Review and road test of the SEAT Ibiza Cupra (2009 - 2017)
By Jonathan Crouch
SEAT chucked a whole load of technology at the hot hatch Cupra version of the fourth generation Ibiza supermini. A 1.4-litre supercharged and turbocharged engine, a 7-speed DSG twin-clutch paddle shift gearbox and an XDS electronic differential made it one of the most advanced small cars around. Does it makes sense as a used hot hatch buy?
3dr hatch (1.4, 1.8 petrol) [Cupra, Bocanegra, Black Edition])
'Cupra' is to SEAT what GTI is to Volkswagen, what VXR is to Vauxhall and what Renaultsport is to, well, Renault. A hot hatch brand that guarantees shopping rocket performance and one that's been growing in credibility over recent years thanks to the Spanish brand's success in the World Touring Car Championship. That success, it should be pointed out, originally came with diesel-powered racers, SEAT eager to point out that high performance can also be highly efficient. Their next step was to demonstrate the same thing in their production models, cars like this one, the hot hatch Cupra version of the fourth generation Ibiza supermini, launched in 2009.
As small, affordable hot hatches go, this one certainly works on paper. Take styling, a riot of aggressive creases and angularities courtesy of ex-Lamborghini designer Luc Donckerwolke. And the engine? Well this model was originally fitted with a potent petrol-powered TSI unit that belied its 1.4-litre size by using a combination of both supercharging and turbocharging to put out a meaty 178PS. Even the gearbox pushes the boundaries, a transmission truly designed for the PlayStation generation, with no fewer than 7-speeds accessible only via F1-style steering wheel paddleshifts. In 2016, SEAT dumped the 1.4 TSI unit and replaced it with a 189PS 1.8-litre TSI powerplant that was mated to a proper manual gearbox. This car was discontinued when the fourth generation Ibiza reached the end of its model life in mid-2017.
What You Get
This Cupra is, not surprisingly, based on the three-door SportCoupe or 'SC' Ibiza bodyshape which looks lower, leaner and meaner than the five-door version. Especially in this guise. So there's the ground-hugging stance you would expect from a pure-bred hot hatch, with large vents cut into a front bumper that sits below a black honeycomb grille. Moving backwards past the black wing mirrors and purposeful alloys, there's a subtle rear roof spoiler, a large black rear diffuser and a huge central exhaust. If that's not in-your-face enough, an optional Bocanegra styling pack added a blacked-out nose offering an element of cult appeal.
The interior of the Cupra continues on the racy lines of the outside, with upgraded trim materials and sports seats that could be trimmed in pricey leather. You also get a chunky, flat-bottomed leather-covered steering wheel and aluminium pedals, all of which successfully lifts the standard car's rather conservative feel. It's easy to find a good driving position, thanks to a height-adjustable seat and a steering wheel that adjusts for both reach and rake, though it's a pity you can't adjust seatbelt height.
Backseat space isn't quite as good as that of a rival Renaultsport Clio but is far better than a MINI Cooper S and will accommodate two fully-sized adults as long as the journey isn't too long. Out back, the boot offers 284-litres - pretty decent for a car of this kind, extendable further of course if you flatten the 60:40 split-folding rear bench.
What to Look For
We came across quite a few very satisfied Ibiza Cupra owners but inevitably, there were a number of issues. Some owners found that the headlamps fogged up. Others complained of things like broken front springs, creaks and rattles from the interior and the need to replace coil packs. There were a few reports of turbo problems too: in one case, the turbo wouldn't work when the engine was started but when the engine was started a few times, it started to work again. Check into all these things on your test drive.
Otherwise, the issues are the ones that relate to all hot hatches: make sure the car hasn't been thrashed or regularly used n track days. Corrosion is simply not an issue with SEATs and another reason why resale values are high. The alloy wheels on the Cupra models are very prone to kerb rash and look for crash damage and tired tyres. Check that the electronic systems work as advertised as there have been a few minor owner grumbles about warning lights spuriously appearing and then disappearing. There are quite a few 'Cat C' and 'Cat D' repaired write-offs at the lower end of the market, so if you see an Ibiza Cupra that looks too good to be true, chances are it's had a prang.
