It must be hard to be the boss at Cupra. As a still-new brand spun off quite blatantly from the Seat stable, it’s neither profitable enough yet for major investment nor distinct enough yet to really define its own identity. To this point it’s been hard to pinpoint why you’d buy a Cupra instead of a Skoda vRS or a Seat FR.
We can bring you some good news: the winds of change have finally blown some of the Seat out of the brand with this, the Formentor, the first vehicle designed in-house at Cupra. It’s a fine-looking thing, all things considered, and one thing is obvious the minute I lay eyes on it parked next to my own Skoda Octavia estate. The Formentor is barely any taller; I guess a couple of inches at most, and a quick Google pins the difference at just 46mm.
Officially it’s an SUV, because that’s the trend and that’s where the money is, but it’s actually around 100mm lower than a Cupra Ateca. It still rides higher than a hatchback, big gaps gaping between the wheel arches and sports-focused tyres. The sharply-drawn but, for night driving, slightly underwhelming LED headlights are way higher than on the neighbouring estate, too. The designers have pulled off a neat trick in that the Formentor doesn’t look stodgy or overburdened with bodywork. We’d have liked a bright colour instead of Midnight Black Metallic, but at least the copper badges pop against it nicely.
As I unlock the freshly anti-bacterially-wiped press car and open the door under the thickly depressing British winter cloud, a projected Cupra logo appears on the floor by the door. Everyone is getting in on the puddle light act these days. In I get, shutting the weighty door with a pleasant thunk and settling into the firm Petrol Blue leather seat. After just 1000 miles covered there’s already evidence of material stretch on the base, or perhaps it’s just made with leather to spare in order to avoid exactly that. All the electrical position adjustment you could wish for is at your fingertips at the side of the base.
I’d like the steering column to extend out a little more; a gripe I have with just about all VW Group cars. Overall, though, it’s not hard to find a good compromise and get comfy. I look around; I definitely won’t be eyeballing Transit drivers in this thing, but a comparatively low windscreen offers impressive forward visibility. You can see exactly where the front corners are.
Fire it up cold, drive away and brace for slight confusion as you’re treated to a decent imitation of a V8 woofle as you pass 2000rpm. This is part of the Cupra theatre designed to separate the Formentor from comparable cars. While it’s admittedly an artificial noise piped into the cabin and there’s no hint of it if you wind the windows down through narrow urban streets looking for the echoes, I do still quite like it.
There are various driving modes, natch. Cycle through them with the Cupra button on the steering wheel (also the location of the starter button) and you’ll find Normal, which is impressively comfy, relaxed, refined and generally nice to live with, Sport, which offers a little more pep for a little less throttle and more top-end power if you need it, and Cupra, which trades any pretence at ride quality (it gets unbearably jiggly on poor surfaces) for maximum performance.
It grips like Burdock to dog fur and handles almost like a hatchback, its nose keen to turn in and neither end ever really complaining. It suffers from the same unfortunate yawing sensation that all high-riding cars have, though, so it can’t and never will deliver the same confident, surefooted apex-hunting behaviour as the hot Leon. Lowering your seat right down helps in one sense, but then you sacrifice some of the benefits of the SUV-inspired design. As with all performance soft-roaders (it even has an off-road driving mode), it’s a compromise you just have to live with in exchange for more clearance over speed bumps, a slightly improved view ahead and a less strenuous time getting in and out.
Normal mode is fine most of the time. Set to this default the Formentor breezes up to speed with fast DSG shifts, riding the 295lb ft torque curve. It can be a bit dim-witted on pick-up when trying to dart into gaps in roundabout traffic, though, and it’s a PITA trying to remember to thumb it into Cupra every time.
Leave it in full-banana mode and it’s only too happy to send all 306bhp to the corners; any time, anywhere. Boost from the familiar EA888 builds meatily between 2000 and 3000rpm, opening up fast and punchy response above that. The four-wheel drive just grips and goes with no drama, whether it’s from a standstill or away from a roundabout apex. You have to trust its ability to cope and be brutal with the throttle to minimise any understeer. Aside from the sometimes uncomfortable yawing as you tip it into a bend it’s all rather free of drama. That’s a positive or a negative, depending on your viewpoint.
It ticks the ‘fast’ box and handles better than most of its on-paper rivals, once you’re used to the over-fast and frustratingly numb steering in Cupra mode. It’s hampered less by its own stature than the Cupra Ateca and other hotted-up SUVs thanks to that lower overall height. While it fails to imprint itself on your brain in the way the explosive and poised Leon Cupra (now called the Cupra Leon) always has, it uses its attributes to find other strengths.
The Formentor is a better everyday car than the Leon. Its engineers have woven a broad spread of qualities into a vehicle that has to live with compromise due to its very nature. It scratches around comfortably on the daily grind, makes life on the road a little less stressful with its raised driving position and easy performance, and it’s so full of technology in this VS2 trim grade that you’ll probably still be discovering new features by the time you get rid of it. The highly customisable digital cockpit is finally realising its potential, even if the size of the main screen is up for debate. Personally I’d like it a bit smaller.
Could we and would we daily one? Absolutely, yes. It’s an all-round effective half-fat SUV with the benefit of big performance on demand, even if this version does knock on the door of £40,000. It’s going to fit right into a whole bunch of people’s lifestyles, so even though for excitement we’d still take the 306bhp pure ICE Cupra Leon once it’s here, the Formentor is a more mature and more modern-feeling option. The brand has to work hard to find a niche somewhere between Seat and Audi, but this first real taste shows promise.