SEAT Ibiza Cupra On Track
by David Finlay (25 August 2009)
About halfway round the sixth lap I realised that I'd really overdone it this time. The West Circuit at the PalmerSport test facility near Bedford is arranged so that it is almost impossible to hit anything without actually aiming at it, but you can still go an embarrassingly long way off-piste if things go wrong, and for a moment I had visions of this happening in the very near future. Something had to be done.
"Okay, car," I said, "let us face facts. I would be the first to admit that I was the one who got us into this mess, but the plain and simple truth of the matter is that we are going to have to collaborate on getting back out of it. I am therefore going to have ask you to stop going this way and start going that way, and to treat this as a matter of the greatest urgency. In return, I promise not to enter this corner quite so stupidly fast next time round. Do we have a deal?"
And apparently we did, because after a little readjustment the Ibiza Cupra burst on to the next straight in such an impressive manner that, if you had been watching, you might have imagined that I had planned the whole thing.
Along with the mechanically identical but slightly restyled Bocanegra, and the less powerful FR, the Ibiza Cupra is one of the most high-tech hot hatches there has ever been. For a start, its 1.4-litre petrol engine has both a supercharger (for quick responses to a call for acceleration from low rpm) and a turbocharger (for increased power further up the rev range), and although it was introduced to the Volkswagen Golf GT TSI as a means of combining the performance of a large engine with the official fuel economy and CO2 emissions of a small one - for reasons explained in our feature, The Rise Of The Small Engine - the same unit was bound to find its way into a VW Group hot hatch sooner or later.
The Cupra, Bocanegra and FR are also fitted as standard with VW's seven-speed DSG gearbox, which like all similar transmissions is actually a double-clutch manual that predicts which gear you want next and makes a lightning re-adjustment if it turns out to have guessed wrong. You can let it operate like an automatic, but for track purposes the obvious choice is to select Sequential mode and look after the gearchanging yourself, either by moving the lever or by operating paddles mounted behind the steering wheel.
Some manufacturers get a bit too cute about paddles, but the system in the Ibiza is simple; the paddle on the right selects higher gears, and the one on the left selects lower ones. Actually, in track driving you'll probably never change up manually, but wait for the DSG to do that itself when the engine reaches maximum revs.
This could hardly be simpler, but it's not quite so straightforward on the way down because sometimes the transmission will refuse to select a lower gear under heavy braking because it thinks that would send the revs uncomfortably high (even though you probably wouldn't because you are wiping off so much speed so quickly). This takes a bit of getting used to, but you learn to work round it eventually.
It's an important point in the Cupra's favour that the DSG downchanges are the only aspect of the car which require any thought at all. You are never conscious, for example, of how the engine switches from the supercharger to the turbocharger, at least in an on-track context - only that there's a constant surge of power from less than 2000rpm to around 7000.
And although you're vaguely aware of the various handling aids (such as the XDS system, which is a cheap and relatively simple alternative to a conventional limited slip differential) the general impression is simply of a car which has had the right attention paid to the good old springs and dampers.
If this work had not been done correctly, the Cupra would not be as friendly as it is on a test track, no matter how much electric boffinry had gone on. But it's very impressive. It will hurtle into a bend as long as you make sure your right foot is well off the throttle on turn-in, the front end grips hard up to alarmingly high speeds in mid-corner, and if understeer takes over - as it eventually will - then backing off the power to the right extent will bring the tail round to exactly where you want it.
This last piece of behaviour has been common in high-performance front-wheel drive cars for many years, but often what happens is that backing off kills major understeer by sending the car into what could easily become a big spin if you don't catch it. The Cupra is much better than this. In extreme situations, the front end gradually drifts off line, and you can use the throttle lift to re-set the car to exactly the angle you want. Several times I tried to goad it into snapping back at me, but it refused to be anything other than amiable no matter what I did with it.
The Cupra absolutely does not feel like a race car. What it does feel like is a very well set-up fast road car which will, I'm sure, give many owners hours of fun on a trackday. I can't comment on its behaviour in the real world for the simple reason that SEAT has not yet given UK journalists the opportunity to drive the Cupra on public roads (which is why this article is being published as a feature, not a road test), but a brief exploration round the access lanes at PalmerSport suggested that it should ride quite well, at least for a car of its type, which is certainly a welcome change from recent SEAT practice.
For that reason, among many others, I'm very much looking forward to spending more time with this car, preferably sooner rather than later.