Cupra ensures hot start to Latino push

SEAT’s reintroduction to New Zealand starts with a Spanish flier, the Leon Cupra.
Sunday September 24, 2017

By Richard Bosselman

PRODUCT from the brand who names translates into English as ‘society of Spanish automobile tourism’ is every bit as characterful as the name suggests – but in a totally good way.

Indeed, the first product that SEAT has let media lose in is so utterly loco it doubtless leaves the same sort of impression a snorting El Toro on steroids might present to a first-time matador.

The Leon Cupra could be safely called a car that even brand parent Volkswagen doesn’t dare to build, given the chassis and drivetrain layout is pure Golf GTi, but the engine itself is out of the Golf R.

Wolfsburg itself doesn’t directly blend those two ingredients into a single passenger product.

The GTi has never had that much horsepower - the engine that makes it only avails in all-wheel-drive.

But maybe no-one in SEAT headquarters in Barcelona can read German. Or perhaps the crew behind the Cupra – which stands for Cup Racer – are all a little loco from spending too long in the blazing Spanish sun.

Either way, they’ve gone and laid down all 221kW (that’s 300bhp in old money) and 380Nm via the same wheels that do the steering.

Which makes the Leon Cupra … well, yeah, you can imagine. More intoxicating than some of the top-shelf high-octane brews I spotted in the tapas bar that we took lunch in on the launch drive.

The acceleration is fierce; foot-down take-off in first, second and third is utterly electric, the way it shoots down the road reminds of the time me and my mates taped down a bunch of skyrockets to a skateboard. When we were kids… well, young adults. We’re far more responsible now.

Actually, that’s also part of the appeal of this car at first meeting. It’s utterly rabid and rapid, and yet still fires its funs in responsible manner.

In addition to being loaded up with VW’s highest calibre turbo four-cylinder 2.0-litre, it also chambers some very clever VW drivetrain assisting technology – including a torque-sensing electronically controlled limited-slip differential, aka XDS, that VW until recently just restricted to its limited-edition GTi cars and Dynamic Chassis Control.

That front differential is a life, tyre and perhaps even a licence saver. Depending on grip levels it can in extreme cases send 100 percent of the torque to the outside wheel to help reduce the effect of understeer.

In practise, the systems work remarkably well and, even when accelerating under full load out of a corner, there is almost no noticeable break in power delivery or tyres scrabbling for grip - in the dry, at least. When the road is wet, and we found a doozy in one that squirrels past a certain high-security prison north of Auckland (honest, officer, at that point my mate was driving) and, yeah, the car did kick and buck a bit through the uphill bends. But not to wrist-stretching degree by any means.

It’s hard not to exploit that mountain of urge, because it’s almost always on tap. Top torque comes in at 1800rpm and doesn't fall off until 5500rpm. About the only time its lacking in go is at idle.

It's an engine that loves to rev too. There’s a sports mode that is quite enlivening but the next one up marked Cupra – because, one supposes ‘ Aiii-yiiiiyiiii’ wouldn’t fit in the font size – is when it’s utterly bonkers; everything tightens up and you get some extra sound into the cabin; moreso in the DSG edition that the pure manual because the first is programmed to barp and sputter on the downchange.

Granted it's a tad engineered, but it will still put a grin on your face. Hold on that bit longer before each upshift and you'll appreciate just how hard the engine can pull even when higher up the rev range.

Hauling up that considerable performance is a fairly decent set of disc brakes. The distributor has fitted as standard a Performance Pack that offers Brembos with either red or black callipers. Also included in this are 19-inch wheels, which feature wider 235-section tyres.

Are you starting to be attracted to this car? Gotta say I was, because beyond all the snorting sizzle it comes in very stylish packaging, still VW-ish in general outlook but more angled and interesting, potentially enough to be mistaken for a Skoda – except the Czech armoury has, in place of a car like this, something different again in the Octavia vRS.

Anyway, as is the case with all cars that have VW blood but aren’t in the main family, the difference shows in the facial features. The SEAT look is quite macho, not least with the headlamps, and the distinctive daylight running lamps will win attention.

SEAT has similar status within the 15-strong VW brand brood as Skoda, in that it’s a budget choice. The difference is that the Spanish cars are more youth-oriented; it’s worked hard in Europe to win acceptance with under-35s, a method that won’t work here – there just isn’t the same discretionary income (and, also, the really cheap SEATs that do best with hipsters are the no-frills models, including smaller hatches, not considered for sale here). So aspiration is to appeal to the ‘young at heart.’