(approx based on a 2014 Ibiza Cupra 1.4 TSI) An air filter costs in the £11-£12 bracket and an oil filter costs around £6-£12. Brake pads sit in the £10 to £28 bracket for a set, though you could pay up to around £30 to £50 for a pricier brand. Brake discs costs between £20 to £27, though you could pay as much as £40-£60 or even between £75 and £110 for discs from a pricier brand. A wiper blade costs in the £5 to £13 bracket. A drive belt will sit in the £8 to £20 bracket. Try not to damage the headlamp; a replacement unit costs around £140-£190.
On the Road
The first thing to say about early versions of this car is not to be put off by the size of the 1.4-litre TSI engine on offer. Yes, it's true that the previous generation Ibiza Cupra had a 1.8 but with this later model, there was no let-up in either power or performance, with 178PS on tap and rest to sixty in around 7 seconds dead. Time for us to explain why.
Most manufacturers today accept that if emissions targets are to be met, then they're going to have to make their engines smaller. To do so without compromising on performance usually involves bolting on a turbocharger, but with this car, the designers did something even cleverer. True enough, there's a turbo for top-end performance but what really gives this little car its get-up-and-go vitality is the additional use of a separate supercharger to boost torque where you need it most: at low revs. This works alone up to 2,400rpm when the turbo cuts in. Supercharger and turbocharger work together up to 3,500rpm before the turbo goes it alone all the way to the 7,000rpm red line.
With turbo and supercharger working in tandem, maximum torque is produced over a much wider section of the rev range, giving the car greater flexibility. In a compact front-wheel-drive car like the Ibiza Cupra, the engine has added benefits in the shape of its light weight. This reduces the forces acting on the front wheels while they're working at important jobs like deploying the power and steering. So far so good, but can a pure-bred hot hatch really be totally satisfying without a conventional manual gearstick?
The answer depends on your point of view. Traditionalists will say no but a younger generation, brought up on PlayStation and Forza X-Boxes, will be fascinated to try the 7-speed DSG semi-automatic self-shifter that was the only gearbox offered in the 1.4 TSI version of this car. Overall, we like it but driving hard as an enthusiast does require a bit of adjustment to your driving style. You can't for example, change down whenever you want: the software of the DSG system won't let you do so until your speed has dropped enough for the desired lower gear not to rev the engine beyond about 5,000rpm. That can mean missed shifts going into bends you then come out of not entirely sure what gear you're actually in.
Make the necessary changes to your approach though and you settle into a fast flowing driving style aided by XDS, an electronic system that performs the same function as a mechanical limited slip differential. Bodyroll is well controlled, thanks to a set-up even meaner than that of the FR, the next rung down on the Ibiza sporting ladder. Over and above this model, the Cupra gets 15% stiffer springs, firmer dampers and a 5mm drop in ride height. The result could be the kind of unpleasant rock-hard feel boasted by previous generation Ibiza Cupras but actually isn't: SEAT's engineers are more sophisticated than that these days. What else? Well, the electrically assisted power steering can be a little vague but the brakes are strong and original owners had the option of improving them with an extra cost racing brake upgrade.
In 2016, SEAT dumped the 1.4 TSI unit and replaced it with a 189PS 1.8-litre TSI powerplant that was mated to a proper manual gearbox.
At the end of the day, it's horses for courses. If you're a red-blooded hot hatch enthusiast, you'll have no time for eco-conscious hot hatches like this one. You'll want a Renaultsport Clio 200 and happily put up with its firm ride, noisy engine and high running costs. The Ibiza Cupra is for a more thoughtful kind of buyer.
Someone with bills to pay and a green conscience. Someone who still loves to grip-and-go but doesn't need to be doing it every waking mile. For you, this Ibiza Cupra will suit perfectly, quick but resolutely high-tech and in every way 21st century. Truly a shopping rocket of our times.
SEAT Ibiza Cupra (2009 - 2017) review by Jonathan Crouch