First Drive: Seat Ibiza Cupra

IMPRESSIVE performance numbers and an attractive price are two important attributes of Seat's latest Ibiza hot hatch. The telltale sign is the Spanish car maker's use of its trademark Cupra branding, something fans of Seat's GTI-baiting cars recognise as heralding the arrival of the firm’s flagship hot supermini.

Value for money is one thing but looks can make or break a car. Seat has cleverly chosen to give the Ibiza a relatively low key Cupra makeover, with the regular car's already distinctive sharp lines and squat stance doing most of the work. Factor in the Cupra's low ride height, bespoke bumpers, black mirror housings, central tailpipe plus LED running lights and you've got a classy-looking hatch that's neither brash nor a wallflower.

Seat might be keen to promote its Spanish roots but the upside of being part of the mighty Volkswagen Group is the ability to make full use of its extensive parts inventory. Every so often you'll find a few gems in the parts bin, and helping the Ibiza Cupra to achieve its segment-busting performance figures is the Volkswagen Group's hi-tech 180 horsepower 1.4-litre turbo and supercharged petrol engine.

The engine's trick is to combine the measured low down response of the supercharger with the turbo's more immediate response at the upper end of the performance scale. Owners of Skoda's second-generation Fabia vRS hot hatch will be familiar with this experience given that the car shares the same engine with the Ibiza. As such, the Ibiza's 184lb ft torque figure is accessible from a lowly 2,000rpm. And it's a contributing factor to the car's brisk 6.9 second 0-62mph sprint time.

Reinforcing the benefits of cross-company parts sharing, the Ibiza also boasts the same seven-speed DSG gearbox as the Fabia. The upshot is a transmission adept at responding swiftly to driver inputs. Left alone it'll quickly and smoothly shift up to a high ratio in a bid to maximise fuel economy and refinement. However, when you want to press on, downshifts are quick and taking manual control via the steering wheel paddles allows you to better match your speed to a gear of your choosing according to your driving style.

Considerable effort has been made by Seat's engineers to tune the Ibiza Cupra for a variety of road conditions, and it's clear that the car's noticeably pliant ride is a welcome step forward over the old model. That said pitch and roll has been kept in check, allowing you to attack corners with considerable enthusiasm, with the result that your confidence remains high and you never feel tired or bruised after a session behind the wheel. Of course, the Ibiza's sports front seats can also take some of the credit.

An important factor in the Ibiza's behaviour is its steering, which delivers a good balance of weight, accuracy and assistance. Coupled with an array of trick traction and stability systems - including a clever electronic differential control - you can push the car hard safe in the knowledge that it's working with and not against you.

Seat knows that the ownership experience is about more than just the driving, which is why the Ibiza Cupra comes with a generous level of standard kit. Granted, you'd expect the car to possess good brakes, and the standard stoppers do the job nicely. The optional larger diameter AP-branded items should improve matters if you're partial to track days and routinely enjoy driving the car enthusiastically on the road.

But it's the non-performance bits that should also impress and, crucially, help sweeten the ownership experience when you're grinding your way through town on a Monday morning. Bi-xenon headlights plus LED daytime running lights, climate control and rain sensing wipers are joined by a bespoke multimedia system offering navigation, a Bluetooth phone connection plus audio streaming, voice control and a comprehensive trip computer.

It's clear, then, that the Ibiza Cupra is easily more than just the sum of its Volkswagen Group parts. The car's handsome exterior gives little away as to its real world performance potential. Once behind the wheel, however, its compliant ride, responsive DSG gearbox and flexible petrol motor combine to deliver a rounded experience that belies the car's 180 on paper horsepower rating. Fun, engaging and refined in equal measure, Seat's generosity with a long list of standard kit is the icing on the cake.

FACTS AT A GLANCE

Model: Seat Ibiza Cupra, from £18,570 on the road.Engine: 1.4-litre petrol unit developing 180bhp.Transmission: 7-speed DSG automatic transmission as standard, driving the front wheels.Performance: Maximum speed 142mph, 0-62mph 6.9 seconds.Economy: 47.9mpg.CO2 Rating: 139g/km.

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