Cupra, since it was launched, has had something of an identity crisis. Originally, the Cupra was a badge, applied to high-performance versions of the Seat Leon and Ibiza. It was Seat's equivalent to VW's GTI, or Audi's S and RS.
Then, the suits in Barcelona decided that what Cupra needed was to become its own thing, so the badge – an odd intersecting pair of prongs that looks either like a Klingon weapon or the dinner fork of the gods – was applied to a high-performance version of the Seat Ateca SUV.
Subsequently, Cupra became a brand in its own right, launching the strangely appealing Formentor crossover (which you can’t buy with Seat badges) and striking out as Seat’s electric and high-performance brand, rather like a sunburned version of Volvo’s Polestar.
Now, Cupra’s job is to introduce electric power to the Spanish motoring scene, and it’s starting with this, the Cupra Born. Aside from the slightly beak-like nose, with its angry-looking headlamps and neat little “Cupra” script debossed into a slot on the leading edge, it’s pretty obviously a Cupra-ised version of Volkswagen’s ID.3 electric hatch. The two cars look all-but identical in profile, and they share the same batteries, the same electric motor, the same wheelbase, and much of the same interior.
Strangely, the Born began life with Seat badges and was intended to be the Spanish brand’s first all-electric model but at the last moment before launch, it was decided that Cupra badges would be better. There are rumours currently swirling that, so successful has Cupra been in its initial phases, and because buyers seem to be happy enough to pay a small, but significant, price premium for its models, VW is actually considering phasing out Seat in the long run, in favour of Cupra.
That was denied by Niall Philips, head of both brands in Ireland, who told The Irish Times: "Clearly, Cupra is a focus right now. We're trying to develop, to grow, to introduce a whole new brand. So there's definitely a focus on Cupra, time and effort being put into it. Seat, by contrast, is far more established in Ireland, so perhaps we don't need to hold its hand as much, if you like. We've gone from 1.7 per cent market share five or six years ago, to 4.2 per cent this year. 80 per cent of our planned volume for next year is all Seat, and I can tell you that when I have meetings with my colleagues in Barcelona, we are all focused very much on Seat."
It still seems odd that for all the talk of plans for full electrification, and the Martorell plant in Barcelona gearing up for more and more electric production, that Seat – by far the bigger of the two brands in sales terms – is still being somewhat ignored (aside from some plug-in hybrid models) in electric terms. Perhaps we just have to consider the Cupra Born the tip of the electric Spanish spear. . .
Who’s buying Cupras? Well, that’s a little hard to tell. There’s much talk of the Born itself being aimed at exactly whom you’d expect – tech-savvy urbanite commuters. Two hundred Cupras of various stripe, mostly the Formentor, have been sold in Ireland so far this year, and for the most part they’re people upgrading from Seat models. With brand recognition for the Cupra mostly still quite low, many of these seem to be impulse buys – someone comes in to trade-in their Leon or Ateca, spots a Formentor sitting in the showroom, and does a deal on the spot. A handful are those trading out of more expensive German machinery, Audis included, who are seeking something with a less predictable brand image.
A less predictable brand image, but in the case of the Born, an entirely predictable driving experience. Well, entirely predictable to anyone who’s driven an ID.3. There is much talk of the Born having a lower centre of gravity and sports suspension but to be honest, there’s not a great deal of difference in real terms. If you were to step directly from one car to the other, and drive them on the same stretch of road, you might detect a faint whiff of extra sporting intent from the Cupra, but that might just be a placebo effect. Perhaps next year, when we get the E-Boost model, which boasts 231hp, over this standard 204hp version, we might see a few more electric fireworks.
In many ways, it doesn’t really matter. The Born drives with the same smooth, soothing, liquidly assured manners of the ID.3 and while that means it’s samey-samey, it’s a very impressive samey-samey. Ditto the interior. There are, as with the ID.3, too many cheap plastics on display, but the seats are impressively comfy, space in the back is on the whopping side of large and the 385-litre boot looks, subjectively, far bigger than a mere five litres more that a Golf can offer.
The Born is also actually a little cheaper than the ID.3, at least for now. Well, kind of. You can get a basic Born (which comes with 18-inch alloys, the big 12-inch touchscreen and seat fabric made from moddish recovered ocean plastic, for €31,440. That’s cheaper than the cheapest ID.3 by about €110. However, it’s a slight mirage – the cheapest Born is the 45kWh battery version, with a range of 340km and a mere 150hp electric motor. The cheapest ID.3, right now, has 204hp, a larger 58kWh battery and a 425km range. With that mechanical package, the Born would cost you €35,550 – although that does compare well with the €37,990 ID.3 Business model.
Should you go Spanish, then? Or stick with the known quantity that is the VW badge? Well, mechanically, there’s nothing in it. Both cars roll down the same production line at the same factory, so they are effectively one and the same. Right now, there’s no sporting advantage to the Born, but it’s arguably a little prettier than the snub-nosed ID.3, and you are most assuredly making rather more of a brand statement – if such a thing matters to you. The problem, as ever, will be explaining to other people exactly what it is you have bought.
Cupra Born 58kWh 204hp: the lowdown
- Power 150kW electric motor putting out 204hp and 310Nm of torque with a single-speed automatic transmission and rear-wheel drive
- CO2 emissions (annual motor tax) 0g/km (€120)
- Electric consumption 13.3kWh/100km
- Battery capacity 58kWh (net)
- 0-100km/h 7.3sec
- Price €35,550 as tested; Born starts at €31,440
- Verdict A Spanish ID.3 with sporting pretensions. Solid, but not thrilling as yet