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Road test: SEAT Ibiza FR. Image by SEAT.

Road test: SEAT Ibiza FR
Active Cylinder Technology means the SEAT Ibiza FR has parsimony to go with the pace.


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Good points: sharp looks, seamless switching to two-cylinder mode

Not so good: lacklustre interior, overly light controls, too close in price to the storming Cupra model

Key Facts

Model tested: SEAT Ibiza FR Technology 1.4 EcoTSI
Price: five-door from 10,445; FR from 14,445; car as tested 18,240
Engine: 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol with Active Cylinder Technology (ACT)
Transmission: front-wheel drive, six-speed manual
Body style: five-door hatchback
CO2 emissions: 112g/km (Band C, 0 VED first 12 months, 30 annually thereafter)
Combined economy: 58.9mpg
Top speed: 137mph
0-62mph: 7.6 seconds
Power: 150hp at 5,000rpm
Torque: 250Nm at 1,500rpm

Our view:

The 2015 model updates enacted on the SEAT Ibiza B-segment hatch might not have visually been revolutionary, but much has changed at the higher end of the Spanish car's model line-up. For a start, the range-topping Cupra performance model has junked the old super- and turbocharged 1.4-litre petrol engine in favour of a straightforward 1.8-litre turbo of 192hp - and it's all the better for it, proving to be one of our preferred alternatives to the effervescent Ford Fiesta ST.

There's also been a change of motive power at the level below the Cupra, where the sporty FR trim grade has a new choice of petrol and diesel engines of varying levels of frugality/punch. The lovely old 1.2-litre TSI four-pot continues in 90- and 110hp formats, although it's likely to be pensioned off soon due to the presence of the 1.0-litre three-cylinder EcoTSI (110hp, from 16,140 as an FR). There's also a three-cylinder 1.4-litre diesel with 105hp, but at 17,335 it seems extremely expensive for what it is. However, your eye cannot help but be drawn to the final alternative, which is an EcoTSI petrol with a fulsome 150hp.

It's a 1.4-litre petrol engine, like that found in the previous Cupra, but its cleverness isn't two different types of forced induction. Instead, what the Ibiza FR has is Active Cylinder Technology (ACT). This means the four-pot EcoTSI can shut off two of its cylinders under light engine loads, in order to conserve fuel. It's a trick seen in a number of other cars, ranging from fellow Volkswagen Group motors like Audi (where it's called Cylinder-on-Demand) right up to the Bentley Continental V8. And it's a trick that the Ibiza FR has had since 2014, although this upgraded 150hp unit is more powerful than ever before and also produces the same maximum torque as the old Cupra at 250Nm.

Clever cylinder tech is the SEAT's USP, then, but does it work? And does the Ibiza FR still convince as a warm hatchback if its engine has a focus on sipping unleaded ahead of offering up maximum driving thrills? The answer to both these questions is 'yes', but that's not an unqualified affirmation. So allow us to explain why the FR just misses the mark.

The Ibiza is seven years old, for a start, which means there are a lot fresher designs in this B-segment marketplace. OK, SEAT tidied the looks once more in 2015, which was the second update for the car during its life cycle, but it can't be ignored that an all-new version must surely be on the way. Don't get us wrong, it still looks crisp and clean on the outside, the FR really working well in a bright colour that accentuates its bespoke body kit and 17-inch Dynamic alloy wheels, and it now has the improved cabin of all Ibizas - the quality of the fixtures is much better, there's more in-car connectivity courtesy of Full Link (Mirror Link, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto) and the FR still benefits from a flat-bottomed steering wheel and sporty seats.

But the SEAT feels cramped in the back and the boot is a modest 292 litres. And for all the improved materials used in the Ibiza's interior, it really isn't a hugely exciting cabin in the way the passenger compartment of a Peugeot 208, MINI or Fiat 500 is; indeed, if you opt for the Spanish car, you're going to have to like an interior colour scheme that seems to be many different shades of the darkest grey on a black background. There also doesn't seem to be a huge amount of personalisation available for the Ibiza, which seems to be an oversight on SEAT's part as this is a key driver in B-segment sales these days.

Driving it is very pleasant, although it's not anything like as entertaining as a warm FR as it is in Cupra specification. There's a lightness to all the major controls that robs the Ibiza of the final degree of interactivity: the steering is slow-witted and rather lifeless; the gearbox moves slickly enough but hasn't got any satisfying weight to it; and the brakes - strong enough, considering higher-spec Ibizas like this FR get discs on the rear axle rather than the drums of base models - never feel like they're biting as hard as you'd like.

