How Cupra’s design boss will shape a new electric brand

Published: 06 November 2019

► Cupra’s design manifesto, by the styling boss
► CAR meets design director Alejandro Mesonero-Romanos
► Up close with the Tavascan concept and its design approach

How do you style a brand-new car marque? The spin-off of Seat’s Cupra label from go-faster badge to a brand in its own right has reached the point where it must establish a visual identity for its upcoming models.  

CAR caught up with Seat and Cupra chief designer Alejandro Mesonero-Romanos to talk about how he and his team are establishing a design language for a nascent brand. 

1. Start with small steps

Cupra began as a badge engineering exercise on the existing Seat Ateca, rather than with a bespoke new car.

‘There are two ways to launch a new brand – step by step, or deploy all at once,’ Mesonero explains. ‘The Cupra Ateca was ambitious but at the same time a little bit humble, using an existing car. I think that was the right thing to do.

‘The second model, the Cupra Formentor coming next year, will have more of its own personality.’

That car’s combination of curved and creased surfaces and connected rear light bar are something of an early manifesto for Cupra’s design cues. Currently the plan is for the Formentor to be badged solely as a Cupra, but a future Seat version hasn’t yet been ruled out. 

The Formentor will be a hybrid, something that’s seen as important to differentiate Cupra as a brand. ‘We are not thinking Cupra will be internal-combustion-engine-exclusive,’ Mesonero says. With that in mind, it’s latest Tavascan concept is a pure battery-electric car, built on the same MEB platform as the Seat El-Born and VW ID.3 electric hatchbacks. 

The Tavascan concept is the brand’s next step a crossover coupe that’s yet to be officially confirmed for production but is looking likely. Should that get the green light we’re told it will ‘definitely’ be badged only as a Cupra, without a separate Seat version. 

2. Yes to Cupra crossovers, no to SUVs

Although the Cupra story began with the square-shouldered Ateca, the Tavascan is very much a coupe-style ‘CUV,’ rather than a more upright SUV. That will set the template for future Cupra models.  

‘Crossovers are more adapted to the brand [than SUVs] – more sporty,’ Mesonero says.  

Although the show car is a four-seater, should a production version follow, it will have five seats.

3. Varying designs, as opposed to a cookie-cutter family look

Whereas some brands seek to have a scalable family resemblance across all models, Cupra will be less bound to one family style, Mesonero says. 

‘The kind of customer that we are approaching is not [necessarily] appreciating so much classical car brands and values,’ Mesonero says. ‘[Cupra] can have more differentiation – it’s not so important that the small car looks like the big car and so on.’ 

It’s understood that a smaller sub-Leon size Cupra model is under consideration, if yet to be officially confirmed.  

‘The idea of Cupra is that it’s a brand within Seat, not a brand within the VW Group,’ Mesonero says. ‘We want it to be autonomous and independent.’  

4. EVs don’t have to look weird

While an important aspect of the Cupra brand will be pure EV models together with hybrids, they won’t make a big song and dance about being electric in the way they are styled.

 

‘For EVs the style of the car will be dictated partly by the architecture and its needs; for example, there will be no grille at the front. But the style doesn’t have to be different. Some companies make the fact that their cars are electric very visible, their approach is to be different. Other companies’ approach for EVs is not to be different at all. Cupra will be somewhere in the middle.’

Mesonero says the Tavascan concept’s wraparound windscreen is something we will see on more electric Cupras. ‘EVs don’t have an engine in the front, so they tend to have the A-pillar far forward. So we have finished it in black to hide it, to make it one graphic.’ 

5. Aero details will be a Cupra hallmark 

Aspects of the Tavascan’s styling such as the fin-like bargeboards along its flanks, and exaggerated diffuser section – made possible by the lack of exhaust system – are intended to put across a message of aerodynamic efficiency. Expect aero fins and flicks to feature on future Cupra road cars.  

6. Copper is here to stay

As seen on the Seat Leon Cupra R, copper will be a signature colour and finish for Cupra models for the time being. 

‘For us it’s a way to get out of the classic codes of red and black for sporty cars,’ Mesonero explains. ‘[With copper] we can be different, more technical. It’s partly inspired by technical elements of mountain bikes, and ski equipment.’

 

The brushed finish of the copper elements on the Tavascan concept is ‘difficult to do with plastics but we’re working with suppliers to achieve it.’

7. Exposed headlight lenses

The Tavascan concept doesn’t have conventional glass covers over its headlights, something Mesonoro would like to translate to production. 

The Tavascan’s deep-set light units appear almost like air intakes. ‘It makes it look more mysterious,’ he adds. Depending on aerodynamics and regulations, production cars may or may not need to feature glass covers, but if they do, they won’t be flat, one-dimensional glass as per the majority of production cars.  

8. Different materials and surface treatments 

The Tavascan features a structured, textured pattern on its grille – or rather, the area where the grille would be on a combustion-engined car – a technique also used to good effect on the Seat El-Born EV.  

Mesonero says that other elements of structured surfacing on the Tavascan were inspired by sports shoes and sports equipment. Despite Cupra being a sporty brand, and extensive carbonfibre trim on the Leon Cupra R, he’s keen to explore alternatives to carbonfibre in the future. ‘Carbonfibre [has] become a very classical approach. Other ideas can be more surprising, and textured surfaces can look lighter.’ 

Likewise, the low-set Cupra logo on the Tavascan concept is something that may appear in production. ‘We [initially] had the logo in a normal position but liked the idea of a triangle graphic,’ he says. ‘We want to break the codes - Cupra shall be proactive.’

 

It’s unlikely to illuminated as per the concept car, however. Eastern European regulations don’t currently allow for illuminated badges as per the concept cars, although there is scope for a ‘ceremonial’ light-up when unlocking the car, for example, which could then dim or shut off when the car is in motion.

9. Push things forward bit by bit

Mesonero likens evolving a company’s design language to throwing a stone along a path: ‘you always try to launch the stone far away, then bring it back. This is our landing position [for the production car. It’s a never-ending process.’

 So the Tavascan concept is the stone launched a little bit further into extreme design language than the production car will be, should it be confirmed. 

‘If you think of design language like a plane taking off to reach cruising speed, from Ateca to Formentor to Tavascan, we’re now starting to level off.’

By James Taylor

CAR's deputy features editor, automotive design graduate, Radical champ

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