10 December 2016 ~ 0 Comments

Twin test: SEAT Ibiza Cupra vs Volkswagen Polo GTI

PoloDriver.com contributor, motoring writer, engagesportmode.com editor and Polo GTI owner John Redfern weighs up the pros and cons of two seemingly similar Spanish-built Volkswagen Group hot hatchbacks

2016 Volkswagen Polo GTI and SEAT Ibiza Cupra

This is evidently a subjective area, and neither Cupra nor GTI could be considered unattractive designs. Whether you prefer the basic Polo or Ibiza shape is personal taste, so we concentrated on the actual effort made to transform regular supermini into a hot hatch.

So what sets the GTI apart is the fact it looks more bespoke compared to the rest of the Polo range. From the red trim running across the grille into the headlights, to the honeycomb mesh and the GTI branding, it feels more special. Yes, it might be a scaled-down pastiche of the Golf GTI, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

On the other hand, the Ibiza Cupra struggles to separate itself from the hundreds of FR-badged imitators. Where it does differ is often through fussy styling, like the trapezoidal centre-exit exhaust or fake vents in the rear bumper. It’s still a good-looking car, but doesn’t quite do enough to make things feel distinctive.

Take the gloss black alloy wheels fitted to this Cupra Black test car, and compare them to the multi-spoke items, with diamond cut elements, on the GTI. Whether you like them is a matter of taste, but it exemplifies the extra attention to detail and sense of occasion found on the transformation of the Polo into a GTI.

Winner: GTI

Volkswagen Group interiors have long held a reputation for strong design and build quality. That doesn’t change when it gets to the Cupra and GTI, but subtle distinctions between them still exist.

As with the exterior, the Polo GTI edges ahead with a cabin that manages to have a greater sense of occasion. It starts with the ‘Jacara’ (or tartan) seats, and extends to the red stitching on the gear knob and steering wheel. The addition of piano black trim helps break up a sea of charcoal, as do the extra chrome elements.

Unlike the GTI there’s no additional trim to separate acres of grained black plastic. It could be a Cupra, or it could be a base-spec E, there’s no real feeling of delineation. Where the Ibiza does score an advantage is with seats that will go lower to the floor, and ultimately feel more cosseting than those in the GTI. Get back in the Polo and the sense of extra seat height is palpable – blame the extra storage drawers hiding underneath for that.

Fundamentally the Polo GTI feels more expensive, looks more expensive, and persuades you that VW were inclined to try that little bit harder in making it feel unique.

Winner: GTI

Same 1.8-litre TSI engine and, unsurprisingly, the same official performance figures for both. Drive them back-to-back, or have someone drive the other one alongside, and you’ll be extremely hard-pressed to say one is faster than the other.

The Cupra does, however, have a slightly sharper initial throttle pedal response and feels ever so marginally quicker in terms of initial acceleration. Conversely, the GTI seems to have a fraction more lag before the torque kicks in. It is a very subtle difference, and one that could only really be detected driving one immediately after the other.

More noticeable is the lighter clutch pedal and gearbox of the Cupra, which removes an extra degree of effort that’s needed in the GTI. The Polo’s gearbox is still accurate but needs more force to shift cogs, whilst the clutch is also heavier.

Both cars here feature Sport modes that sharpen the throttle response and provoke more noise from the interior sound actuator. As noted in our review, the Cupra makes a slightly strange offbeat tone, whilst the GTI sounds more conventional. Despite the Cupra’s fancy tailpipe design, it’s the GTI that actually makes more noise from the exhaust itself.

The 1.8-litre TSI engine is an impressive unit in both applications and, so nuanced are the differences, we’re calling this round a tie.

Winner: draw

Handling / ride / brakes
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first – a Ford Fiesta ST would most likely have greater handling prowess and accuracy than either of these two. With that dispensed with, for all the similarities in construction the Cupra and GTI manage to end up with definitively different driving experiences.

With lighter steering, and suspension that’s more forgiving, the Ibiza Cupra manages to feel easier to drive than the GTI. This is even more noticeable when combined with the lighter gearbox and clutch, along with the sharper throttle response, as noted above.

Drive the GTI and you’ll be met with steering that feels substantially heavier, especially in Sport Mode, and with suspension that can often feel too stiff on the worst roads. Push it quickly across country roads and you’ll be aware that the GTI is asking you to do more than if you were in the Cupra.

