Never that excited by the old 1.4-litre super- and turbocharged SEAT Ibiza Cupra with the DSG dual-clutch gearbox, a raft of revisions for 2016 find us thoroughly enjoying the B-segment motor in a way we haven't previously. These updates are enough to elevate the Spanish car to the highest levels of its class, but has SEAT done enough to tempt buyers away from the perennial favourite in this sector, the Ford Fiesta ST?
In the metal
Little to spot here, as it looks a lot like the old model - the SEAT Ibiza Cupra comes only as a three-door 'SC' body style, with 17-inch alloys, bespoke front and rear bumpers (the latter housing a centre-exit exhaust) and black detailing, specifically on the door mirrors and front grille surround. There are 'chequered flag' Cupra badges, as well. Despite the lack of drastic design work for the facelift, suffice to say that it's one of the best-looking cars in the sector, what with its creased sides and Leon-esque looks, while new LED daytime running lights give it a defined signature at the front. What a shame a pair of weedy twin pipes peek out of that trapezoidal centre exit exhaust, as otherwise we think it's bang on the money in terms of appearance: the Ibiza Cupra is understated and aggressive at the same time.
If the Irish specifications mirror the rest of Europe, the one standard colour for the Ibiza Cupra will be blue. White and red non-metallic colours will be the first stage of cost options, while an entirely monochrome palette of metallic colours should sit above those on the price lists. So don't expect any lurid yellows, greens or oranges to choose from, as might be befitting of a youthful, Spanish product.
The interior is another of those 'brilliant but' conundrums we find ourselves facing in so many Volkswagen Group products. There's no doubting it's better made than anything in this class, save for the Volkswagen Polo GTI (not sold in Ireland), and everything is ergonomically sound. We also like the Cupra steering wheel (just the right size), the bespoke dials in the instrument cluster and the supportive, attractive Cupra sports seats in the front. It's just that... well, it feels like it has been deliberately kept a peg or two below that Polo GTI cabin in terms of finishing, and while it's easily better than what went before in the Ibiza's interior, it's all still a bit staid and charcoal grey for our liking. The Renaultsport Clio and Peugeot 208 GTi are both more interesting to sit inside than the SEAT, as well.
Taking its lead from the Polo GTI, with which it obviously shares so much architecture, the Cupra has got rid of the old 'twin-charged' 1.4-litre engine for a straightforward 1.8-litre TSI turbocharged unit. This ups power by a modest 12hp, from 180- to 192hp for the 2016MY, but that turbo lump massively boosts torque - the old 1.4 had 250Nm, but the 1.8 delivers a meaty 320Nm from just 1,450rpm. That sees the top speed increase by 7km/h (to 235km/h), the 0-100km/h time shaved from 6.9- to 6.7 seconds, and economy/emissions largely stay the same - there's a slight reduction in economy from 47.9- to 47.1mpg (5.9- to 6.0 litres/100km) but the 139g/km CO2 figure is unchanged.
Further good news comes in the form of a six-speed manual gearbox in place of the old DSG auto, larger front brake discs (up to 310mm, from 288mm formerly), the carry-over of the XDS electronic front differential lock and a mere 1kg increase in overall weight - SEAT quotes 1,260kg with a driver (75kg) on board, although it's worth noting that the 1.8-litre engine is actually 7kg lighter than the old 1.4, so weight over the nose is marginally reduced.
However, as is so often the case with outlining what look like minor detail changes, the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. We never really much liked the old car, with its clunky DSG transmission and unrefined engine, but this Cupra is a revelation. The 1.8 TSI is much livelier and makes a decent enough noise, although it needs to be thrashed to sing its best song. Fortunately, SEAT closed off a twisting Spanish mountain road for this test drive and given the opportunity to drive the Cupra as hard as possible, its case didn't fall apart.
There's a huge amount of front-end grip, minimal understeer, simply excellent body control in the harder Sport mode of the two Cupra Drive Profiles (the other is Normal), brakes that are beyond reproach and a lovely, slick manual transmission with which it's possible to do reasonable heel-and-toe downshifts. All of these combine with fine, if not perfect steering to make a car that is startlingly rapid point-to-point. And, crucially, it's entertaining too, providing plenty of grins for the driver. It goes straight in with the Peugeot 208 GTi and Opel Corsa OPC in terms of dynamic appeal, surpassing the Renaultsport Clio 200 and Volkswagen Polo GTI in the process. But the Fiesta? That might be a handling bridge too far.
Nevertheless, there's a final upside for the SEAT, which is refinement. With slacker damping in Normal mode compared to Sport, the Ibiza Cupra can put on an acceptably comfortable display when just cruising along an autovia. It's not quite as brilliant all round as its big brother, the Leon Cupra, nor is it as grown-up as the Polo GTI, but it's certainly a whole lot more comfortable to travel in than any of the Fiesta, Corsa and Clio competition.
What you get for your money
When the regular Ibiza range was lightly refreshed earlier this year (at least from an external perspective; more took place underneath to update the package), SEAT Ireland held prices at pretty much the same levels to the pre-facelift models. Going by that yardstick, the Ibiza Cupra should start at around the €23,000 mark and if it does it'll make the base variant Fiesta ST look wildly overpriced. Kit levels are generous to almost a fault on the SEAT if the specification is what we expect, with climate control, sports suspension with adaptive dampers, cruise control, the XDS front electronic diff lock, DAB, Bluetooth and a five-inch colour touchscreen infotainment system all part of the standard equipment (hopefully). Options should include the Media System Plus (with a bigger 6.5-inch screen), satnav, an Alcantara interior pack and Full Link - which supports MirrorLink, Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto platforms.
The changes wrought on the SEAT Ibiza Cupra have transformed it, like the rest of the mildly updated Ibiza range, from a rank outsider to one of the leaders in its segment. It looks sharp, it has a decent, if not hugely exciting cabin, the performance and driving appeal have been improved by the new 1.8-litre petrol engine, the ride is impressive and it promises to be better-equipped and yet possibly cheaper to buy than the leader in this class, the Ford Fiesta ST. That might sound like a winning formula and for many it will be, although we'd say the Fiesta just edges it for outright driving entertainment. No doubt about it, however - the new Ibiza Cupra represents a huge leap forward in terms of overall ability compared to its immediate predecessor.