2023 Best Performance Small SUV: Cupra Formentor VZx

Fast compact SUVs from the same house go head-to-head, but will it be the VW Group's German brand or Spanish brand that prevails?

2d651d35/wheels best performance small suv 2023 cupra formentor 01 jpg

Throwing a soccer ball in between a Spaniard and a German is like tossing a mouse between two cats. Whatever they’re doing, they’ll stop, and engage fiercely in an instinctive, primal chase.

A look at the scorecard reveals as much. In seven international-level soccer matches including the World Cup, Spain has Germany beat with three wins, one loss and three draws. This is Germany, a nation that’s surely considered putting a soccer ball on its national flag.

It’s the same on four wheels. Remember when a baby-faced F. Alonso put an early end to the retirement trophy collecting hobby of a certain M. Schumacher?

Spain is now attempting to do the same in the world of road cars with its Spanish-made Cupra – a division of national car-maker SEAT – newly arrived in Australia. Vehicles such as its intriguing crossover-wagon Formentor are hoping to disrupt the affordable performance SUV space.

cd75210d/2023 cupra formentor vzx small suv performance group abrook 230526 2725 jpg

All is not what it appears, however. It might be made in Catalonia, but the Formentor is about as Spanish as a paella made by a lederhosen-dressed man named Helmut.

Made by a subsidiary of the mighty Volkswagen Group, the Formentor (which means “trainer” in Spanish – or wheat, depending on your local dialect) – bristles with Volkswagen DNA.

The nomenclature of its thoughtful range marries neatly with that of the Golf, too – the VZ is like a Golf GTI (both use the same front-drive 180kW engine) while the all-wheel drive, range-topping VZx (which we have today) is like a Golf R. All use Volkswagen’s tried-and-true EA888 2.0-litre turbo-petrol inline four-cylinder.

8e6c203f/2023 volkswagen t roc r small suv performance group abrook 230526 2506 jpg

Cupra’s trump card, however, is price, the Formentor undercutting the $68,990 (before on-road costs) Golf R wagon by a neat $7000.

Volkswagen, however, has a secret penalty shot against its in-house foe in the form of the T-Roc R, using the same engine and all-wheel drive. Taking this advantage further is the Grid variant, which spurns supposedly superfluous accoutrements for cloth, manually adjusted seats to offer maximum performance for a no-frills price – $53,400 (before on-road costs), a sizeable $8590 less than the already cut-price Cupra.

For some that would be decisive enough, but we’ll be the judge of that today.

In the metal at Melbourne’s Mount Macedon, exterior styling is ever-subjective; both cars wear 19-inch wheels and flex statement-making quad exhausts. The Cupra is the larger, sleeker car, its long-roof wagon-esque body making the more upright T-Roc look a bit blunter and pugnacious by comparison.

ca4b1e3d/2023 cupra formentor vz small suv performance abrook 230526 1357 jpg

It must be said, though, that the sort-of-generically-styled Formentor’s specialness is a bit lost when painted in white.

Popping the bonnet is also interesting – while they share the same engine, it sits visibly lower in the Formentor, raising expectations of handing to come.

Inside, they diverge further again. Both cars splash the nicer trim only where your hands might go, the rest of their interiors a sea of cost-conscious materials keeping a lid on MSRPs. With interior leather so common in vehicles around this price these days, the Volkswagen’s cloth seats are almost a charming novelty. In isolation you’d be perfectly happy with the T-Roc’s interior – just don’t sit in the Cupra.

130b18af/2023 volkswagen t roc r suv blue abrook 230526 1300 jpg
Every other manufacturer take note: this is how you do digital instruments.

It’s an entirely different proposition, a newer, more dynamic and fresher place to be. The infotainment screen is significantly larger (12.0-inch versus 9.2) and somehow crisper; and so is the digital instrument display (10.25-inch versus 8.0).

The Cupra’s digital instruments are so good in fact – with smart-looking, almost endlessly customisable graphics and menus – that they deserve special mention. Every other manufacturer take note: this is how you do digital instruments.

It’s a pity, then, that Cupra has joined the cost-saving trend of ditching HVAC hard buttons and dials in favour of on-screen controls. That the system’s external temperature controls aren’t illuminated at night is a well-documented and almost humorous oversight. Voice control to adjust the temperature is not an option, either.

133a18aa/2023 volkswagen t roc r suv blue abrook 230526 1213 jpg

Pleasingly, the T-Roc uses much more glanceable HVAC buttons and dials – and adds a bit of illuminated interest to the centre stack at night. Without them, the Cupra’s interior is oddly dark.

The petrol-blue-upholstered Cupra, however, has better front seats – they’re superb – and the nicer, more sophisticated ride quality (both use 40-profile tyres).

Its seating position is also more sporting, sitting you low and very much ‘in’ the car with the bonnet rising up at almost eye level – exactly like a car, and not very SUV at all (although you do sense that you’re riding higher, like you’re in a car with a lift kit).

659a19f5/2023 cupra formentor vzx suv white abrook 230526 1173 jpg

With its 85mm-longer wheelbase, the Cupra has roomier back seats, which also have tri-zone air-con to the T-Roc’s flow control only.

The Cupra’s boot is also bigger – 450L versus 392L – although both are pretty compact compared to larger vehicles like a Tiguan. Both use space-saver spares and have 60:40 split-fold rear seats with ski ports.

