling fast Ibizas and Leons mostly on the back of the brand’s success in touring car racing.

But the Seat Ibiza Cupra is intended to offer more than just performance and value, showcasing a level of advanced technology that has not been seen in the value-conscious supermini segment before. 

The Cupra is the greenest hot hatch in its class

At 188bhp, it takes the power output of the Volkswagen Group’s turbocharged 1.8-litre TSI engine to new levels, and a standard six-speed manual gearbox, adds to the list of supermini firsts that makes the Cupra the greenest hot hatch in its class. 

But technical novelties and sharp (if polarising) looks are not enough for the Cupra. It must also live up to the benchmark handling abilities of rivals such as the Renaultsport Clio 200 and the Mini Cooper S

So can Seat’s hot supermini maintain its credibility as a performance hatch without sacrificing too much to the green revolution?

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DESIGN & STYLING

Seat Ibiza Cupra rear

Seat has aimed to give the Ibiza Cupra an unrivalled combination of performance and efficiency. The lightweight 1390cc twin-charged engine is in its most powerful form yet and offers a tempting array of claimed figures, including 188bhp, 236lb ft, 45.6mpg and 145g/km.

The old Cupra used a mechanical supercharger works alone up to 2400rpm, when the turbocharger kicks in. They work together until 3500rpm, at which point the supercharger disconnects and the turbocharger goes solo all the way to the 7000rpm red line. Now the Cupra uses a just a turbocharged 1.8-litre unit.

The Ibiza Cupra offers an unrivalled combination of performance and efficiency

Economy is aided by the use of a six-speed manual gearbox – the same as that found in the Volkswagen PoloThe Cupra has a rather less ground-breaking chassis, using MacPherson struts at the front and a torsion beam with trailing arms at the rear. Over the already lowered and stiffened FR, the Cupra gets 15 percent stiffer springs, firmer dampers and a 5mm drop in ride height. Seat’s traction-boosting XDS, an electronic system that mimics the effect of a mechanical limited-slip differential, is also standard.

Styling alterations are deliberately brash on the Cupra, starting with the black honeycomb grille. Black wing mirrors, a large, black rear diffuser and central exhaust combine to give a much more dramatic look than the standard Seat Ibiza Sport Coupé. 

INTERIOR

Seat Ibiza Cupra interior

Seat has successfully jazzed up the standard Seat Ibiza’s cabin for the Cupra, the most obvious upgrades being the large sports seats and chunky, flat-bottomed leather steering wheel. The aluminium pedals and wheel-mounted paddles are likeable additions that enhance the cabin’s appeal. Add the solid-feeling build quality, minimalist switchgear and broad range of seat adjustment and the Ibiza’s cabin is one of the most user-friendly in its class. 

Finding a comfortable driving position is easy, because the very supportive sports seats are height adjustable and the steering wheel adjusts for both rake and reach. Our test car came with optional £800 leather seats, which are expensive but are preferable to the cheap-feeling standard material.

Finding a comfortable driving position is easy

A lack of any seatbelt adjustment is the biggest issue with the driving position. Otherwise the cabin is largely unchanged over other Ibizas.

The only obvious signs of cost-cutting are a few hard plastics and the cheap mechanism that tips the rear seat bases forward, which you must do if you want to fold the 60/40 split seat backs flat. The boot is a little smaller than that of its obvious rivals, but adequate; even the Fiesta’s best-in-class figure of 295 litres is only 11 litres more than the Ibiza can muster. 

Rear passengers will feel more claustrophobic in the Cupra than in a standard Ibiza Sport Coupé due to the large front seats, but it is still possible to seat four adults in relative comfort.

On the equipment front, the Cupra comes with all the equipment found on the standard FR Technology trimmed Ibiza, plus the addition of adaptive bi-xenon headlights, an aggressive body and exhaust system, sports seats and climate control. Upgrade to the Black Edition and you get the full Seat multimedia experience including sat nav, DAB radio and smartphone integration.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

1.4-litre TSI Seat Ibiza Cupra engine

The high-revving 188bhp 1.8 TSI engine is the most successful and enjoyable aspect of this new Ibiza Cupra. Our acceleration figures show that a 0-60mph time of 6.7sec is entirely achievable even with two occupants, but outright speed isn’t the Seat's greatest achievement. The 1.8 TSI’s real success is in its usability. 

