An excellent first independent effort
It was a time when SEAT made pretty terrible cars.
This dates back to the days after its founding in May 1950 as a joint venture between the Spanish government, Italian carmaker Fiat and two private Spanish banks. In fact, until 1986 when the government decided to sell it to the Volkswagen Group, it had gotten pretty good at making bad cars.
The Spaniards fell out with the Italians in 1982 and SEAT began building cars itself shortly afterwards, although there was great sadness when its first standalone car, the Ronda, sparked a lawsuit over its similarity to the Fiat Ritmo. Volkswagen soon stepped in, first through two collaborative projects and then, in 1986, through a complete buyout.
While the company’s production and quality of its products improved so quickly that Seat was getting rave reviews for cars like Ibiza, Leon and many others. Access to VW’s spare parts box for engines, gearboxes and other running gear effectively transformed the brand.
However, it has never shaken off its past, and while the quality of the product it made is unrecognizable from what came before, punters always seem to treat SEAT products in the same way they would treat products from a charity shop.
This was especially unfair because their engineering standards had become excellent, and the sudden longevity of their cars made them unrecognizable from previous efforts. However, there was a feeling among outsiders that the brand needed something vital and new to reboot.
The introduction of Cupra as a standalone brand under the SEAT umbrella in 2018 suggested that change was afoot, and in September of this year it was finally announced that by 2030 the SEAT brand itself would cease to exist, to be replaced solely by Cupra. Models.
People questioned the reasons and motives for such a move, but the simple fact was that the new Cupra brand was completely untainted in people’s minds by the checkered past that SEAT had endured, and was virtually a clean sheet of paper for the company.
So, how did Cupra differentiate itself from Seat? Well, the most noticeable thing during the five years of its existence was the quality of the product and the dramatic repositioning of the brand in the minds of customers.
It describes itself as “an unconventional challenger brand, based on motivating style and contemporary performance that inspires the world from Barcelona with progressive cars and experiences”, and to be honest, that’s much more of the truth than just plain PR nonsense.
We’ve complained in these columns about the lack of penetration Cobra has made so far in the public consciousness – especially because the quality of the product is so good – but it’s coming quickly and this week’s test is likely one of the best things the brand has done so far.
What we have here is the Cupra Formentor and the version we tested was the e-Hybrid version. The car itself is a mid-sized SUV with nominal rivals like the Volvo XC40 and Audi Q3 – both of which are premium products and it gives you an idea of where Cupra is going here.
The thing about the Formentor is that although it’s nominally classified as an SUV – and one of those fearsome coupe SUVs – it’s actually more like a high-riding car than anything else, and seems to be taking some cues from the likes of the new Peugeot 408 or Its sister, the Citroen C5X, both seem to have rewritten the rule book when it comes to SUV design.
It’s longer than its Ateca sibling, but has a lower roofline and a much longer bonnet. It sits on 18-inch alloy wheels pushed into the corners, while Cupra’s trademark copper color flourishes from the badging to the flash on the wheels beautifully complement the car’s Magnetic Tech metallic paint.
Looking like a quality product is one thing, while being a product is a whole different thing. This is a trick that the Formentor pulls off with ease, as not only does the exterior indicate its elevated status, but the internal rubber stamps it as well.
The cockpit is really plush, and although the front seats may be awkward for some, they are actually really comfortable and have a massage function too. Copper trim throughout the car adds a sense of luxury, and the finishes on the dashboard, center console and steering wheel confirm that suspicion.
A great deal of cross-fertilization is expected with VW products, and there is a lot of commonality that can be seen in the cabin – the “nub” gear selector, the infotainment system and the digital instrumentation, which are all good apart from the “sliding controls like volume and temperatures.” , the disadvantages of which have been well documented so far.
On the road the Formentor is taut, direct and without a vice. The 1.4 petrol engine produces 150bhp on its own, and the 85kW engine adds another 115bhp, giving the system a total power output of 245bhp, a top speed of 205km/h, and a 0-100km/h acceleration time of 7.9 seconds. And they’re all suitably fast. The gearbox is six-speed automatic.
The 54km all-electric range is on the easy and useful side, and if your daily commute is short you’ll be able to drive on electricity alone, but that evaporates quickly. As always, the petrol economy claims are ridiculous, but you should see a return of 5.2 l/100 km (53 mpg).
But the combination of this powertrain and sports suspension makes for a very enjoyable car to travel, and the ride and handling are very much of the sporty variety.
It’s been said that Cupra’s entire plan was along the lines of creating a Spanish Alfa Romeo, and on this evidence, the brand seems on track to achieve just that – a premium sporting product, but without the Italian bent. Let you down.
Associating a sporting figure with one that is so dependable seems to me like something that would tickle a lot of gamblers and attract an increasing number of them into the Spanish fold.
Although it is undoubtedly an ambitious project and only in its infancy, this is something that certainly has the potential to turn into something very good indeed if handled correctly. And nothing in the Volkswagen Group’s history suggests it will be done any other way.
This fact makes Cupra’s future look rather bright and the Formentor – as the brand’s first standalone product – also points in this direction.