Cupra is situated in Martorell, just north of Barcelona, where it shares its location with a sprawling factory that was once the production hub for Spain’s prominent automobile manufacturer, Seat. Originally known as Sociedad Española de Automóviles de Turismo (the Spanish Touring Automobiles Company), Seat was established in the 1950s as a partially state-owned venture. In its early years, the company maintained strong connections with Fiat, leading to many of its initial models essentially being rebadged Fiat vehicles. It wasn’t until Seat came under the ownership of the Volkswagen Group in 1986 that it began to carve out its unique identity.
Cupra is striving to establish itself as the most emotionally driven electric car manufacturer. We had a conversation with Cupra’s CEO Wayne Griffiths about the artistic, scientific, and imaginative aspects essential in building an automotive brand from the ground up.
Today, Seat has undergone another transformation. The Cupra nameplate, which was previously a performance-oriented sub-brand under Seat, was separated into an independent entity in 2018. Both entities are under the leadership of Wayne Griffiths, a seasoned automotive industry expert with more than three decades of experience within the VW Group. Wayne’s journey within the group began at Audi and later extended to his role at Seat.
Cupra Headquarter →
“Our journey took us to the corporate headquarters to delve into the world of Cupra and explore the future endeavors of this pioneering company dedicated to an electric-powered futur”
– Wayne Griffiths
Cupra’s headquarters seamlessly blend workspaces with expansive public areas, brimming with automotive memorabilia and objects. Despite the contemporary exterior design resembling a deconstructed business park, the interior exudes a distinctive dark and neo-gothic atmosphere, mirroring the brand’s cars, characterized by matte black finishes, bronze accents, and subtle Gaudi-inspired embellishments.
The DarkRebel Concept
The company’s latest concept car, known as the DarkRebel, made its debut at the 2023 Munich auto show, encapsulating the brand’s penchant for embracing bold and extravagant design cues, reminiscent of the Batmobile’s allure, fusing elements of Christopher Nolan’s style with a hint of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Griffiths is well aware that Cupra has been presented with a unique opportunity. In contrast, Volkswagen’s ongoing electric vehicle (EV) strategy must navigate the uncertain terrain of evolving regulations, shifting public expectations, and indecisive political decisions, necessitating a degree of strategic caution.
This relatively new brand acts as a forward scout, dispatched to survey the landscape in the post-combustion era and lay down markers for the future.
While Volkswagen itself plans to retain internal combustion engines until at least 2033, Cupra is poised to make a much swifter exit from combustion engine vehicles, with discussions revolving around a potential transition as early as 2025.
“When we introduced the brand five years ago, our objective was to establish Cupra as a challenger brand,” states Griffiths. “A brand defined by its emotional design and high-performance characteristics, steering clear of the conventional premium, luxury, heritage, or tradition narratives. Cupra’s genesis is attributed to two driving forces: the industry’s transformative upheaval due to electrification and the evolving social norms influenced by varying value systems.”
The latter aspect alludes to the transformation in the way people own and use cars. In the past, the term “mobility” was synonymous with four-wheeled vehicles parked at one’s home. However, today, it encompasses a wide spectrum, ranging from public transportation to car sharing, cycling, e-bikes, and even scooters.
“Previously, Seat was primarily perceived as offering more affordable Volkswagen alternatives “Griffiths candidly points out. “Now, we bring a novel value proposition to the table. We are the sole brand within the group that has been conceived entirely from the ground up.” Griffiths underscores the fact that Cupra’s clientele consists of a younger demographic seeking fresh and innovative experiences. Until approximately 18 months ago, this “newness” was still closely tied to the brand’s former parent company. Models such as the Leon and the Ateca were essentially upgraded variants of Seat’s offerings. The inaugural Cupra-exclusive model was the Formentor, an elegant fusion of hatchback and SUV design elements.
Subsequent to the Formentor, the Born EV emerged as a Cupra-branded adaptation of Volkswagen’s ID.3 electric vehicle. On the horizon, we anticipate the arrival of the Tavascan and Terramar SUVs, both slated for a 2024 debut, as well as the Cupra Raval (previously known as the UrbanRebel), a compact city car anticipated to hit the market by 2025. These upcoming releases are poised to foster substantial growth and enhance customer perception for the emerging brand. With a track record of 400,000 cars sold to date, Griffiths emphasizes, “We’ve transcended the phase of being an experimental venture or a mere trial — people now recognize that our approach is effective.“
Through active participation in events such as Extreme E racing, Griffiths contends that Cupra is contributing to the redefinition of the essence of motorsport, ensuring that the brand’s racing origins remain prominent. While Cupra vehicles are undeniably fast, the lineup still falls short of becoming a dedicated sports car brand, but that was never the primary objective. Surprisingly, the development of an all-electric model range was not part of the initial plan in 2018. Griffiths acknowledges, “It’s been expedited by factors like the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the semiconductor shortage, and the pressing climate crisis.”
