SEAT Ibiza Cupra review
by David Finlay (19 January 2010)
I have felt for a long time that a really good high-performance road car should be as impressive when it is being driven slowly as when it is being taken to the limit. The cheaper the car, the less likely this is to be the case, so it tends not to apply to hot hatches such as the SEAT Ibiza Cupra, but one of the most important things about the Cupra is that - unlike fast SEATs of the past - it's relatively softly sprung, so on paper there is a good chance that it will turn out to have the Jekyll-and-Hyde character I'm looking for.
There was certainly plenty of opportunity to make the necessary investigations during this test. The first half of it, or thereabouts, took place during the Big Freeze of Early 2010, and although the roads in my area were quite possibly not as badly affected as the roads in yours (we got off quite lightly compared with other parts of the UK) there was absolutely no question of charging around the place, since the odds of finding yourself on a patch of ice whose existence was not suggested a few yards before were uncomfortably high.
For all the performance I was prepared to use during this period, I might as well have been driving an Ibiza 1.4 - an ordinary one, I mean, rather than one with the similarly-sized 178bhp forced induction TSI unit found in the Cupra.
If I had been, I would have grumbled about the considerable road noise and the firm ride (neither of which will be of much concern to the sort of person who would like to own a Cupra) but in most other respects the car behaved in a way that would have been considered perfectly respectable by an elderly aunt.
The aunt in question would no doubt be delighted by the steering, since it requires very little effort to operate, but it's over-assisted for a hot hatch. It's not absolutely necessary, even in a car like this, and certainly not at reasonable road speeds, for the driver to be able to feel the interaction between tyres and tarmac through the steering wheel, but it's nice, and it would make the Cupra much more enjoyable. If SEAT is already planning updates (and it would be quite normal for a manufacturer to be thinking that far ahead) I hope that an easing-off of the power assistance is on the list.
Aside from that, there's very little cause to complain about the Cupra in hot hatch terms. There are more powerful cars in the class, but the engine's ability to pull strongly almost regardless of where the revcounter happens to be pointing is very appealing.
And although the seven-speed DSG transmission can sometimes feel - as systems like this tend to - a little recalcitrant when you're pulling gently away from rest, it works splendidly once you're up and running.
There is a Sport mode which is suitable for above-averagely spirited driving, but when I'm in that kind of mood I prefer to make the changes manually, using the paddle shifts on the steering wheel.
If you are really blasting on, the occasional refusal of DSG to shift down a gear when asked to can be frustrating, but unless you are a prize idiot you're not going to encounter that difficulty anywhere other than a race circuit or test track.
My first encounter with the Cupra was at just such a venue, and you can read about that in this feature article. If you don't have time to do so, the short version of the story is that the Cupra is an absolute blast to drive flat-out, refusing to do anything scary almost regardless of how loopily you're driving it, and showing a benign willingness to help you out of trouble when you stray beyond sensible limits. And that's good to know.