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Volkswagen Group’s newest car brand steps up with its first stand-alone model

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It is quite possible that the newest addition to the Volkswagen Group’s network of car brands, Cupra, has yet to grab your attention.

If so, that may be because – until this week’s road test subject was launched, at least – it hasn’t done much differently from when Seat was deploying its Cupra branding. Until very recently, Cupra’s model range consisted of go-faster versions of mother-brand Seat’s Ateca and Leon series-production models, which, colour and trim apart, could easily have been Seat Ateca and Seat Leon Cupras without anyone noticing.

If the Formentor is short on anything, it’s probably the enigmatic handling appeal of a more communicative, natively rear-driven fast 4x4. Still, I suspect to better it you’ll be paying £50k-plus for a Porsche Macan S

But with the Formentor – a biggish, high-rised, high-design hatchback that comes with both four wheel-drive performance and front-driven plug-in hybrid powertrains – Cupra is finally bringing something a bit different and all of its own.

This is its first brand-exclusive model, and although it’s based on a common VW Group platform, it feels very much like a new and particularly distinctive and different kind of crossover hatchback.

The reasons for that are ones we’ll detail in due course, but suffice to say for now that few tools available either to the designer or the engineer have been left unused in order to give substance to the so far unproven notion that the Cupra brand is finally ready to give us genuinely fresh, appealing and alternative new cars.

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The Formentor line-up at a glance

Performance across the Cupra Formentor range is strong, even in rather sensible 148bhp and 187bhp offerings. Top-spec models' pace is up there with hot hatches such as the Volkswagen Golf GTI and R. 

This is largely because the Formentor uses their engines, a 242bhp and 306bhp turbo four-cylinder respectively. The 306bhp model gets four-wheel drive and covers 0-60mph in 4.7sec. The plug-in hybrids are slower, naturally, but they’re no sluggards in real-world use, either. 

Trims are linked with engine options. For example, you need VZ1 over entry-level V1 to get either of the hot hatch engines. Even so, the V1 is still well equipped, coming with 18in alloy wheels, full LED headlights, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, privacy glass, power-folding door mirrors, three-zone climate control, keyless entry/ start and adaptive cruise control. 

Top-tier VZ3 trim is available with only the most powerful TSI 310 engine and brings bigger Brembo brakes, special 19in alloy wheels and matrix LED headlights. 

The suspension on V1, V2 and VZ1 cars is firmer than on less performance-focused rivals, but it does strike a good balance between comfort and body control. If you opt for VZ2 trim or above, you’ll get adjustable dampers too. The Formentor doesn’t feel alive in corners like a hot hatch does, but for an SUV, it’s really good. 


2 Cupra Formentor 2021 road test review hero side

For Seat, Cupra was always a fairly serious performance sub-brand. Judge the new Cupra by its product launches over the past couple of years, though, and you might wonder if that will continue to be the case.

The Formentor would certainly suggest that VW Group management is aiming to bridge a number of market niches with at least some of its Cupra offerings; to lure enthusiast drivers with pricier versions, yes, but also fans of luxury goods, of active lifestyles, of stylish and alternative design, and of the latest technology all at once.

Unusual design feature bisecting the rear quarter panel is half character line, half reverse wheel-arch blister (it adds volume to the upper surface). It could perhaps better align with the rear lights, but we like it anyway.

In the Formentor’s case, that approach has made for a car that’s as intriguing as it is appealing to behold. This long, wide-arched, unexpectedly svelte and swooping family hatchback-cum-wagon has a sporting stance and visual purpose that’s rare in a high-riding car.

Moreover, Cupra doesn’t seem to have allowed a brief for crossover versatility to corrupt the car’s skilfully crafted lines or proportions. Design-wise, this is quite the accomplished piece of work.

Size-wise, the car is just under 4.5m in length and a little over 1.5m in height. It rises higher than a Skoda Octavia Estate but is a nearly a foot shorter for overall length, while also being notably longer than an Audi A3 Sportback. And for anyone wondering how close a match the Formentor might be for Subaru’s boxier but equally left-field mid-noughties sporty crossover, the Forester STI? Apart from a longer wheelbase and wider body and tracks for the newbie, the dimensions of the two cars are almost identical.

