► Exclusive track test of electric touring car
► Thrashed at Castelloli racetrack
► Rear-wheel drive, four motors, 670bhp
‘Whhhnnnnnggg!’ The Cupra e-Racer is an electric car, but it is not a silent one. Punch the accelerator pedal and its four (four!) electric motors emit a high-pitched, potent whining sound, that quickly builds to a high crescendo, and stays there, like a slightly manic hummingbird.
This is a strange car to drive, and a genuinely exciting one.
What exactly is the Cupra e-Racer?
An all-electric touring car, and one so new that there isn’t yet a series for it to race in.
It’s planned to compete in the upcoming e-TCR electric touring car racing series, for which Hyundai and Honda have also begun developing cars.
The e-Racer already has months of development under its belt, so Cupra (and parent company Seat) has theoretically stolen something of a march on rivals. Motorsport is a handy way of building the nascent Cupra brand’s image and people’s familiarity with the name, and since many of its future road-going models will be hybrid and pure EVs, it makes sense for the company to harness the green brownie points of an electric racing car programme.
CAR has two laps behind the wheel at the Castelloli test circuit in the hills above Barcelona to see how the e-Racer feels.
Give me tech specs
The e-Racer starts life as a regular Leon Evo TCR-formula touring car (built in Seat’s Martorell factory alongside Audi’s RS3 LMS and VW’s Golf TCR touring cars): same shell, rollcage and basic architecture. But the drivetrain is entirely different.
Where the conventional Leon touring car is front-wheel drive, the e-Racer is rear-wheel drive. It’s powered by four motors, two each side of the rear axle, positioned together ‘like two cookies in a packet’ says R&D chief Xavier Serra.
Peak power, available for a limited time while in qualifying spec, is a fearsome 500kW (approximately 670bhp). Today the powertrain is in a mode closer to race-spec, turning out around 400bhp of continuous power. It’ll do.
Next to the conventional petrol-powered Leon TCR in the pits, there are some big aerodynamic differences between the cars. Without an exhaust system to package, the e-Racer is afforded a more expansive diffuser for cleaner aero than the combustion-engined TCR car. To help trim drag, conventional door mirrors are replaced with slim cameras, and a third central camera.
A wide, squat shape, the Leon has plenty of presence. Not least waiting for us in the garage, up on its pneumatic jacks, wearing tyre warmers (over treaded tyres rather than slicks; currently, plans are for the e-TCR cars to race on treaded rubber).
Despite the considerable weight of the 65kWh/800V battery pack, the e-Racer’s kerb weight is a relatively healthy 1570kg. That’s ‘a little bit heavier than a GT3 car,’ Serra says, although it’s approximately 400kg more than a regular Leon TCR car.
What’s it like to drive?
Our time with the car is extremely short, and there isn’t chance for an in-depth briefing on the plethora of bewildering displays in the cockpit. There’s just enough time to tell me how to put the car into gear – a simple click of the right-hand paddle behind the wheel – and I’m then told not to touch the paddles again while the car’s in motion.
CAR is the first to drive this car outside of the Cupra company, and this is the only e-Racer currently in existence. Worth being careful, then.
We have two laps only, following recently signed Cupra ambassador and race driver Mattias Ekström in a conventional petrol-engined Leon TCR race car. Ekström has raced pretty much everything with a roof, from WRC to DTM to Nascar to World Rallycross, and has won pretty much everything too (including beating Sebastien Loeb in his own rally car in the Race of Champions – an event Ekström has won three times). So he knows a thing or two about developing touring cars. ‘I don’t have any single-seater experience. I decided early on to try and be one of the best Touring Car drivers in the world. I have ticked pretty much every box – an EV is the only thing I haven’t driven previously.’
I’m waved out of the garage, Ekström guns the TCR car out of the pitlane and onto the circuit, and I push the accelerator pedal wide open for the first time. There’s that high-pitched whine we began the story with, and the odd thing is that it stays high – a little like a car with a CVT gearbox.
It’s loud, but far less so than an ICE car. The TCR car’s turbocharged four-cylinder engine ahead sounds rorty, flatulent, and resonates through the e-Racer’s cabin. Every time it accelerates out of a corner, I can hear it very clearly through the car.
Acceleration isn’t something the e-Racer is short of. It’s quick, no question, although you quickly acclimatise to the instantaneous torque delivery and grow used to it. It feels roughly akin to a supercar in terms of accelerative force, but entirely alien in its reference points – or lack thereof.
With the high-pitched whine (and the wind noise you wouldn’t ordinarily notice) taking the place of a crescendo-ing engine note, it can be difficult to judge your braking points and entry speeds initially. Even experienced ace Ekström finds it hard to get his bearings and says it’s easy to find yourself going into corners too fast.
He says he’s considering developing a light system on the dash, to help drivers keep track of just how fast they’re going. There’s a particularly steep downhill braking area at Castelloli at the end of a fast straight that he cautions needs particular needs care, because it can be difficult to judge just how fast you’re going – and the e-Racer is not a slow car.
When you do hit the brakes hard (while trying to resist your fingers’ urge to go for a phantom downshift on the left-hand ‘gear’ paddle), the feel is very natural, despite the incorporated regenerative braking function of the motors. That kicks in a little when you lift from the accelerator, too, and can incite a little bit of oversteer on weight transfer. But it’s very controllable.
What a circuit Castelloli is. A figure-of-eight layout with gigantic elevation changes and backdrop scenery like a Spaghetti Western, it’s an old-school place without much in the way of run-off. The briefing on the sighting lap in a road car with Mattias is admirably frank:
‘This is a dangerous corner. You crash here, you die. And this one. This is an old-school track, which I love, but it also has the biggest bill if you crash…’
How lively is the e-Racer’s handling?
This car is in Ekström’s set-up and it’s quite oversteery and ‘on the nose.’ It has progressively calibrated traction control on the way out of corners but not stability control within them, and the e-Racer lets you slide around a fair bit – and quickly feel confident doing so, helped by the treaded tyres.
‘The basic handling is like a [normal] touring car, and for me that’s important,’ Ekström says. ‘When you try and squeeze the limits, like any racing car it gets difficult – you have to handle the rear with the weight of the battery and the motors, which is more rearward. Compared to a front-wheel drive TCR car, which is more understeery, this one is more oversteery. So anyone who likes to go sideways will love this car!’
What does it sound like from the outside?
Relatively undramatic; a whoosh of tarmac roar and motor whine as the e-Racer speeds past with Mattias at the wheel. The tyres can be louder than the car: ‘I locked up under braking at one point and it sounded like I was killing a cat! You hear the noise through the whole car,’ he laughs.
A whole field of EV touring cars racing could sound interesting…
Could the e-Racer be faster than a petrol touring car?
‘It’s not the aim but over a single lap in qualifying, it’s beatable,’ says Xavier Serra. ‘In a race would be more difficult.
The only other electric racing car I’ve driven is the Jaguar i-Pace eTrophy, and that was a brief run up the hill at Goodwood rather than on a circuit, so it’s not really a fair comparison, but the e-Racer feels more natural, more adjustable, more adaptable, more fit for purpose.
Most importantly, based on our brief snapshot drive, the e-Racer suggests future electric racing cars can still be fun to drive and spectacular to watch – if not necessarily to listen to.
Watch and hear our Cupra e-Racer drive below: