By Glenn Brooks | 6 August 2013

The top-spec Cupra is available only in SC (three-door) form

The top-spec Cupra is available only in SC (three-door) form

With sales up 19% in H1 over the first six months of 2012, SEAT UK is on course for a record year. Leading the charge is the Ibiza, the brand's best seller. Glenn Brooks tries the latest Cupra 1.4 TSI DSG variant.

The fourth generation of this B-segment hatchback and estate model range is this month celebrating its fifth year of production at SEAT's Martorell plant in north eastern Spain. Last year, we saw a facelifted model launched at the Geneva show, followed by an updated Cupra derivative at the end of the year.

Behind the ongoing success of the brand has been the introduction of three new models since 2012: Mii, Toledo and León, as well as the updated Ibiza range and its Cupra flagship, a car which commands what initially seems like a fairly steep price of GBP18,570. In fact, the press vehicle I tested is listed at GBP20,570 thanks to the optional rear parking sensors (GBP215), a two-tone part-leather seat pack (GBP785) and AP racing brakes (GBP1,000).

The Cupra is up against the equally new Fiesta ST, a superb little car, as well as the older Vauxhall Corsa VXR. This segment has really come alive in recent months, with Ford of Britain having just announced that it has taken 3,000 orders for the hot Fiesta since it went on sale in March. That has also meant a 15% rise in production to 60 cars a day at the Niehl-Cologne plant which builds all of Europe's Fiestas.

The Ibiza Cupra is available only as a three-door hatchback, something it shares with its European market rivals from Ford and Opel/Vauxhall. The similarities end when it comes to powertrains. The SEAT employs the Volkswagen Group's 1.4 TSI 180PS turbocharged and supercharged engine, which gets the car to 62mph in 6.9 seconds and on to a top speed of 142mph. The official average fuel economy is quoted as 47.9mpg, CO2 is 139g/km and the VED band is E.

You might be surprised to hear that the standard transmission is an automatic, though it's the seven-speed DSG dual clutch gearbox that's found in multiple VW Group models. The default setting is auto and to change ratios manually, there are well positioned paddle shifters behind the steering wheel. If you hit traffic and want the car to return to operating as an automatic, just hold the right paddle and 'D' is selected. While almost all shifts were super-quick, I did find that occasionally the gearbox took a second or two before it was happy to move into reverse. This only happened when parking so possibly it was a software glitch.

As for the car's design, the Cupra brings with its high-gloss black mirrors as well as 17-inch wheels which show off those red AP brake callipers I mentioned earlier. You also get bi-xenon headlights, fog lamps which double as cornering lights, and LED bulbs for the DRLs and tail-lights.

Inside, there's a special steering wheel to mark this out as the sporting flagship, as well as an audio system that is enhanced by what is referred to as the SEAT Portable System. The unit, which debuted in the Mii city car, sits on the top of the dashboard and looks like a SatNav monitor. While it is integrated into the vehicle electronics system, it can also be removed to deter would-be thieves or even to use as a mobile device (or a torch!). Functions include SatNav, Bluetooth audio streaming, a Micro SD card slot for music storage, hands-free phone system with voice control, and an on-board computer. Should you want to, there's even the ability to personalise the screen with a pic of your own choosing.

Those behind you will also be able to instantly identify this as the top-spec Ibiza as CUPRA is picked out in large silver letters, plus there is a matte black diffuser and a triangular-shaped exhaust finisher. Other standard equipment over and above 'FR', the next model grade down, extends to bespoke bumpers, climate control, rain-sensing wipers, and a pair of unique front sports seats.

As noted in the intro above, the addition of the Cupra to the UK Ibiza range comes at a time of ever greater success for SEAT UK. Of the record 22,752 cars sold in the first half of this year, 10,198 were Ibizas. The new León five-door, which has only been on sale for a few months, follows it with 5,096 registrations.

According to the SMMT's data, SEAT's UK operations have enjoyed consecutive annual sales rises over the last five years. The total for 2012 was 38,798 vehicles, around 10,000 more than were sold in 2008. Considering that the three-door León SC has just joined the range, with the ST (estate) set to follow in the fourth quarter, the brand does seem almost guaranteed to end the year with yet another sales record having been attained.

It isn't just here where SEAT is doing well. Although the company no longer talks about China as a potential high-growth market due to slow sales of its imported models, sales are up in Mexico, the only country in North America where the brand exists. In Germany too, there has been a steady stream of good news, with deliveries running at 38,200 for the first half of this year versus 28,400 for H1, 2012. That 34% rise, plus the role played by the improvement in the UK and other major markets has meant an overall 11.5% YoY gain for global deliveries to 182,100 (163,300). Underlining the importance of European markets to the brand, sales in this region accounted for 150,000 (139,100; +8.2%).

What still remains to be seen is a solid level of profitability. The Volkswagen Group's accounts for H1 reveal an operating loss of EUR40 million for SEAT, which was a two million euro improvement over H1, 2012. So what can be done? The collapse of its home market has been a disaster for SEAT but last month, thanks to government incentives, car sales in Spain showed the first signs of recovery. Considering that the Spanish new car market has shrunk to around a third of the size it reached in the debt bubble years, SEAT's losses don't seem excessive.

Volkswagen does seem willing to play the long game with its Iberian subsidiary, patiently but firmly guiding it towards sustainable profitability by later this decade. As has been clear by the flurry of vehicle launches in the last year, there is a major investment programme going on for new SEAT models.

The Ibiza might be now into the second half of its lifecycle but it's still selling very well indeed. The current car dates to 2008 and uses the AO5 platform, which it introduced. Its successor is likely due in late 2014 or 2015 and should be the first vehicle on an architecture that will also be used for the next Fabia, Polo and A1.

Some older models will be phased out soon: Martorell is due to end production of the slow selling Exeo this summer and it won't be directly replaced, while the Altea series (Altea, XL and Freetrack), which dates as far back as 2004, is also for the chop.

Expect a mid-cycle update for the Alhambra next year and then towards the end of 2014, a vehicle which could well lift SEAT's overall volume quite substantially - a crossover/SUV in the C segment, i.e. a Qashqai rival. Remember the Tribu concept from the 2007 Frankfurt IAA, and then the IBX at the 2011 Geneva show? Factor in this potential additional model and SEAT could well be looking at reaching the magic half a million vehicle sales per year as soon as 2015.