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Does Cupra's take on the VW ID 3 have the dynamics to back up its punchier looks?
7 October 2021

It’s all too easy to get chin-scratchy in this business, surrounded as we are by other enthusiasts in the bubble of motoring journalists and PRs. But there does seem to be a theme running through various conversations going on at the moment, both inside and outside the bubble, as more and more people end up discussing how to make electric cars both exciting and different. Everyone is well aware that change is coming but no one is quite sure how it’s going to manifest itself for the people in this world who love cars.

It’s a real concern, in my opinion, as a lot of manufacturers are proposing platform sharing. The economies of scale make financial sense and, to a certain extent, it’s no different from what Volkswagen et al have been doing for years now with ICE cars, but with VW’s MEB platform and the numbers involved, it takes on a whole new meaning. Some estimates have 50 million cars being built off the underpinnings. In a world where EVs are arguably more susceptible to being homogeneous white goods, it’s a worry.

In the light of all that, step forward the latest to try and persuade that all will be okay with the strategy: the Cupra Born.

This was originally conceived as the concept Seat El-Born, but as time has gone on, the suits in the VW Group decided to launch it as a Cupra. It makes sense: people are prepared to pay more for a Cupra, and with a starting price of around £31,500 for the most basic model (exact prices will come in December 2021), it ain’t as cheap as customers expect of a Seat.

On paper, things are looking good. It’s the Cupra version of the Volkswagen ID 3, so by definition (hopefully) the slightly sportier one, with more ‘emotion’. It’s a “new era” for Cupra and the first all-electric car it’s made.

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Leaning heavily on the MEB platform, it gets a mid-mounted skateboard battery (housed within an aluminium structure but still weighing a chunky 350-odd kilos) in three different sizes: 45kWh, 58kWh and 77kWh. Those equate to ranges between 211 and 336 miles, along with three different power levels. We tried both the mid- and top-spec 201bhp and 228bhp (the latter thanks to a temporary, 30sec e-boost mode, accessed by pressing down hard on the accelerator), but a lower-powered 148bhp version will also be available.

Charging times are competitive with rivals', adding 62 miles (100km) in seven minutes with a 125kW DC charger or 5% to 80% in 35 minutes. There’s also a range of Cupra-branded home chargers, should you so wish for the marketing symmetry.

Like its ID 3 sibling, the Born is rear-wheel drive, the motor sitting above the rear axle and connected via a single-speed auto transmission. It’s an expensive multi-link suspension set-up back there, with a MacPherson strut arrangement at the front. Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC) is available as an option on the 228bhp versions - and depending on the cost, it could be a good option to pick because it adds an extra edge to the Born’s dynamics.

So far, so very ID 3: the elephant in the room is definitely the German sibling. The Cupra is fundamentally the same car, so the Spanish firm is working hard to convince people that it’s done things differently. Wider tyres will be available - we tried the 215/45 R20 combination, but a 235 width will be offered - while the Cupra is also 15mm lower at the rear and 10mm lower at the front than the Volkswagen. ‘Progressive’ steering is standard across the Cupra range and, on those wider tyres, it’s possible to completely disable the ESC. Game-changers against the VW? Hmmm, I’m not convinced.

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As for its looks, there’s definitely a family resemblance. The side profile is where there’s no mistaking the ID 3 base, because the silhouette makes the two cars look more related than say, a VW Golf and Seat Leon, no matter how many chunky bumpers and rear wings are added. Although, to be fair, that rear spoiler is apparently functional.

Still, it certainly looks different from the nose. The Cupra lettering in copper is a nice design detail and there are other copper highlights sprinkled throughout. Overall, it’s a decent-looking hatch.

The same copper details appear inside. The interior is dominated by the large, 12.0in touchscreen set-up that also appears in the ID 3, as well as the small binnacle in front of the driver, but it’s a good place to sit.

There’s a minimum of shiny piano black plastics (praise be) and plenty of soft-touch man-made fabric, including optional Dinamica. Cupra is keen to emphasise that a lot of the material is made from upcycled plastic waste from the sea and, what’s more, it’s local plastic because it’s harvested from the Mediterranean.

It’s not the only element of the car with an environmental bent. Thanks to a carbon offset programme and the use of renewable energy in the production of the Born, Cupra is claiming that the car is net carbon neutral. Other manufacturers, like Polestar, aren’t convinced of the integrity of carbon offset, but at least it’s a start.

Rear leg room is impressive and no wonder with the 2767mm wheelbase. That is fractionally less (3mm) than the ID 3's, but you’d never notice from inside because a six-footer can comfortably sit in the back. The boot is a generous 385 litres, although there’s nowhere to permanently store the charge cables.

There’s no button to start the Cupra - just your weight on the seat is enough. The interior screens aren’t instantaneous to load, but after that it’s a simple twist of the gearstick located up to the right of the instrument binnacle and you’re off.

You don’t need to tell me that the step-off from standstill is impressive: I’ve yet to drive an electric vehicle where it isn’t. The 228bhp version will manage 0-62mph in 6.6sec but even the lesser-powered one we tried will crack it in 7.3sec. As ever, the initial sprint as you plant your foot is decent no matter what speed you’re doing, but the thrust tails off as the speed builds.

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The ride quality is also worth noting. Our car was on 20in wheels and low-profile tyres, but you’d never know it from the way it flows along the Tarmac. It feels expensively damped, well controlled and also, crucially, there’s no suspension noise as you glide along - a vital thing in the silent world of electric driving.

Body roll is well managed and there’s a decent amount of front-end grip, the Born hanging on gamely through a tight corner. It’s only when you’re really pressing on that the inside rear wheel starts to give up, spinning ever so slightly as the weight and power transfer to the outer tyre. The sportier settings within DCC add an edge to the ride, but it never feels overly stiff or out of control. Overall, it feels a very grown-up hatch.

But if you were hoping that Cupra, being the sporty one of the VW Group family, would have injected some excitement into its rear-wheel-drive electric hatch, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. There’s no sense of playfulness from the chassis or steering: both are safe and competent, but never add anything extra. There is a ‘Cupra’ driver setting in the higher-powered car (accessed via either the touchscreen or a natty-looking copper button on the steering wheel) and it does add more weight to the helm but it doesn’t transform it. You don’t get any sense of adjustability from either the steering wheel or throttle, a key measure of the way you’d judge a more enthusiast-leaning hatch.

The brakes are the poorest part of the experience. The Born has quite a soft pedal that doesn’t get any meatier no matter how hard you press it. It needs more bite at the top of the pedal. They don’t inspire the confidence you’d expect, even in maximum regen mode.

All of this is largely the same as the ID 3: there might be slight differences in the steering, but it would take a back-to-back test to reveal those. And that’s where Cupra comes unstuck. It’s claiming to be the emotional one of the VW Group, but the drive experience can’t back up the jazzier looks and doesn’t feel vastly different from its ID 3 sibling.

Does that make it a bad car? Certainly not. But does that give any reason to buy a Cupra over an ID 3? That’s where it gets more awkward for the Spanish brand. Doubtless the platform will save VW’s bacon, but at what cost to individual character?

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