A three model line-up, including the standalone Formentor crossover SUV, is set to launch locally in 2022 at prices between $40,000 and $60,000. Greg Kable gets the first look at a brand you will quickly become familiar with.
- VZ5 performance is formidable
- Range and indicated pricing looks to be sharp
- VZ5’s drift mode is track-day ready
- Progressive steering could be sharper at the limit
- Sporting ride and dynamic ability means firmness on poor surfaces
- VZ5 not for Australia…
Cupra might not be a car brand you’re at all familiar with, but efforts are underway to ensure you soon will be.
Operated by Spanish carmaker Seat, itself one of 12 different brands owned and run by Volkswagen, the three-year-old company has confirmed plans to enter the Australian market during the second quarter of 2022 with a three-strong range of models – a hatchback and two SUVs with various drivetrain options – positioned at the lower end of the premium-brand ranks.
The move is part of a bid to take Cupra global as a rival to the likes of Alfa Romeo among other sporting premium brands. The idea being for it to build on standard Seat models, which are no longer sold in Australia, with distinctive design, performance-led attributes, a range of contemporary electrification measures, and equipment levels consummate to the perceived competition all described as core attributes.
The Cupra name has been used on more powerful Seat models since 1996. As a brand in its own right, though, it operates under its own unique logo – an inverted triangle in a copper colour that features prominently on the front and rear of each Cupra model.
|Key details||2022 Cupra Formentor VZ5|
|Colour of test car||Candy White|
|Price as tested||N/A|
|Rivals||Audi RSQ3/BMW X2 M35i/Mercedes GLA45 S|
Based in Barcelona, it has already started an aggressive push for sales and market share in Europe, where Cupra currently offers four different models in the form of the Leon, Leon Sportstourer, Ateca and Formentor.
The former three are extensions of the same models sold under the Seat name. The latter, though, is Cupra’s first standalone model – a development its head of product marketing, Carlos Galindo, says we’ll be seeing more of as the three-year-old brand strives to increase sales and achieve its goal of a 20 per cent share of annual Seat sales.
“Our ultimate goal is to have our own individual models separate to those from Seat,” he says.
Under difficult conditions in 2020, Cupra’s worldwide sales totaled 27,400 units – an 11 per cent increase on 2019. This figure has already been exceeded in 2021, with Cupra recording 28,700 sales up to the end of May, which Galindo reveals was the company’s seventh consecutive month of record sales.
|2022 Cupra Formentor VZ5|
“We exceeded our goal of one billion Euros in turnover in June 2021 thanks largely to the Formentor, which is already accounting for two out of every three sales in Europe,” he says.
There’s more to Cupra’s plans, though. Later this year, the new brand will launch its first pure-electric model, the Born. Based on the newly launched Volkswagen ID.3, it heads a future line-up of electric models, including a production version of the Cupra Tavascan concept – itself based on the upcoming Volkswagen ID.5 and planned for introduction in 2024.
With the name Cupra derived from Seat’s former performance car and motorsport division, it’s no surprise that its road car activities are underpinned by a broad-based racing program that includes official involvement in the World Touring Car Championship and Extreme E series.
This dovetails well with Cupra’s plans to establish itself in Australia purely as a performance brand with a mixture of petrol engine and plug-in hybrid models. While still early days, officials suggest pricing for the line-up, which will initially consist of Leon, Ateca and Formentor models, will start at around $40,000 and extend to just above $60,000.
As in various European countries, Cupra models are set to be sold in Australia via an online platform as well as pop-up sales points. They will also be covered by a factory-backed, five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, with servicing able to be carried out by existing Volkswagen, Audi and Skoda dealers.
Speaking about Cupra’s imminent arrival in Australia, Galindo says it will take a similar approach to that used in Europe.
“We have found a niche that is working well. We expect to do the same in Australia,” he says. “The positioning will be between traditional premium and general volume brands.”
Leading the Cupra charge here will be the front-wheel Leon. The sharp-looking hatchback is planned to be offered in Australia with the choice of two turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engines, a 1.5-litre unit with 140kW as well as a 2.0-litre powerplant with either 180kW or 221kW, as well as a petrol-electric plug-in hybrid drivetrain delivering a combined system output of 180kW.
It will be joined from the outset of local sales by the Ateca. This is a practical mid-sized SUV that is planned to be sold exclusively with a 221kW turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine in combination with standard four-wheel drive.
Heading Cupra’s Australian line-up will be the Formentor. It is set to offer the same choice of petrol engines as the Leon, a 1.5-litre unit with 140kW as well as a 2.0-litre powerplant with either 180kW or 228kW – all featuring standard four-wheel drive. As with the Leon, there’ll also be a front-wheel-drive version of the new coupe-like SUV model running a plug-in hybrid drivetrain with 180kW.
At this stage, there is no word on whether Cupra plans to offer the upcoming electric-powered Born in Australia. In a display of just how far it is prepared to take the new brand, though, it recently unveiled a headlining version of the Formentor known as the VZ5.
Running a 287kW turbocharged 2.5-litre five-cylinder petrol engine developed by Audi, the 2022 Cupra Formentor VZ5 is Cupra’s most powerful model yet.
This compares to the 228kW of the turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine used by the Seat-operated brand’s VZ 310, up until now the most potent of an extended range of petrol, diesel and plug-in hybrid Formentor models.
A number of subtle styling changes help to visually differentiate the headlining Formentor from its less powerful crossover SUV siblings. Included is a restyled front bumper with a more pronounced carbon-fibre splitter element and wider wheel arch flares all round.