The Formentor’s model line-up is broader than you might think, though. At the upper end of the spectrum, there may be the fire-breathing, 306bhp, equipment-heavy, four-wheel-drive versions with their £40,000-plus prices, but lower down you can have it with the VW Group’s 148bhp 1.5-litre TSI petrol engine, front-wheel drive and a sub-£30,000 price if you prefer. Two further 2.0-litre TSI derivatives will join the showroom range shortly, as will two 1.4-litre plug-in hybrid options badged eHybrid.

Unlike its MQB-platform relatives, the Formentor gets fully independent suspension and ‘progressive’ rising-rate steering irrespective of the engine fitted. Lowered sport suspension with adaptive damping is fitted from mid-level VZ1-trim cars and upwards, with four-wheel drive (coming in tandem with a dual-clutch gearbox) on 2.0-litre versions.

Our test car was Cupra’s range-topping 2.0-litre TSI 4Drive version, developing 306bhp and 295lb ft: the same peak outputs made by the firm’s hottest Leon hatchback, of course, although slightly shy of those of the latest VW Golf R.


14 Cupra Formentor 2021 road test review cabin

You get an abiding sense of a rightsized modern family car when you survey the passenger quarters and boot of the Formentor.

As a big hatchback, the car sits between the dimensional norms of the market’s C- and D-segments. It’s roomier in the back than a typical hatchback and, although not quite rivalling the likes of the Skoda Octavia or Honda Civic for outright space, it has good everyday practicality and carrying versatility.

Steering wheel design is one of a slimmish rim and spokes and a relatively modest airbag boss. The shift paddles are easy to see, and to grab, which we like.

But the space isn’t what will strike you about this interior at first. Instead, it’ll be Cupra’s imaginative application of colour and trim around the cockpit and its particularly bold ambient lighting features. Our test car came with ‘petrol blue’ leather with copper-coloured stitching and trim decor, a more subtle and rich combination than you might think, and one whose appeal to the eye really develops as light levels change. It attracted compliments almost universally from our testers.

You can’t fail to miss the strip of coloured ambient lighting running across the base of the Formentor’s windscreen and into either door. The illumination here is colour selectable and changes with the drive mode; and while it can seem a little overly bright and distracting at night, it adds just enough visual drama to the cabin once you’ve gone to the trouble of picking a shade and intensity for it that you like. It also doubles up to draw the eye to your mirrors, with a yellow visual accent, as cars enter your blindspot, which is a clever bit of technological synergy.

The VW Group’s fully digital 10.3in instrument console features as standard on all Formentors, as does a 12.0in touchscreen infotainment set-up. The former we like, thanks to plenty of configurability and not too much contrived visual flourish in the instrument layout; while the latter divides opinions a little more, not least because the physical controls that it offers for the adjustment of heater temperature and audio volume aren’t backlit so they’re as good as useless after dark.

There are a few places in which the material quality of the Formentor’s interior doesn’t quite match its ambitions, at the lower levels of the fascia and on the centre console, mostly. Even so, few would have bet on a brand spun off from Seat three years ago to produce an interior as rich, imaginative and inviting as this.

Cupra Formentor infotainment and sat-nav

The Formentor gets the VW Group’s third-gen MIB infotainment architecture, which is made up of a 12.0in colour touchscreen system with a limited amount of gesture control, and a few physical ‘slider’ controls immediately underneath to adjust heater temperature and audio volume (which ought to be backlit but aren’t). In the Formentor, digital instruments are standard.

The system cleverly overlays on its display screen permanent shortcut functions that can be used to hop between menus easily, or to perform routine functions like adjusting the ventilation or turning on a seat heater with one touch. As far as systems that insist on putting these controls through the touchscreen set-up go, it works well, but some testers would still have preferred easier to find physical controls.

Display clarity is good, navigation mapping is conveyed simply and neatly, and the system doesn’t seem to need much thinking time, although it did appear to rely on an unusually firm press on the screen to register an input. It comes with a 12-month subscription for networked navigation functionality.


The 306bhp version of the Formentor isn’t quite quick enough to really surprise or excite. That task is likely to be left to the five-cylinder version that’s coming later.

