Is the 200bhp Cupra Born a genuinely sporty electric car?
The ingredients all stack up fairly smartly: a short-ish hatchback with just over 200bhp and rear-wheel drive. Immediately sounds interesting, right? Yes, it’s related rather heavily to the VW ID.3 which is about as sporty as cake, but Cupra is supposed to be a more driver-focussed brand, so you’d expect some spice to have been coded into the system. And there are physical changes for the Born, too. It’s 15mm lower at the front than an ID.3 and 10mm lower at the back than the VW equivalent. It has wider tyres, there’s an ‘e-Boost’ system - more on that in a minute - and a mode for the traction control that promises ‘ESC Sport’. The bucket seats are comfy and supportive, too. So there’s intent there.
You’ll feel it immediately, mainly thanks to the steering, which is still numb, but quick on the uptake and nicely accurate. No, you don’t get an excess of information about what the GoodYear Efficient Grip tyres are doing (whose name doesn’t promise much in the way of blu-tack stickiness), but you’ll at least get a decent reaction. Then there’s the way the chassis has been set up: like all electric cars, the Born carries its not insignificant weight well - it’s nearly a two-tonner with this big battery - but because it’s firmly sprung and expensively damped, there’s a lot of control. Bumps and lumps don’t upset it unduly, and although you know when you’ve hit a camber or mid-corner hump, it doesn’t flick the car on way or the other.
This breeds confidence, and the usual scrabble you get from front-wheel drive electric cars when it’s anything other than bone dry doesn’t make an appearance. Though that’s not to say that the Born doesn’t lose traction - it scuffs its rear wheels all the time in greasy conditions, it’s just less annoying, and gathered up by a very stern traction control system. The ESP and traction control is good though, tidying up without the usual jerk or failure to pick itself back out of operation - the car doesn’t die off for a second if you activate it. Saying that, stick it into ‘Sport’ mode - where the traction control light pops up on the dash, you’ll be surprised. Mainly because not much changes. Yes, there’s a definite feeling that the rear is helping trim a line, and boot it on a roundabout and you can feel the rear wheels picking up, but there’s a precious lack of taking your life into your own hands here. Not so much a ‘Sport’ as ‘light cardio’ mode.
Thing is, I’ve been constantly surprised at how much fun the Born can be down a back road. The suspension definitely helps, and there’s a good distance between the modes accessed either from the left hand button on the steering wheel or the central touchscreen. Range really does kill off all pretence of speed, and Cupra mode definitely engages everything the Born has to offer. Personally, I’ve set the ‘Individual’ setting up with fast everything and softer suspension, but that’s just me.
Now, the ‘e-Boost’ button - the one on the right-hand side of the steering wheel. It’s a gimmick. Apparently it ‘offers up to 20kW (27-ish bhp) of additional power’ - which intimates that it’s a kind of digital nitrous. But what it actually does it just put the Born into its most committed ‘Cupra’ mode, and then cycles back to whatever mode you were in before you hit it. You also get the full beans if you push the accelerator all the way to the floor and engage kickdown anyway, so I’m not sure the point of it: if you’re overtaking or looking for maximum acceleration and NOT using the full travel of the accelerator pedal, then… um… Still, it’s actually pretty handy when you’re in saintly range mode and need to quickly switch to something more peppy on a sliproad and then default back. It’s a shortcut switch rather than a push-to-pass button though.
As for everything else, the brakes are fine but feel very wooden with a light touch - you really need to lean on them for a big stop - which feels like something to do with the integration of the regenerative braking system. And the drums on the rear axle. Roll the gear selector forwards of ‘D’ and you get ‘B’ mode, and it’s an effective if not wholly one-pedal re-gen system. No choice of strength like you get on a lot of EVs these days though, and it would be nice to have it on some paddles behind the wheel if there was a choice - you really can make use of stepped re-gen if you have paddle access - and it helps you feel more involved. As an aside, on ice-covered and snowy roads, the brake re-generation and traction control teamed up to provide consistent and controlled braking even when there really wasn’t much traction on offer. A strange little side benefit.
But all of that means that while the Cupra Born 77kWh e-Boost is trying, it still has a little way to go before it gets the Top Gear seal of approval as a sporty hatchback EV. There’s a lot to like, it’ll satiate some driving cravings, and it’s 10 times more satisfying than the VW ID.3. But once you’re past the initial tweakery of feeling the rear move a tiny bit, you need some more depth to the experience. Interestingly, the Renault Megane E-Tech feels more hot-hatch-y even though it’s front-wheel drive, simply because it’s a good deal lighter and more nimble. A solid effort from Cupra, but we’re not quite there yet.