Anyway, what this means is that Cupra is here for $55,400 in manual – but only until April, when production of that edition ends - and $56,900 in DSG, which is pretty good when a Golf R now runs to $75,390 and even the GTi is $57,390.

And it’s not like it’s a stripper car: Though SEAT favours Alcantara cloth trim over VW’s leather (as do I, because the chairs are more comfortable and grippier), it still comes with LED headlights, keyless entry/start, heated front chairs and all the usual infotainment features that Golf provides.

The model also comes with a five-star Euro NCAP crash test score and provisions front assist with City Emergency Braking and a rear view camera. Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and MirrorLink also package.

So, yeah, all good news. But there is a catch. This little taste of Latin flair and passion can only be bought in one place – the sole national dealership is in Newmarket – and serviced in three: Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.  

There's no plan for VW Group dealers outside Auckland to handle sales enquiries at this stage; potential customers will be directed to Seat head office in Auckland. And, because the brand has no assistance budget, they’ll have to find their own way.

So that’s going to be an inhibitor to building up a colony outside of our biggest city. Likewise learning that, while any VW or Skoda dealer could handle basic servicing requirements on all Seat product – because, of course, it’s all VW Group stuff underneath – they probably won’t be able to sort any trickier faults because VW ordains unique engine computer access codes for each brand. So only the agents with the correct diagnostic gear can plug and play.

It all sounds as though this brand pitch is every bit as tenuous and temporary as it was the first time SEAT set out to conquest New Zealand; back in the 1980s. That colonisation attempt last just a couple of years. Admittedly, it was with pre-VW product so ordinary that, to find one now, you’d need to look under a backyard tarp or explore a wreckers’ yard or landfill.

However, even though SEAT won’t be looking to set up a national distributorship for ages, and in fact is the smallest operation in the European Motor Distributors group – just four employees working out of a makeshift office in what was previously a boardroom – boss James Yates assures it isn’t here simply so the Giltrap family can claim to have collected the complete set of VW brands (the quest continues with the biggest one, Bugatti, yet to be landed).

Not only is SEAT here to stay, Yates asserts, but it will eventually front with a lot of different product and achieve valid sales. He’s not going to provide a volume prediction, expect to promise that it could easily become as relevant as Skoda here and, whereas the Czech marque took 13 years to hit 1000 units per annum, “SEAT won’t take anywhere near that long.”

 Primary reason for this confidence is that, like Skoda, SEAT’s primary strength will be that it can meet the huge national demand for cheap, quality family-configured characterful sports utilities.

So, even though the Leon will attract buyers – not least when the mainstream FR, with a 110kW 1.4-litre engine, seven-speed DSG and a pricetag of $35,990, comes on sale in March (the SEAT crew has single, UK spec demo car here now and it’s also a fun drive) – as might the Ibiza, a $25,900 supermini based on the next-generation VW Polo platform with an 85kW one-litre engine and seven-speed DSG transmission, the major thrust will be with compact, medium and large SUVs that progressively come over the next two years.

The middle-sized one, Ateca, is also here now, but only in its 140kW turbodiesel Xcellence format. We didn’t get to drive it; Yates has determined the media needs to drive the whole range before passing judgement, so we’ll get access when the front-drive 110kW 1.4 (Style and Xcellence) and 140kW 4WD 2.0 turbo-petrol (FR) editions arrive. That’s going to happen before year-end.

Ateca is developed off the latest Volkswagen Tiguan (but slightly smaller) and is built for SEAT by Skoda, whose own version is the recently-unveiled Karoq, coming next year.

In March, 2018, we get the small Arona, with same 1.0-litre powertrain as Ibiza but in both Style and FR trim levels. Pricing is yet to be announced, and then in April 2019 will come Seat's version of the Skoda Kodiaq, also in seven-seater format. That car doesn’t even have a name; actually, you can help SEAT with this, by entering a global online competition to cast a vote between four choices: Alboran, Aranda, Avila and Tarraco.

Also surely set to strengthen SEAT’s presence is that EMD has established a finance programme modelled on the Personal Contract Purchase scheme that Yates says dominates car-buying in Great Britain.

SEAT Options is a standard 36-month credit agreement with pre-agreed mileage and a guaranteed future value, which aims to remove any concern over residual value. At the end of the contract, owners can either trade-in on a new car, return it or refinance/pay off what is still owing and keep it. SEAT is also offering fixed-price service and maintenance contracts.

New Zealand is seeing SEAT in a sunny state, too; after a decade of crippling losses, it is back on track financially thanks to a model line revitalisation that has created models customers have really warmed too. Its quality status is at a high – though, somewhat ironically, the car that took an award for this was the Audi Q2 it builds under licence.