With electric vehicles now taking center stage in Cupra’s strategy, Griffiths remains committed to producing distinctive cars. “We concentrate solely on crafting emotionally charged electric cars,” he affirms, highlighting the recent DarkRebel concept as an illustrative example. “It represents the utmost embodiment of an emotional electric car, designed for true car enthusiasts rather than being influenced by focus groups or aiming solely to please the masses. I often tell our Design Director, Jorge Diez, that he should aim to astonish me. The design team enjoys the highest degree of creative freedom and flexibility.”
The transition to electrification provides an additional layer of simplification to an automotive industry that was already heavily dependent on cross-brand and cross-group platform sharing. Moreover, it creates opportunities for up-and-coming challenger brands to compete effectively against century-old, well-established names. Regardless of whether you perceive driving as a source of joy or a daily task, the industry is working diligently to offer solutions that cater to a wide spectrum of needs. In larger companies like the Volkswagen Group, which stands as the world’s largest car manufacturer by revenue, the challenge lies in addressing a broader range of consumer preferences and requirements.
“We have a clear vision of our destination“
This is precisely where Cupra plays a crucial role, allowing Griffiths the liberty to break free from rigid rules or brand guidelines. “I understand the essence of what Cupra represents and what it doesn’t,” he states with clarity.
– Wayne Griffiths
This vision encompasses a firm belief that a daring, high-performance sports model will consistently resonate with a dedicated audience, regardless of external factors. “There will perpetually be individuals who are passionate about driving,” he affirms. “Our focus won’t shift towards self-driving or autonomous cars.“
While the DarkRebel is unquestionably a concept vehicle, there’s a palpable sense that it’s the car that Griffiths himself would be most eager to drive. One of its notable technical features is the integration of an avatar-like personal assistant and the incorporation of three distinct driving modes, each capable of entirely transforming the car’s character. Griffiths emphasizes the importance of system collaboration over competition, particularly in an era where “data is the new currency” for automakers. He acknowledges that the challenges of ensuring security and data protection are multifaceted.
Automobile manufacturers assure us that we’ve reached a pivotal moment in addressing automotive weight concerns. Balancing performance, safety, and range has led to the success of larger electric vehicles, while smaller, shorter-range machines face resistance from drivers who remain concerned about range limitations. “A 600-mile range will alleviate these preoccupations.” Griffiths confidently asserts, highlighting that the current limitations are temporary.
Volkswagen is making substantial investments in Spain, encompassing new platforms, advanced battery technology, and the establishment of a new battery assembly plant, with a total investment of approximately €10 billion. Cupra’s unwavering confidence is bolstered by Volkswagen’s strategic approach to both sister brands. Seat is increasingly delving into micro-mobility, introducing the electric Mo scooter and potentially a Citroën Ami rival based on the 2019 Minimo concept. Interestingly, it’s Cupra, not Seat, that has its sights set on conquering the formidable US market, emphasizing the need for a large SUV tailored to American preferences.
One of the key advantages of being a new brand is the absence of historical baggage or misaligned associations. Everything Cupra undertakes is founded on fresh, innovative principles, albeit with the formidable support of the Volkswagen Group. This includes the exploration of novel materials and a focus on the unique sounds generated by the latest generation of electric vehicles. The mandatory Acoustic Vehicle Alerting System (AVAS) requires every automaker to establish an acoustic department and develop their distinctive acoustic signature.
For instance, the Tavascan is set to produce a sound inspired by nature, akin to the gentle rustling of water flowing over pebbles on a beach or the whisper of wind through tall grass. This innovative approach extends to lighting design, a visual hallmark that has gained increasing importance due to the adaptability of LED technology. Comparatively, a Tavascan-sized car from two decades ago would likely have had only five bulbs in the passenger compartment, whereas the new model boasts an impressive array of over 100 LEDs within the interior alone.
Above all, Cupra firmly believes it is ideally positioned to thrive in an era of transformation. “We’re a brand from Barcelona, characterized by youth, vibrancy, and a coastal spirit, yet deeply rooted in a rich cultural heritage,” Griffiths explains. He emphasizes that opportunities such as brand partnerships and collaborations with ambassadors present promising prospects for an energetic, sporty, and focused new company. “There are some realms I’d like to delve into further, such as fashion,” he adds, “as well as the world of cinema, not solely in terms of product placement but also in the context of working with select directors.”
Cupra has already aligned itself with Barcelona’s Primavera festival and is prominently featured on FC Barcelona’s jerseys. Griffiths simplifies his perspective, stating, “You’re destined for failure if you attempt to safeguard the status quo.” He believes that the future belongs to those courageous enough to reinvent themselves and embark on new, innovative endeavors.