However, it has a very muscular performance level that is more than serious enough to keep you interested in the driving experience and that, thanks to the car’s unbreachable traction and pragmatic chassis tuning, can be fully (if judiciously) deployed on the public road even in less than perfect driving conditions without making its driver feel boorish, profligate or antisocial. This is the kind of car that a ‘real-world performance’ billing was coined to describe.

Its levels of agility, grip and body control match its brief very well, and although we would prefer more throttle adjustability, its composure and stability are reassuring

The flexibility and linearity on offer from the VW Group’s EA888 2.0-litre motor here are typically great. We noted the merest flat spot from it under load when spinning at less than 2500rpm, and a sudden rush of torque immediately thereafter – but it’s the kind of weakness that only a road tester doing in-gear acceleration tests would be likely to find.

It spins from middling revs up to beyond 6000rpm with real vigour and freedom and the noise it makes inside the cabin, although quite clearly digitally augmented when you pay it close heed, doesn’t grate on the ear. From the outside, as one tester noted, the Formentor sounds surprisingly ordinary, and an engine with more than four cylinders might well have needed less enhancement. But it’s to the benefit of the car’s dynamic versatility that it can be so quiet in Comfort driving mode, and perhaps attract little of the wrong kind of attention when driven quickly, and yet still sound lively and enticing to its driver.

The seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox does a first-class job here, too. You don’t feel the need always to manage it with the paddles in Sport mode. It tends to be in a useful gear for responsive roll-on acceleration in give-and-take motoring when operating in ‘S’ mode, and then calms down nicely in ‘D’ for around-town mooching and heavy-traffic plodding.

Unlike other torque-vectoring four-wheel drive systems, Cupra’s 4Drive system doesn’t seem to be able to put quite as much torque at the Formentor’s rear axle as the car could use during limit handling (which we’ll expand on shortly) and we did note some perceptible snatches of wheel slip at the front axle before torque was sent rearwards during full-bore launches on slippery Tarmac. That’s not something that happens in typical driving, though, when the car’s hold on the road always seems strong.


24 Cupra Formentor 2021 road test review on road front

The Formentor handles like a fast crossover that knows what it’s for, which sounds straightforward enough but it’s not as common as you might think. Instead of doing some doomed, jacked-up impression of a circuit-estranged hot hatchback, it has just the right amount of grip, agility and body control blended with the kind of any-weather, any-surface stability, compliance, composure and drivability that would make the car a natural choice for the quicker, keener sort of everyday driving.

The car’s clutch-based four-wheel drive system and its taut but measured, progressive suspension tune make it stable and sure-footed over bumps and on slippery surfaces. The variable-rate steering is usefully weighty in the sportier driving modes and doesn’t pick up pace so quickly off-centre as to suddenly become hyper-responsive. It filters quite a bit and some testers would have preferred more tactile feel, but the way it’s tuned nonetheless suits the brisk, compliant, easy-driving temperament of the car well.

Pleasantly surprised by the Formentor. Its interior looks and feels way snazzier than that of its VW T-Roc R sibling, and its ride is comfier over distance. Its stance is properly mean-looking, too.

Body control is subject to a little roll when cornering hard, but grip levels are medium-high and turn-in comes with a clear sense of keenness and immediacy. When exiting bends, the chassis maintains good dynamic balance, but it does feel natively front driven ultimately, gently washing wide to signal its limits if you open the throttle early rather than vectoring torque to the rear to keep the chassis rotating under pressure.

In that respect, dynamically at least and predictably enough, this is more like a longer-travel Volkswagen Golf R wagon than a reincarnation of some noughties-era Subaru; supple, stable, fast and pleasingly composed, but given to little in the way of expressive body movement and offering little or no throttle adjustability.

The wheel and tyre specification that Cupra has chosen – a biggish rim but a fairly generalist Bridgestone Turanza tyre – allows the car to deal well with wet conditions. Any scrub radius there may be at the front axle doesn’t make the steering dive one way or the other through kerbside standing water, while the suspension maintains grip levels and keeps the tyres on the ground very effectively.

