Its strategy seems to be working because it has a range of products which are good to drive – some of them very good – and are marketed at the right price.
The Cupra badge has been established for high-performance cars in the range, all exclusive models manufactured by SEAT Sport.
Now SEAT is giving the cars one step down the ladder their own identity by creating the FR badge.
The first of these is the Ibiza FR, which will initially be available with a 150bhp turbocharged 1.8-litre engine. Soon the Ibiza 1.9 TDi Sport will be upgraded to FR specification and we are likely to see more of the same across the SEAT range.
The most potent Ibiza to date, the FR will soon be joined by an Ibiza Cupra with 180bhp and a diesel Cupra with more than 150bhp.
The two Cupras will be low volume models, but the FR is likely to achieve a high level of sales and with a much younger target audience than is typical for the sector. SEAT says that in 2002, some 7% of superminis sold across Europe offered 100bhp or more, while 35% of SEAT Ibizas sold fell into that category.
Likewise the proportion of 18 to 29-year-olds buying new Ibizas is twice as high as the rest of the supermini sector.
The UK is one of the four main markets for the Ibiza FR, the others being Spain, Germany and Switzerland.
It differs from the rest of the Ibiza range with shorter gearing – the ratios are unique to the FR – and stiffer springs. When the 1.9 TDi Sport gets the FR treatment it, too, will gain different gearing and the suspension of the petrol model.
The engine is the proven five-valve-per-cylinder 1.8-litre turbocharged unit used across the Volkswagen Group.
While this might sound like money for old rope, the engine has been modified to comply with Euro IV emissions rules and has a higher torque figure than in other incarnations with the same power output.
Like the rest of the Ibiza range, there is the sophisticated speed-sensitive steering, which is part of what SEAT calls the 'agile chassis', which is designed to offer greater feedback and quicker responses.
The Ibiza FR will be available in both three-door and five-door versions and standard equipment includes air conditioning, trip computer, ABS, traction control, four airbags, 16-inch alloy wheels, a CD player and electric windows and door mirrors.
It is due on sale in March priced at £13,500 on-the-road – a few hundred pounds less than the 137bhp Peugeot 206 GTi and more than £1,000 less than the 158bhp MG ZR and 163bhp MINI Cooper S.
Behind the wheel
WE have often pointed out that the supermini sector seems to be split into two styling camps – the 'sober' one with members including the Ford Fiesta, Vauxhall Corsa, Fiat Punto and Volkswagen Polo, and the group of distinctive vehicles like the Nissan Micra, Toyota Yaris, Citroen C3 and Honda Jazz.
The SEAT Ibiza is firmly in the latter camp with an impish face and Alfa Romeo-style rear light clusters.
Large alloy wheels and mesh details at the front give the FR a more aggressive stance than the rest of the range and it is available only in the six paint colours most requested for sporty SEAT models.
The Ibiza has a roomy interior for a small car – sharing its basic architecture with the Skoda Fabia and Volkswagen Polo – and it has some sporty-looking aluminium effect trim around the dials.
Although the ubiquitous 1.8-litre turbocharged engine will be familiar to most users of Volkswagen Group products, we have criticised the 20-valve engine in the past for lacking character.
However, in this case, a tuneful exhaust note and short gearing liven things up a bit and the fun aspects of the Ibiza FR immediately shine through.
Its firm ride does jar slightly over bumps in the road, but for the most part it retains its composure on twisty sections and was a reassuring companion in the wet in the mountains around Madrid. There is plenty of grip on fast, sweeping bends with the merest hint of sideways movement at the limit.
The steering offers plenty of feedback – essential in the difficult driving conditions we experienced – while the 162lb-ft of torque at 2,000rpm guarantees slow traffic is never an obstacle for long.
ATTRACTIVE pricing and a fun driving experience in the Ibiza FR will further strengthen SEAT's growing reputation for affordable and sporty small cars.
Model: Ibiza FR
Engine (cc): 1,781cc turbocharged
Max power (bhp/rpm): 150/5,500
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 162/2,000
Max speed (mph): 134
0-62mph (sec): 8.4
Fuel consumption (mpg): 35.8
CO2 emissions (g/km): 190
Fuel tank capacity (l/gal): 45/9.9
Transmission: 5-sp man
Service interval (miles): 10,000
On sale: March
Price (OTR): £13,500