FR is SEAT’s sporty sub-brand that sits below its Cupra models in the performance hierarchy, having attracted a loyal following over the past few years on a series of Ibizas and Leons. So how sporty does it feel when those two letters are attached to the less glamorous 5-door Ibiza shell and equipped with a turbo diesel engine?
Well, here’s the surprise – it actually feels like an accomplished, engaging package and one which is limited by few compromises.
Those subdued, mature looks of the 5-door hatchback Ibiza have been gently massaged to appear a little more butch than those of its lesser brethren. In come chunkier bumpers, 17” alloy wheels, silver painted door mirror housings, twin tailpipes and a smattering of black and red FR badging. It’s a subtle transformation that whilst not shouting “powerrrrrr” at the top of its lungs, it nevertheless gives it an air of purpose.
The interior remains similar to the others in the range, save for being darkened with near-black mouldings and hip hugging seats. Again, construction of the materials used is pleasingly good, it just lacks that depth of quality that rivals, including those within the Volkswagen empire, present to expectant fingertips.
As a practical proposition for smaller families, the Ibiza FR is fine, offering decent room up front and a reasonably spacious rear, with easy access to child restraints through the sensibly sized and shaped back doors. That bulbous rear styling theme provides a commodious 292l of cargo capacity with the seats upright, growing to a useful 554l with them tumbled.
The sombre looking cabin is also very well equipped with cruise control, heated seats, climate control, leather wrapped steering wheel and gear knob, rear privacy glass, and automatic lights and wipers being of particular note.
Out on the road, the Ibiza FR TDI feels much more in keeping with SEAT’s sporty ethos, offering verve and willingness to perform when the accelerator pedal has demands made of it. The suspension has been tuned to offer enthusiastic drivers a more compelling package for tackling twisty roads, which it does well, managing to feel composed and at one with the asphalt without ride quality suffering in the process – it’s firm without being jarring.
The electrically assisted variable rate power steering offers good feedback and sharp responses too, turning in precisely and offering enough grip for all but the hardest of drivers before the inevitable breakaway into understeer kicks in. Most drivers will enjoy being able to chuck the Ibiza FR about, knowing it will remain engaged with the road and not snap back to bite them.
The prospect of a sporty car with a turbo diesel engine is no longer an alien concept, the unit in the Ibiza proving powerful and torquey, if not rev happy. It’s the same 141bhp common rail unit fitted to the larger Exeo saloon and estate, providing a 130mph theoretical top speed and a 0-60 sprint a shade over 8 seconds.
The TDI engine feels much more willing and flexible under the Ibiza’s bonnet than the Exeo’s, serving strong acceleration in any of the six manually-selected ratios, with surges of torque available from low down in the rev range. As far as a diesel unit can sound sporting in the traditional sense, this one does, offering an aural bellow with a little oil-burning clatter.
This latest common rail injected engine provides great economy as well as strong performance, with a very impressive claimed combined cycle figure of 60.1mpg. The fuel computer on the short drive suggested this would be achievable too, as it flicked back and forth from mid-40s to mid-70s mpg depending upon the angle of attack on the throttle.
On paper and on the road, the 5-door Ibiza FR 2.0 TDI CR 143PS has the ingredients of being a fine, sporting small hatch. It’s well equipped, has strong performance, handles engagingly and provides great economy too. And whilst those cheaper feeling bits of trim may be overlooked if it was priced competitively, the £17,720 sticker places it amidst some very stiff competition, including the aging but still well-respected Clio RenaultSport 200. Suddenly it doesn’t feel quite such a compelling package.
On Sunday 2 October, SEAT invited a small group of predominantly online motoring writers to experience a selection of its models, using the Aviator Hotel in Farnborough as its base. The #SEATtweetUP was the first such event of its kind organised by a major manufacturer.
Thumbs Up: Excellent mix of performance and economy, engaging handling, generously equipped
Thumbs Down: Styling of 5-door model, pricey compared with rivals
Model Tested: SEAT Ibiza FR 2.0 TDI CR 143PS
Top Speed: 130mph
Average fuel consumption: 60.1mpg
CO2 emissions: 123g/km
Engine size: 4/1968cc common rail fuel injection turbo diesel
Price: £17,720 (June 2011)
All photographs © SEAT 2011 – not of actual model tested and for illustrative purposes only