Perhaps it is Seat’s turn to become an upsetting influence within the halls of Volkswagen Group muses Iain Robertson, while pondering over the relevance of Cupra, as a brand offshoot, at a time when non-EV diversions bubble furiously.
Rubbishing the relevance and over-eagerness attached to the field of electrification is not an element of my remit. In truth, I prefer to critique the fact that Seat dares to market a ‘fresh’ brand with abundant clues to its origins, when it could be argued that it has not really established its primary course. Just look at the mess in which Citroen finds itself, since the launch of DS as a separate marque. Like Seat, the DS origins are clear but so is the consumer confusion. Of course, some of those brand bunnies truly have more money than sense and acquire examples, even though the price tag is fatter and the residuals are slimmer.
Regardless, I like Seat but, even given some corporate reasoning, which suggested that Cupra would be its performance and electric arm, does not really cut the mustard, especially as ALL new cars are set to be EVs come ‘E-Day’ in 2030. While I am sure that this must be exasperating for each and every carmaker, perhaps it is the influence of Porsche, another of the Group marques, that is holding some sway. Porsche perceives a future issue with the potential loss of the very flat-six (and flat-four) engineering signature that constitutes its existence. As a result, despite producing an all-electric supercar, it is deeply involved in formulating a non-fossil fuel that may have underpinning benefits for the entire ICE performance car market. Time will tell on that score.
Apart from the alchemy of copper accents (not to be confused with a Mockney ‘Allo, allo, allo…’) both inside and outside of the Formentor, extending to coppering the alloy wheels, Akebono brake callipers and even all four tailpipes, which is little more than a cupric play on words, even though it looks different and looks good, the top trim VZ5 model is more closely related to the Audi RS3 than Seat might like to admit. None of the other VW brands share the magnificent 385bhp 2.5-litre 5-cylinder turbocharged petrol power unit that provides Audi with an audible link to its rallying past. Having enjoyed this unit in both RS3 and slightly punchier TTRS forms (it also powers the RSQ3 SUV), I can tell you that it is a real beauty, capable of blisteringly urgent power delivery, accompanied by subtle burps and farts that highlight its tightly bottled potency.
Seat, sorry, Cupra informs us that a mere 7,000 examples, all in left-hand drive form, will be produced. Why? Is the company lacking in confidence to sell more? Does it want to alienate the heartland of the UK market that accorded it earlier infamy, when it was just the Cupra model of a Seat range? Could it generate a following, like the original Golf GTi, or Audi Ur Quattro? Named after the northernmost tip of Spanish island, Majorca, where there is little more than a lighthouse but one of the most challenging and exciting roads to reach it, while Formentor creates a quandary it is supporting the querulousness of the entire Cupra brand message.
Well, we already know the engine, which is mated to a 7-speed DSG automated-manual transmission and drives all four wheels, quattro-like but essential to maintain moderate road manners, without displays of unruly wheelspin and irrepressible understeer. VZ5 sits on 20.0-inch diameter alloy wheels, which contain the huge, bespoke 18-inch diameter slotted and ventilated brake rotors and their 6-pot callipers for maximum stopping performance. By way of trying to keep the car on the island, its suspension is lowered by 10mm and the logic of its selectable driving mode technology now provides no less than 15 settings of the variable rate dampers. While the default ‘comfort’ level is still sportily firm, the other extreme might make the car eligible for a race circuit workout but is unlikely to find many fans, whom will also have found the purported £50k price tag a little harsh.
As a performance car, its credentials are on the money. Capable of despatching the 0-60mph sprint in cool 3.9s before accelerating to its electronically limited maximum of 155mph, I wonder why Cupra has not allowed its clear umbrella model to share the higher but similarly restricted top whack of the TTRS? If you are so enamoured by the VZ5, I am sure that your local, friendly Audi dealer might be encouraged to crack open his box of tricks and effect an ECU upgrade.
Although the VW Group family look is only corrupted slightly by way of a pair of circular foglamps in the lower front bumper, the Golf parts bin has been raided for the racier front bucket seats, complete with four-point harness loops in the upper edges of the tombstones. The dashboard is all but identical, apart from the shiny copper highlights, to that of the rest of the VW Group models in this segment, with a large digital touchscreen atop the centre stack and a smaller configurable digi-screen ahead of the driver. All of the control switchgear follows the now typical pattern, from rocker switch gearlever and paddle shifters, to the headlamp control block, with its annoying sliders, both column stalks and steering wheel touch-buttons. In many respects, this level of commonality is both welcome and safe.
Naturally, safety is at the heart of this coupe-form SUV, with wheel rotation, steering angle and yaw sensors all aiding the status quo. As a top-line model, its complement of ADAS driving aids is maxed-out and its connectivity is bang up-to-date. Yet, you need to peer lower down the Formentor line-up to find evidence of electrification; this is the strictly limited, in all respects, VZ5 version, for which I can allow a small yelp of satisfaction in respect of its not quite ‘last gasp’ performance aspirations.
Conclusion: No carmaker is going to be happy with critics ‘dissing’ its output but, if it wants to avoid it, Seat needs to create clear delineation between its ‘sister’ model lines, if it intends that potential customers are to take it seriously.