Cupra also claims marginally lower fuel consumption at 7.7L/100km on the combined ADR cycle (to the T-Roc’s 8.0L/100km) and can take 95 RON, whereas a large sticker with very capitalised red letters informs that the T-Roc must take pricier 98 RON only. Both have 55-litre fuel tanks.

Around town, they’re as easy to drive as each other, but again the Cupra scores points for its slightly tighter turning circle, standard top-down parking camera view and brilliant, effortless shift-by-wire gear selector.

64cc19e7/2023 cupra formentor vzx suv white abrook 230526 1002 jpg

Get on to a winding road and the Cupra – and this is starting to look like a whitewash – is also the more capable and more engaging performance vehicle.

While the 221kW T-Roc has less power, its lighter kerb weight gives it a better power-to-weight ratio at 139kW/tonne to the 228kW Formentor’s 138kW. Cutely, and almost petulantly, the T-Roc speedo tops out at 320km/h speedo to trump the Cupra’s 300km/h dial.

Both claim 4.9 seconds from zero to 100km/h with visceral, idiot-proof launch control systems that mercifully slightly slip the clutches rather than brutally dump them.

It was a cacophony of DSG dual-clutch blurts as our T-Roc and Formentor, in their manual modes, chased each other up Mount Macedon. Both cars boast great levels of power, all-wheel drive traction and mid-corner grip – and feel about as fast up a twisty road as each other.

8eab2048/2023 volkswagen t roc r small suv performance group abrook 230526 2580 jpg

Feel is good through the steering of each, while their dual-clutch gearboxes are as cleanly responsive as ever.

The T-Roc scores points for its cool R-spec steering wheel with tall, slim, scythe-like paddles (versus cheaper, more forgettable plastic items in the Cupra). But while the T-Roc is great fun – its narrower body granting more space in the lane for carving racing lines – the Cupra has a notably different personality.

Activate Cupra driving mode using the steering wheel button and an unusual, obviously synthetic, almost five-cylinder engine noise burbles through the speakers at ambling speeds. If you ask me, it’s better turned off as the EA888 with its delightful, natural turbo hiss provides all the acoustics you need.

4bd8271b/2023 cupra formentor vz volkswagen t roc small suv performance group abrook 230526 1679 jpg

In isolation, the T-Roc is a hoot, but both cars are distinctly different in handling balance.

Where the T-Roc is a more natural understeerer, reminiscent of Golf Rs of old, the Cupra channels a newer, livelier handling personality that will stimulate more experienced drivers. It makes the T-Roc feel a bit one-dimensional.

The Cupra also has many more modes and adjustability to play with. Unlike the T-Roc, there are multiple Sport and Comfort settings for things like the all-wheel drive, and there is a greater range of artificial engine sounds. The damper control, delightfully, offers 15 levels of incremental adjustment using a touchscreen slider, versus the usual “Comfort”, “Sport” and “Sport Plus”.

Off the winding road and back on a spreadsheet, the Cupra eats further into the T-Roc’s $8590 price advantage. Both come with the same five-year warranty and 15,000km/12-month servicing intervals, but the Cupra can be had with a $1990 five-year pre-paid servicing plan versus $2990 for the exact same thing from VW.

4baf2717/2023 cupra formentor vz volkswagen t roc small suv performance group abrook 230526 3666 jpg

Resale might be a different proposition – Cupra is about as well-known in Australia as Shannon Noll is in Norway – while the T-Roc’s R badge has instant credibility.

Getting to know the Cupra, there’s almost something Lamborghini about it. Hexagons litter the interior and exterior styling, exactly as they do modern cars from Sant’Agata. The Cupra’s edgy software fonts are also Lambo-esque, and the interior even smells weirdly like that of a Lamborghini.

Somewhere along the line, a raging bull clearly broke into the Cupra paddock overnight – when the matador was having a siesta. No bad thing at all.

0dd225dd/2023 cupra formentor vzx volkswagen t roc r small suv performance group static jpg
In the final reckoning, though, we say check under the couch or twist your bank manager’s arm for an extra $8K…

This whole shebang may have been a different story if we could include a Hyundai Kona N, which offers 206kW, an eight-speed dual-clutch ’box and T-Roc R performance with more equipment for even less coin ($52,200 before on-road costs in Premium guise). Luckily for both T-Roc and Formentor, we couldn’t get our hands on one in time.

In the final reckoning, though, we say check under the couch or twist your bank manager’s arm for an extra $8K and not just because the Formentor feels a generation newer than the T-Roc and has the lengthier standard equipment list. As its debut podium finish at Wheels Car of the Year attests, it’s one of the best new arrivals of the last few years.

Call it Spain one – Germany nil.


Cupra Formentor VZx: 8.5/10

Things we like

  • Lively dynamics
  • Supple ride
  • Epic digital instruments
  • Value

Not so much

  • Lack of HVAC buttons
  • Slightly generic styling
  • Everybody asking what it is

Volkswagen T-Roc R Grid: 8/10

Things we like

  • Great bang-for-buck
  • Epic performance
  • HVAC hard buttons and dials

Not so much...

  • Feels a bit old
  • Bit cramped in the back
  • Lacks some tech
  • Servicing costs
Cupra Formentor VZxVW T-Roc R Grid
Safety, value and features8.58
Comfort and space8.58
Ride and handling98


Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.