Which is not to say the car isn't quick, both in a straight line and along a challenging road. The engine is a little gem and as the FR is 42kg lighter than the Cupra, the sheer grunt of that 150hp/250Nm mill makes it feel not much slower than its big brother. The stats suggest there's nearly a second in it for the 0-62mph sprint and a 9mph difference in top speed, yet the FR feels like it is much closer to the Cupra than those numbers mind have you expect. There's a real zing to the way the engine spins up through its peak torque and homes in on the 5,000rpm point of maximum power, and the soundtrack is sufficiently loud if not inspirational, but essentially the 1.4 EcoTSI feels easily capable of either bombing along a B-road or keeping pace with much bigger, torquier cars on the motorway.

Whereupon you will never, ever discern the engine slipping into two-cylinder mode. The only way you can tell it has switched off a pair of cylinders is via the slightly fuzzy, monochrome digital information display between the dials in the instrument cluster. On certain screens, the legend '2-cylinder mode' lights up along the bottom, whereas on other displays a little 'ECO' light in a round circle is the signifier that half the engine has gone to sleep. And when you brush the throttle again to increase momentum, these lights in the dash extinguish without so much as an accompanying shudder from the drivetrain to tell you that you're back on four cylinders again. It's a remarkable piece of technology that works unobtrusively, allowing the Ibiza (during our 350-mile week with it) to give back 49mpg at a robust 56mph average speed. That's not far off the official figure and an especially good real-world return, considering the Ibiza wasn't driven in a hypermiling manner.

What's frustrating about this excellent drivetrain coupled to numb steering, an overly light gearbox and so-so brakes is that the sports suspension fitted to the FR leads to excellent body control on back roads, without utterly ruining the car's ride quality and composure. The Ibiza's light body also makes for keen turn-in and a feeling of some throttle adjustability too, so it's annoying that the steering never quite gets to the same dynamic level. We know SEAT can do a scintillating chassis: the Cupra versions of the Ibiza and the Leon are proof of that. Shame the FR isn't quite up to snuff.

Crucially, why we're only impressed yet not infatuated with the FR is the minimal price hike to the Cupra. This Chilli Red metallic (530) FR Technology starts at 16,695 and alongside the paint, some very reasonably priced extras were fitted: SEAT Sound System, with six speakers, a boot-mounted sub and an amplifier, costs 155; rear parking sensors, 220; ambient lighting relieves you of a further 60; climate control comes in at 320; the dark-tinted rear windows are a further 160; and then there's 100 for a space saver spare wheel. All told, that means this FR weighs in at 18,240. A basic Ibiza Cupra SC starts from 18,100.

OK, for that you'll have to sacrifice the back pair of doors, but as we've already said, the Ibiza isn't hugely capacious in the rear anyway. And the Cupra doesn't just bring all the extra dynamic goodness of that more potent drivetrain and involving chassis set-up; it also has some additional toys on it too, like bi-Xenon headlights with Adaptive Front Lighting System (AFS), climate control, LED daytime running lights and the SEAT Drive Profile software. Any way you look at it, 16,695 to 18,100 isn't much of a gap to have to bridge.

Perhaps the Ibiza FR's redemption stems from the fact there aren't a huge amount of exciting warm hatches in this sector, manufacturers instead focusing on their top-level B-segment machines. While the likes of the Ford Fiesta ST, Clio Renault Sport 200 EDC Turbo, Peugeot 208 GTi by Peugeot Sport, Volkswagen Polo GTI, Vauxhall Corsa VXR and the Ibiza Cupra duke it out for compact hot hatch honours, there are less obvious competitors to the FR lower down the chain. The Fiesta Red/Black Editions are worth checking out, as they feature a charismatic 140hp 1.0-litre triple motor and stunning Ford chassis know-how, while Vauxhall does a Red Edition Corsa with 150hp and 220Nm - although, at 17,125, the Griffin is hardly a cheap car.

There's no doubt that despite its advancing years, the Ibiza FR 1.4 EcoTSI is highly polished enough in all departments to be justified in taking this pair on and the clever ACT engine is a selling point in itself, but with just a little more attention to dynamic detail, we might have been salivating over this thing. As it is, it's a worthy if somewhat forgettable warm hatchback.


Abarth 595: the most basic Abarth-fettled 500 has 145hp, a much more interesting dashboard and cutesy looks. Starts from 15,090, but has laughable rear seat space and boot capacity.

Ford Fiesta Zetec S Red/Black Edition: similarly eco-focused performance fun, the Ford packing a 1.0-litre triple of 140hp - but it gets surprisingly expensive surprisingly easily.

Renault Clio GT Line: about as pricey as the SEAT, but with a 120hp 1.2-litre turbo, this thing is lacking in the performance stakes when stacked up against the Spaniard.

Matt Robinson - 13 Aug 2016

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2016 SEAT Ibiza FR. Image by SEAT.2016 SEAT Ibiza FR. Image by SEAT.2016 SEAT Ibiza FR. Image by SEAT.2016 SEAT Ibiza FR. Image by SEAT.2016 SEAT Ibiza FR. Image by SEAT.


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