2023 Cupra Formentor VZx
Cupra’s intriguing trio of sporty Euro models has only just touched down on Australian soil but I’m already familiar and very fond of two thirds of it. A year ago, I got my hands on the range topping Leon 300 (dubbed VZx locally) and it proved to be one of the most involving and exhilarating hot hatches for blasting around the English countryside, enjoying the autumn sun.
SPAIN’S CRACK AT THE HI-PO SMALL SUV SEGMENT. WILL IT REIGN?
Some weeks later I saddled up the plug-in hybrid version of the Formentor for a 1200km road trip from Rome to the south of Sardinia and back again. For my second Cupra encounter, the small SUV was both practical and efficient but also an absolute hoot when the roads turned twisty. Cupra is pitching itself as an unpretentious alternative to the traditional European brands without compromising on features or performance – a brief it has aced in both previous meetings. But its third challenge is arguably the toughest – a first outing on Australian roads in full local specification.
In Cupra’s native Europe, the Formentor range is offered with a somewhat baffling choice of 10 different powertrains, further complicated by several trim levels to select beyond the engine and gearbox options. Thankfully, the Australian range is much simpler, with an entry-level V, mid-range VZ petrol and VZe plug-in, with the high-performance VZx at the top of the pack. For the Formentor fan with a tighter budget, the most affordable version has a 140kW/320Nm 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder petrol with all-wheel drive and a $50,690 price, the VZ also has a 2.0-litre but 180kW/370Nm and front wheel drive for $53,790, while its plug-in sibling produces a total of 180kW and 400Nm from its 1.4-litre and electric combination for $60,990.
Stretch to $61,990 however (or $66,990 driveaway), and you’ll get a version that opens the EA888 engine’ taps to 228kW and 400Nm and sends it all to the road via a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic and all-wheel drive. Those appealing performance figures put the Formentor VZx in contention with other performance-focused small SUVs such as the Audi SQ2, BMW X2 M35i F39 and Mercedes-AMG GLA35 H247 all of which produce comparable power and torque. However, the triplet of rivals cost between eight and 33 percent more than the Cupra.
On paper, therefore, the Formentor stacks up nicely but its equation makes even more sense when it’s let loose on Australian roads.
Even before getting in, the topshelf Cupra is earning points. Unlike some other awkward little SUVs, the Formentor’s proportions are adult and handsome, while its styling is striking without being ostentatious. This particular example is finished with trademark copper exterior highlights including the optional four-pot Brembo front calipers and finished in a gorgeous Petrol Blue Matte paint that could easily double as Bruce Wayne’s evening attire.
Inside, the flagship cabin is decked out in a similarly tasteful but unusual dark blue leather highlighted by more copper touches such as upholstery piping, air vents and steering wheel badge. All versions of the Formentor are equipped with sporty bucket seats and the ergonomics are as good as they look. The driving position is purposeful with plenty of leg room for taller drivers and a posture that feels low and reclined thanks to plenty of steering wheel adjustment.
For a model with relatively diminutive dimensions and an almost coupe-like roof line, the Formentor is surprisingly practical. There’s adequate headroom in the second row and a 420-litre boot (VZ gets an even bigger 450, while the VZe forfeits some space for it battery and 345 litres).
It’s worth taking some time to fully appreciate the Formentor’s cabin before a maiden voyage because design is one of Cupra’s two key points of difference. It may have underpinnings very closely related to a couple of other models in the VW Group family, but you can’t easily tell from the interior.
The odd switch and gear selector has a familiar feel to it but the overall design is unique to the brand. I liked the sporty and elegant steering wheel, angular dash design with a cool continuous pinstripe of LED light that doubles as a blind-spot warning in the regions nearest the door mirrors.
The 10.3-inch digital driver’s cluster is also familiar to the MQB Evo family but, like the huge central touchscreen, it’s filled with graphics that are unlike anything in the sister-brand models.
One unfortunate carryover is the solid state temperature controls that are fiddly and don’t illuminate at night, is the second of Cupra’s unique propositions. With such familiar drivetrains, the company has less scope to stand out with the way its models go in a straight line, but how they behaving in corners is a different matter. Along with its unorthodox but likeable aesthetics, Cupra is also clearly trying to dominate the chassis and steering realm – and winning.
Like the version I in Sardinia, the VZx has beautifully sweet steering with a lightness that doesn’t come at a cost to feel. There’s no adaptive technology, but the ‘progressive’ rack loads up nicely away from dead ahead as the ratio increases.
Positioning the Formentor on the road is precise and rewarding combined with the grip of its variable AWD system for a confidence to push hard. Beyond outright power, the other key difference is weight.
While the VZx must lug around an extra differential and propshaft, it does away with a 125kg battery and the result is a kerb weight that drops from 1708kg to 1650kg compared with the VZe.
The deft chassis tuning at each corner completes the dynamic picture. Initial firmness at low speed becomes more compliant at speed and even relatively large imperfections weren’t translated into cabin discomfort. Despite that, there’s minimal bodyroll, the Formentor holds a solid line through tight bends and recovers well from mid-corner bumps. It doesn’t take long to realise that the Formentor could easily handle more punch than its 2.0 litre delivers, and perhaps the only negative from this second meeting is that it serves as a reminder that RHD markets won’t be getting the delicious five-cylinder turbopowered VZ5 and its full 287kW fury.
That said, the VZx doesn’t feel like a poor cousin. It’ll still do the zero to 100km/h dash in 4.9 seconds and has the manners of a bonafide hi-po SUV that will certainly be getting the attention from rival premium brands.
So should you consider the flagship over one of its direct competitors from Audi, BMW and Mercedes? Absolutely. Not only will it save you cash regardless of the rival model, its dynamics are superior and you’re far less likely to see another on the road – for now.
There are, however, a couple of models that upset the Formentor’s almost perfect score card. If performance on a budget is king, then the Volkswagen T-Roc R offers almost the same muscle for more than $2000 less, and while the Hyundai Kona N has just two driven wheels, it does offer comparable power and torque for about a $15,000 saving. But would you? Answering that trickier question is going to require a bit more thought, so watch this space.
In the meantime though, the high-performance SUV market has a new, highly compelling contender in its ranks. Cupra has some work to do convincing Australia’s pragmatic car buyers that it’s worth a shot – guaranteed future value and transparent driveaway pricing policies will certainly help that cause – but this third close encounter proves that Cupra has a well-deserved place Down Under.
VZx can be optioned with Brembo front brakes, with 370mm front discs replacing these standard-fit 340mm items
PLUS Excellent ride and handling balance; unique and uncompromising design; value for money
MINUS No VZ5 for RHD markets; temp controls are fiddly and need illumination; some minor controls unintuitive
- Model 2023 Cupra Formentor VZx
- Engine 1984cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
- Max power 228kW @ 5450-6500rpm
- Max torque 400Nm @ 2000-5450rpm
- Transmission 7-speed dual-clutch
- Weight 1650kg
- 0-100km/h 4.9s (claimed)
- Economy 7.7L/100km
- Price $61,990
- On sale Now
Above: The VW parts bin naturally makes a contribution, but Cupra brings its own graphics to avoid a mirror image