At the rear, Cupra has fitted its new flagship with a new lower bumper assembly featuring a uniquely styled diffuser, quad tailpipes with two exhausts stacked atop of each other either side, and VZ5 identification on the tailgate.
The VZ5 also comes as standard with uniquely styled 20-inch wheels and receives upgraded brakes developed by Japanese specialist Akebono, with six-pot calipers acting on 375mm steel discs at the front and new single-pot units at the rear.
Inside, there is a model-specific steering wheel and heavily contoured sport seats together with new trim elements in Cupra’s trademark copper colour, among other subtle changes in an otherwise impressively equipped and smartly styled cabin.
The VZ5’s driveline is closely related to that of the upcoming third-generation Audi RS3. Together with the transversely mounted five-cylinder petrol engine, it brings a standard seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox with steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles. In addition, there’s a newly developed four-wheel-drive system with a so-called Torque Splitter that uses two differentials at the rear to provide torque-vectoring qualities across the rear axle.
Cupra says the VZ5 can deploy its reserves faster and more intuitively than the VZ 310, which uses an older Haldex-derived system. The key to the developments brought by the Torque Splitter is an ability to apportion drive individually to each of the rear wheels in a process similar to a mechanical locking differential.
This has allowed Cupra to provide it with an additional Drift mode. One of five different driving modes, it can be called into action once the three-stage electronic stability control is switched off. Other drive modes include Comfort, Sport, Cupra and Off-Road. There’s also an Individual setting to allow you to tailor the car to your own particular taste.
Predicatably, the Formentor’s chassis has been re-tuned to help it cope with added reserves. The MacPherson strut (front) and four-link (rear) suspension receives a 10mm reduction in ride height compared to other Formentor models. There is also greater negative camber to the front wheels, and the springs and dampers are described as being unique to the VZ5 too.
Dynamic Chassis Control with adaptive damping is standard. It operates in combination with a so-called Ingetrated Chassis Controller, which networks the mapping of the throttle, gearbox, steering and dampers.
The sporting intentions are clear from the outset, not least the ride that is quite firm even in the more forgiving driving modes. It’s the engine more than anything that moulds the driving character, though. With 480Nm of torque between 2250 and 5700rpm, it allows you to cruise at low revs in taller gears around town with engaging flexibility and a suitably distanced exhaust note in Comfort mode, which makes the new Formentor model suitable for everyday driving on smoother roads.
Switch into Sport, or for even more potent performance to Cupra mode, and the VZ5 delivers explosive acceleration along with a truly memorable soundtrack, including the odd pop and crackle of exhaust on the overrun.
The five-cylinder engine is as brawny and muscular as its power and torque figures suggest, and provides great urge at the bottom end and hugely robust mid-range qualities. It always feels a good deal more eager than the four-cylinder used by the VZ 310. Despite using a single turbocharger, the delivery is quite linear and it remains eager all the way to the 7000rpm ignition cut-out, which is indicated by a series of lights within the digital instrument display.
The dual-clutch gearbox provides fast and crisp upshifts, though it is sometimes a little slow and hesitant on downshifts. Cupra claims 0-62mph in 4.2sec, which is 0.7sec quicker than that achieved by the VZ 310, in combination with a launch-control function. It’s also 0.3sec quicker than the Audi RS Q3, which uses a 394bhp version of the VZ5’s engine. Top speed, meanwhile, is limited to 155mph.
Despite its pace, there’s more to the new Formentor than sheer straight-line speed. The VZ5 also delivers the sort of assured handling to match its rapid acceleration. Its point-to-point potential over challenging roads is really rather special and very much a key attribute.
The progressive steering lacks for ultimate feel, but it is very direct in its action, which gives the range-topping Formentor particularly sharp turn-in traits in Cupra mode. The reduction in ride height and firm damping ensure body movement is well controlled when the VZ5 is loaded up in corners. There’s considerable grip from the standard 255/35R20 Goodyear Eagle F1 tyres that allows you to carry a good deal of speed up to the apex.
The ability of the Torque Splitter to not only apportion drive between the front and rear wheel axles, but also provide an individual amount of drive to each of the rear wheels, endows the VZ5 with great traction and instils the driver with great confidence on challenging roads. It also provides the range-topping Formentor with a good degree of adjustability. Take it to a circuit or a skidpan and you can drift to your heart’s content.
It’s very competent indeed. But there is a price to be paid for the endearing dynamic qualities. On smooth roads with its adaptive dampers set to Comfort, the VZ5 delivers an acceptable level of compliance. However, the ride deteriorates quite dramatically on less forgiving surfaces. Despite the inclusion of Dynamic Chassis Control and adaptive damping, there’s a lot of sharp vertical movement, and the performance tyres generate quite a lot of noise that spoils the otherwise acceptable refinement.
Inside, the driving environment is very impressive, almost Audi-like in the quality of materials and overall design. Don’t expect loads of room, though. Headroom in the rear is compromised by the curved roof line, and its 420L boot capacity isn’t as generous as some rival coupe-like SUVs.
Cupra says production of the VZ5 will be limited to just 7000 units – all in left-hand drive for the time being. There is word, however, that it will eventually be produced in right-hand-drive guise.
“I wouldn’t rule it out. We’re getting a lot of interest from markets such as the UK, so right-hand drive may be considered at some point,” Galindo says.
For now, though, the VZ5 is unfortunately not planned for sale in Australia. But with four other Formentor models to choose from, buyers here certainly won’t be starved of choice when Cupra sets up shop in a little less than 12 months from now.
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