On an imagined hatchback handling spectrum that has circuit-ready specials like the Renault Mégane Trophy-R at one end and highriding, dirt-loving, four-wheel-drive crossovers like the Subaru XV at the other, the Formentor belongs much closer to the former than the latter.

It may have a slightly raised profile but it corners in creditably level and tenacious fashion, maintaining decent balance and composure even when pressed, and always settling and supporting its mass quickly.

Composed and predictable handling makes it easy to be smooth and precise, and to carry speed without great effort. That the chassis isn’t particularly sensitive to attempts to manipulate it with load transfer, trail-braking or throttle application makes it similar to related VW Group equivalents such as the Golf R or the Cupra Ateca, but it also makes it very predictable and stable on the limit.

Comfort and isolation

The driver’s seat doesn’t grant a particularly high-feeling vantage point, but visibility is good. The sports seats are strikingly comfortable, with well-judged backrest bolstering and an adjustable cushion angle. They’re particularly comfortable over distance and easy to slip in to and out of.

Both wind and road noise are kept reasonably low, with the suspension only protesting slightly over sharper edges because of those 19in wheels. Even so, the ride can be made surprisingly comfortable. Higher-end Formentors such as our test car get adaptive dampers as standard and they come with the same ‘DCC slider’ suspension controller (available in the car’s Individual driving mode) that’s found in the latest Golf GTI. Unlike in the Golf, however, the Formentor’s ride really can be made as supple and absorptive as you’re likely to want it to be, by sliding that bar and softening the dampers beyond where they might be set even in Comfort mode.

This car clearly needn’t ride like something tall and firm with lots of lateral stiffness, then. It deals well with asymmetrical inputs and doesn’t shimmy around its roll axis too much over camber changes, while those decent isolation levels and medium-weighted controls decline to become wearing, even on longer journeys.


1 Cupra Formentor 2021 road test review hero front

Don’t let any left-field allusions cast throughout this test mislead you: the Formentor really does represent a spreading of wings for its maker.

It’s ready to take on fairly ordinary family hatchbacks and crossover SUVs at one end of its model range, where it has prices starting from under £28,000, and plenty of design and dynamic star quality with which to attract private buyers.

Formentor is expected to narrowly outperform the latest Golf R on residual value, but not the equivalent CLA

It will also do the PHEV fleet car thing for those who like the idea of a tax-efficient company car with a difference. Prices, CO2 ratings and electric range figures for the eHybrid versions have yet to be released, but if the VW Group’s other recent plug-in offerings are a guide, they should be pretty competitive.

Then, at the higher end of the model range, the Formentor will square up to junior performance SUVs and sporty estates and, as our top five overleaf shows, it shouldn’t struggle with the comparison.

What’s more, with a five-pot Audi RS engine, the still-secret top-level Formentor will head into Porsche Macan territory on both price and performance and, on this evidence, we shouldn’t expect it to sink without a trace even there.

Our test car’s list price, at a whisker under £40,000, makes it a close match for the latest Golf R hatchback, but it’s cheaper narrowly than a VW T-Roc R, and quite a lot cheaper than the premium-branded rivals (such as BMW’s X2 M35i and Mercedes-AMG’s GLA 35) that are arguably its closest competitors.


27 Cupra Formentor 2021 road test review static

For emergent brand Cupra, the Formentor may be just the right car at almost the right time. It’s precisely the kind of early offering to demonstrate the alternative style, everyday versatility and breadth of appeal that the firm can now aspire to conjure for a whole range of future models. The Cupra Ateca really wasn’t, and isn’t, any of the above.

After something of a false start, then, this car seems to set a mould that Cupra can follow, or occasionally depart from, as it sees fit; and it’s a fresh and interesting mould that offers something to a whole range of would-be buyers. There is abundant real-world practicality here, as well as some luxury-level material richness and flourish, a striking sense of style and an appealingly pragmatic but still compelling driving experience.

Versatile, interesting, rewarding; one of the best fast crossovers yet

This isn’t a driver’s car that approaches really immersive levels of reward, but the slightly laid-back compromise it aims for is rather successfully produced. As tested, it’s also better looking, better priced and more usable than most of its premium-branded rivals. If cheaper derivatives appeal as clearly, the Formentor should be quite the launch pad.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Cupra Formentor First drives