There’s always ample acceleration for overtaking, even lower down the rev range, thanks to a peak output of 236lb ft of torque from 3200rpm, and it pulls strongly all the way to its 7000rpm limiter. It’s an impressively flexible engine that ensures the Ibiza Cupra always feels quick

Even under hard use the brakes resist fade and offer good stopping power

A low kerb weight helps significantly with every element of the Seat Ibiza’s performance, including its economy. Over a route covering motorways, towns and B-roads we returned a reasonable 31.4mpg – a long way short of the claimed 45.6mpg but still good for a hatch with this level of performance. 

The manual gearbox is light and smooth to operate, although it will take some getting use to along with its notchiness, but after that it is never an issue. 

Even under hard use the brakes resist fade and offer good stopping power, even without the £1150 racing brake upgrade, which adds four-pot calipers and uprated brake pads. 

The standard brakes may be effective, but they are not consistent. Push the brake pedal as hard as possible and you activate the Emergency Brake Assist, which results in a quite violent change in responses. It would work well in the emergency situation it is developed for, and you’re unlikely to activate it on road, but on track it is extremely disconcerting and easy to activate, despite the noticeable difference in pressure on the pedal. 

RIDE & HANDLING

Seat Ibiza Cupra cornering

In our road test of a basic Ibiza we felt the Seat outdrove and outhandled the equivalent Renault Clio and Vauxhall Corsa models. So it’s fair to expect great things from the Cupra, the most sporting model in the range, but does it deliver? 

Disappointingly for a company that claims its products are defined by their dynamism, the Seat is less competitive in this performance sector. 

The Cupra’s handling isn't all that inspiring, but it has a supple ride

The Cupra’s chassis and engine combination work well enough. It responds quickly and has ample grip for both road and track driving. But the experience is let down by inconsistent steering weight from the electrically assisted power steering, which reduces the resistance too much at slow speeds, resulting in a lack of feel and precision. This improves at higher speeds as the specially adapted servo weights up the steering, but there is never a real sense of connection. 

The XDS diff is a worthwhile addition, though, virtually eliminating torque steer at anything other than full load in first or second gear, and even then it is a minor interference. XDS also gives the Ibiza excellent traction out of corners. Get on the throttle too early and the front axle will gradually lose traction, but it is easily brought back into line by easing off the throttle. 

The Cupra’s handling may not be all that inspiring, but it has a supple ride which betters that of most of its rivals. The well controlled suspension can be caught out on sharp intrusions, but generally it absorbs the worst breaks and undulations with little more than a muffled thump in the cabin.

Body roll is well contained, too. The nose may dive under heavy braking, but no more so than any of its rivals, and cornering is flat in all but the most severe direction changes.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Seat Ibiza Cupra

The Ibiza Cupra promises to be the cheapest car in its class to run. Its closest rivals in terms of power and price – the Renaultsport Clio 200 and the Vauxhall Corsa VXR – are both 10mpg less economical and produce at least 40g/km more CO2 than the Seat's claimed figures of 44.1mpg (combined) and 148g/km.

The only match on running costs is the Mini Cooper S, which in manual form manages nearly identical figures of 44.1mpg and 149g/km. 

The Ibiza Cupra promises to be the cheapest car in its class to run

As a result, the Ibiza will cost just £135 to tax for a year, next to the £250 the DVLA will require for the Clio or Corsa. And residual forecasts show the Ibiza holding its value better than all of its rivals other than the Mini

Together with the comprehensive standard spec, well priced options list and comparatively low group 14 insurance, the Ibiza Cupra looks like a very strong ownership proposition.

VERDICT

Seat Ibiza Cupra rear quarter

The Seat Ibiza Cupra makes a persuasive argument for itself. The hi-tech engine, low running costs, decent cabin and standard manual box will appeal to many buyers. 

But this class is all about driver reward and the Seat lacks the flair you would expect. Though good in everyday driving, the DSG gearbox doesn’t improve the experience if you really want to plunder the engine’s potential and is almost unusable on track.

The Cupra is a practical, good-value supermini

Equally, the inconsistent braking and steering rob the Ibiza of the engaging handling and responses that you get from a Renaultsport Clio.

The Cupra is a practical, good-value supermini that satisfies many hot hatch requirements.

Style and speed are there in abundance. For some buyers that will be enough, but in this class entertainment is one area that shouldn’t be compromised.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Seat Ibiza Cupra 2009-2017 First drives