Let’s be perfectly clear – this is all in a relative sense. Driving the Polo GTI is obviously not like wrestling some old-school muscle car. It’s still a modern, supermini-derived, Volkswagen Group hot hatch. But it adds an extra layer of physicality over the Cupra, which is surprising given the shared platform and components underneath them both.

It’s that additional sense of effort, and the requirement to work just that little bit harder, which makes the GTI more rewarding. Yes, the Cupra is easier to live with, but shouldn’t a hot hatch still have some degree of edge to it, even in 2016?

Winner: GTI

2016 Volkswagen Polo GTI and SEAT Ibiza Cupra

Perhaps the easier place to start is with the extra goodies the Cupra gets for free that the GTI asks you to pay for.

Pick the Spanish-branded car and you’ll get: cruise control, automatic wipers, automatic headlights, electronic climate control, LED taillights, electric folding door mirrors, and the Sport mode button as standard. Plump for the Cupra Black specification and you’ll also benefit from satellite navigation and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity.

All of the above are optional extras on the GTI, which seems to aspire to the Audi School of stingy standard kit. The Polo does at least benefit from ultra-bright LED headlights, compared to the bi-xenon units found on the Cupra. Weirdly, it’s also the only car here to have roof-mounted interior grab handles.

Sadly, not even dampened handholds can help the GTI. The Cupra is far more generous, packing in features that really should be standard on the Polo GTI.

Winner: Cupra

2016 Volkswagen Polo GTI and SEAT Ibiza Cupra

Based on the above, you can quite possibly predict where this round is going already. The basic Ibiza Cupra starts at £18,100, whilst the cheapest three-door, manual, Polo GTI begins at £19,235. Yes, £1,125 is what buys you the extra exterior design and interior styling – plus the VW GTI badging. The Cupra Black still undercuts the Polo, with a basic price of £18,900.

Should you wish to spec’ your GTI up to the same equipment level as the Cupra, you’ll need to add around £1,420 worth of options. Aim to emulate the Cupra Black, with sat nav and MirrorLink, and that’ll require a further £830 extra, resulting in a Polo GTI costing over £21,000!

Make the inevitable turn to PCP finance and, like-for-like, things are slightly less clear-cut. The GTI benefits from better residual values, resulting in lower final balloon payments, but the Cupra receives more generous deposit contributions from SEAT. Plus, with the myriad of offers from dealers and brokers, you can most likely tailor a finance deal on either car to fit your budget.

It’s also worth pointing out that the Polo GTI has the options of the more practical five-door bodyshell, along with the DSG dual-clutch gearbox. The Ibiza is a three-door with a manual gearbox, or nothing.

On a side note, Volkswagen has the most frustratingly slow and clumsy online configurator. That alone should probably stop it from winning here, but the stronger pricing of the Cupra prevents that anyway.

Winner: Cupra

2016 Volkswagen Polo GTI and SEAT Ibiza Cupra

Viewed objectively, the cheaper and better-equipped Cupra should do just enough to snatch the win. But a car isn’t always an empirical purchase. Emotion and excitement are just as important as how much it’ll cost per month.

In fact, we’d be inclined to argue that those subjective elements are even more important on a car like a hot hatchback. That’s why we would give the nod to the Polo GTI. Money aside, it feels more alive, more aggressive and asks more from you to drive it quickly. You also gain the invaluable brand cache of owning a Volkswagen GTI – that alone may swing it for many buyers.

Both are good cars, and both benefit from a brawny engine. But, fundamentally, it’s the Polo that does the most with that muscular powertrain and generates the bigger hot hatch experience.

Overall winner: Polo GTI

2016 Volkswagen Polo GTI and SEAT Ibiza Cupra

2016 SEAT Ibiza Cupra
Engine: 1.8-litre, four-cylinder TSI petrol
Power: 189bhp
Torque: 236lb ft (manual)
0-62mph: 6.7 seconds
Top speed: 146mph
Economy (combined cycle): 45.6
CO2: 145g/km
Base price: £18,100

2016 Volkswagen Polo GTI

Engine: 1.8-litre, four-cylinder TSI petrol
Power: 189bhp
Torque: 236lb ft (manual)
0-62mph: 6.7 seconds
Top speed: 146mph
Economy (combined cycle): 47.1
CO2: 140g/km
Base price: £19,235

Read more about performance cars and celebrate the joy of all things automotive and the pleasure of driving anything fast or slow, cheap or expensive, new or old at John’s website, engagesportmode.com, where this test has been reproduced from with kind permission.

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