New Cupra Formentor sounds formidable, or perhaps it is just unhappy with taking a back Seat.
Pondering over the potential of VW’s Seat division as a malcontent, Iain Robertson can see its value but not the premium status of its sub-plot Cupra and the latest model to carry the ‘jagged’ cuprous image, complete with an up to £44k price tag and plug-in electrification.
It is not so long ago that Seat was the Iberian acronym for affordable transportation. During Franco’s dictatorship, the ‘great’ Generalissimo recognised the cachet of domestic branding, even though none of his mostly unwilling subjects could afford much more than a rotovator with donkey-cart. It was a familiar story, because Skoda, another brand saved from the fire by Volkswagen, had its hands full of Muscovites, who were only too happy to drive Moskvitches, because they did not know any better.
Naturally, Franco’s demise and the Russkis forced out of the Czech Republic by a poet saviour and upstart students gave both nations a chance to thrive in a big, bad commercial world, although choosing the right direction may not necessarily have been such a God-given thing. Fortunately, Renault did not succeed in its bid to acquire Skoda but Seat had a Fiat spectre looming in its timeline, which knocked back its restart point by a considerable margin. In both cases, VW proved to be the upwardly mobile operator that was admirable for its own tough upbringing.
Yet, as VW has grown to become the world’s No.1 carmaker, it has become increasingly afraid of its own immense shadow and the inevitable corporate mentality has taken over, which has the effect of creating infighting and a lack of brand creativity. While Seat’s marketing talks excitedly about the coupe stance of the Cupra Formentor, in reality it is little better than the latest Ford Kuga, which shares the family hatchback-on-stilts, Focus vs. Leon thing and is, therefore, as far removed from uniquely appealing as it can be.
Using copper rather than chrome for the magpie elements is a nice twist but Nissan has been down this street before, if perhaps with not as much commitment as Cupra (which, at least, has the name for it). However, just as DS is to Citroen, Cupra’s fizzling attempt to grow a sub-brand appears to be experiencing similar growth pains and is simply unconvincing at this stage. While I elucidate my thoughts, they are unlikely to be unique and the last thing that an aspirational brand, or even sub-brand needs is behind hand chattering.
Using V and VZ for the trim designations is ‘different’ but the packaging is so heavily reliant on Volkswagen’s corporate parts bins that either parental brand familiarity will carry Cupra across the winning-line, or fears of another ‘Dieselgate’ will stymie all future prospects; there exists both good and bad in this equation. Yet, taking Formentor on its own merits, it is a handsome machine possessing subtle slivers of design dynamism that warrant its place in the new car scene, even if the price tag may come across as slightly scary. Cupra needs another coat-peg.
It is not a novelty for Seat to emit a whiff of ‘value-added’ to its model ranges. When the Alhambra people-carrier was introduced, not long after the Ford Galaxy and VW Sharan, it was the example with standard air-con but the lower price point. Cupra is boasting a value-packed specification across its six variants (V1, V2, VZ1, VZ2, VZ3 and VZ Edition). For what it is worth, as standard on V1 trim, customers receive 18.0-inch diameter alloy wheels, 12.0-inch infotainment touchscreen with connected navigation, 10.0-inch digital driver binnacle, LED headlights, rain-sensing wipers, adaptive cruise control, wireless smartphone charger, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and rear parking sensors (that are not hide covered!). The name VZ comes from the word ‘Veloz’ in Spanish, which translates as ‘Speed’ or ‘Fast’, which is also a tad cliché…
The VW oily bits start with the popular, 147bhp, 1.5-litre petrol-turbo motor, although the plug-in hybrid variant uses, for some VW-inexplicable reason, the same power, 1.4-litre turbo-petrol engine mated to an 85kW electric motor and 13kWh lithium-ion battery pack, tuned to provide a maximum of either 201, or 241bhp and to provide a maximum EV-only range of around 30-miles. The 2.0-litre TSi engine is available in either 187bhp form, or boosted to a whopping 306bhp for the highest grade Formentor, complete with 7-speed twin-clutch, automated-manual transmission, driving all four wheels. Believe me, it needs the grunt, because it is lugging around quite a lot of hardware.
According to Seat, sorry, Cupra, the Formentor has been designed and engineered to deliver a performance-orientated drive, delivered, in part, by the front MacPherson struts and multi-link rear suspension set-up to enable the intuitive dynamic responses required during enthusiastic driving. Of course, once again, there is nothing new here and being basically identical to the Golf GTi, it all works exceptionally well.
Even the wonderful Adaptive Chassis Control (DCC) that monitors the road surfaces and driver inputs, to make imperceptible changes in responses that guarantee surefootedness in most conditions, while delivering the most engaging drive, is familiar VW fayre. Even its new slider control that alters not only the dampers but also the steering, throttle and brakes, is directly from the ‘Golfate’ and already applied to the latest Skoda Octavia models. For what it is worth, unless you wish to incur dental costs, stick to the Normal setting.
The 4Drive models utilise an electro-hydraulic multi-disc traction system, made by Haldex, that analyses road conditions in real time and delivers power to the wheels with the most traction. Torque can be controlled across the axle thanks to the EDS electronic aid, which locks any wheel slippage and ensures that excess power is not lost in wheelspin. For broader performance figures, just check any of the VW regular brands.
Conclusion: If Cupra is to stand half-a-chance of survival, it needs to create standalone models of such phenomenal merit that they become eye-openers. Showroom appeal is important but gifting the sub-brand an unique range of capabilities is the only way by which it can grow and excite the market. Following the corporate edict may provide short-term profitability but is ultimately unproductive.