BY ANDY ENRIGHT
After the runaway success of the SEAT Leon Cupra, a hot version of the Ibiza seemed a surefire sales winner. Here was a smaller, more affordable package that looked great, had a choice of two punchy engines and was good fun to drive. Strangely, the Cupra variants of the Ibiza never really caught on and to this day there are seasoned hot hatch fans who don't really know a whole lot about them. The reason for this is the dominance in its sector of the Renaultsport Clio 182, beyond which few enthusiasts bother to look. They're selling themselves short. While we wouldn't claim the Ibiza is more fun than the hairball Renault, as a longer term ownership proposition it might just be a better bet.
Models Covered: (3dr hatch 1.8 petrol, 1.9 diesel [Cupra])
This, the fourth generation Ibiza, was launched in February 2002, and for some while the quickest version you could buy was a rather ordinary-looking 130bhp 1.9-litre TDIdiesel model. For a company that had developed a reputation for sporting success,this seemed quite an odd choice and it served to cast the die that the Ibiza wasn't a particularly sporty car. SEAT tried to belatedly make amends in late 2003 with the mild FR model but it wasn't until summer 2004, over two years since the Ibiza's launch, that the Cupra models finally appeared. By this stage the Ibiza was no longer new news and the launch also coincided rather unfortunately with Renault upgrading their hot Clio from 172 to 182bhp. Timing has never been the Ibiza Cupra's strong point. Two versions were offered; a 180bhp 1.8-litre Turbo petrol or one powered by a 160bhp version of the 1.9-litre diesel. The Cupra models were dropped from the range early in 2008.
What You Get
The Ibiza Cupra can be identified by its specially designed front bumper that incorporates a spoiler in one integrated moulding. Big air intakes direct cooling air into the intercooler and the front end also features a contrasting grille with intake slats sitting atop a honeycomb design underneath. 17-inch alloy wheels are fitted as standard with gumball 40 series tyres while at the rear end there's another smoothly integrated spoiler and a monster chromed tailpipe. The small roof spoiler that trails off the roof and the smoky titanium coloured tail light housings are deft touches, as is the fact that there's no external giveaway as to which engine your Ibiza Cupra is packing. The car's details are more knowing and better integrated than you might expect and the stylists have succeeded in making the car appear far smaller than it actually is, a visual trick that will appeal to many buyers. Inside, you'll spot a number of VW Group parts, reappearing like old faces at a school reunion. The window switches, the gear knob, the ventilation controls and so on are all sourced from that bottomless well that's disparagingly termed the VW parts bin, and are none the worse for it. The interior features a red, white and black colour scheme, with the trim all black, the instruments picked out in white with red highlighting on the air vents, indicators, and stitching on the wheel, seats, headrests, gear lever and hand brake. The seats themselves feature the Cupra logo writ large into the sculpted backrest and the Cupra logo also features on the sports steering wheel. SEAT couldn't resist the inclusion of the ubiquitous metal-capped pedals. Drilled pedals, white dials, mesh front grille - the Ibiza Cupra may seem a cliche but it's a very fun one.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
Both engines fitted to the Ibiza Cupra are tried and tested technology and are strong units. The ignition coil pack engine problems that used to afflict the 1.8-litre unit have long been resolved but you should make sure that the engine hasn't been 'chipped' to boost its power. Other popular modifications include fitting aftermarket Grainger valves to boost the turbo pressure, often with negative effects on the turbocharger's longevity. Inspect tyres and front suspension for signs of wear and tear. Also get your head under the bonnet and under the car to search for accident damage or overspray.
(approx based on an Ibiza 1.8 Cupra) SEAT spares are reasonably priced, with consumables starting at just £4 for a spark plug. An air filter costs £20, a timing belt £40, an oil filter is £9 and a fuel filter a mere £6. Keeping a nearly new Ibiza on the road shouldn't prove too expensive.
On the Road
Of the two Ibiza Cupra three-door hatches that are offered, the diesel is perhaps the most interesting. Instead of the 130 braked horses you might expect, this one has a whopping 160bhp under the bonnet. More to the point, it's well laden with torque. The Americans, who otherwise seem to know very little about building cars, have a saying that customers buy power but drive torque. If this is the case, they'll be very happy indeed seated behind the wheel of the Ibiza Cupra 1.9 TDI as it boasts more torque than the Porsche Boxster S or a Subaru Impreza WRX. The other model in the line-up features an engine that's a little more familiar. The petrol powered turbocharged 1.8-litre powerplant has long been a Volkswagen Group staple and in 180bhp guise has seen service in the Audi A3, the Audi TT, the Skoda Octavia vRS and the SEAT Leon Cupra. Now it's the turn of the Ibiza to get a share of the action and in such a small bodyshell, it really flies. With a top speed of over 142mph, the 180bhp Cupra doesn't hang about. Couple that with an ability to polish off the sprint to 60mph in just 7.1 seconds and you've got a potent, if not premier league, hatch. What's more, the diesel version is only slightly slower against the watch, making 60 in 7.4 seconds and recording a top speed of over 136mph. Where the most powerful diesel in the hot hatch segment scores highest is in terms of fuel economy. Although the 1.8 20VT model will travel for 39.6 miles on a gallon of fuel using the combined test method, the diesel will eke a massive 53miles from a gallon. Let's pause to think about this car for a moment. Only a few years ago, this would have been seen as Lotus Esprit performance with Mini fuel consumption. Now it hardly raises an eyebrow.
If you can forgo the last few per cent of handling finesse and driving thrills for a big chunk of refinement and quality, SEAT's Ibiza Cupra should represent a very attractive alternative to the more obvious choices. There aren't too many to choose from, so take your time and haggle hard on price. You should end up with a hot hatch that's good for the long run.