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Is Cupra really any different to Seat?

Cupra Dark Rebel opinion
Cupra Dark Rebel opinion

Dark Rebel concept is a dramatic sports coupé

For those of us who have spent years wondering where the Volkswagen Group was really going with Seat, once touted as its sporty mainstream marque, wonder no longer: the future is dim.

We found out at the Munich motor show that Seat is to stop being a conventional car maker. Its current models will run out and the name will live on for electric ‘mobility solutions’ – e-scooters and so on.

The car focus for Volkswagen’s Spanish arm will move entirely to Cupra, formerly Seat’s even sportier sub-brand, which has taken over the role as the flag-bearer for not just fun cars but mainstream cars too. It’s producing precisely the sort of cars that Seat was always meant to make.

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For years, we were meant to perceive Seat as the Volkswagen Group’s answer to Alfa Romeo, making cars that were dynamically adept, easy on the eye and not uneasy on the pocket. This is effectively what Cupra does now.

Take the Formentor, a model exclusive to Cupra (unlike the earlier Ateca and Leon). Although it looks striking, with a long bonnet, and there are some quick versions, it isn’t a sports model: it’s a five-door family crossover that, with a 1.5-litre engine and an automatic gearbox, can be had for £315 a month.

Grey Cupra Formentor cornering – front
Grey Cupra Formentor cornering – front

It would look just as good and drive just as well with a Seat badge. And I can’t imagine that, outside Spain, the names Seat and Cupra are so ingrained in car buyers’ psyches that it would make the slightest bit of difference to all but the keenest of enthusiasts. Would it?

Maybe Cupra really does mean something to everyday car buyers that Seat never did or ever could do. But, as feels more likely to me, people working at the company feel differently about the two brands and therefore work differently with them.

Talking about the new Dark Rebel concept car, a dramatic sports coupé, Cupra design boss Jorge Díez told us that “with no heritage or need to keep to DNA, we can make it from scratch”.

That’s no doubt accurate. But would ardent Seat fans have been banging down the doors at Martorell in protest had the Dark Rebel come out exactly the same, save for having a Seat badge? “Sorry, Jorge, but this just isn’t sufficiently Alhambraey.”

Brown Seat Alhambra hard cornering – rear
Brown Seat Alhambra hard cornering – rear

Whatever, I’m pleased for the people who work there that, after years of stagnation, they’ve alighted on a brand that seems to have hit a sweet spot. Although it feels like a direction that the parent brand could and should have taken a couple of decades ago.

Another new ‘brand’ that’s having no trouble expanding is Caffeine & Machine, which runs a hub/pub/coffee shop/hotel/place to take your car in Ettington, Warwickshire.

Last week, it opened a new branch, The Bowl, in Houghton Conquest, Bedfordshire, not far from Millbrook Proving Ground. That came as a bit of a surprise: I knew the team was working on opening two other venues, one farther north, one farther south, yet  this one popped up first.

I really like locations like this – Caffeine & Machine or any of the other hospitality outlets notably friendly to cars or bikes. It makes me more inclined to get out.

A mate of mine thinks differently: ignore this car culture nonsense, he says, and just go for a drive – you’ve got a kettle at home. I’m sure that ultimately he’s right, but somehow I like to have a destination in mind. It feels better to plan to go somewhere than plan to go to where I started.

Either way, I’m happy to have another destination in mind.

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