New Cupra Formentor and Volvo XC40 hybrids vs BMW X1 25e
A plug-in hybrid SUV could make a lot of sense for families with an eye on running costs. Let’s see who makes the best one: BMW, Cupra or Volvo...
NEW Cupra Formentor e-Hybrid 245 VZ2
List price £40,260
Target Price £39,757
This is the only brand-new model in the test. It’s a sharp-looking plug-in hybrid coupé SUV with the best offcial electric-only range of the three
NEW Volvo XC40 Recharge T4 R-Design
List price £39,445
Target Price £37,320
Cheaper and less powerful than the existing Recharge T5 model, this plug-in version of our favourite family SUV has a price advantage over its rivals that could prove key
BMW X1 xDrive25e M Sport
List price £40,580
Target Price £38,695
This is a relatively recent addition to the X1 range, which historically is known for good practicality, handling and interior quality
Having a great idea and being first to market with it doesn’t guarantee that you'll be the one to profit from it in the long run. Take Mitsubishi: it was first to realise that the plug-in hybrid SUV would be the next big thing when, back in 2013, it launched its Outlander PHEV. With the ability to run solely on electric power for short journeys and a petrol engine on hand for longer trips, the Outlander PHEV proved that you really could have your cake and eat it, and consequently it was a big hit. Yet Mitsubishi will soon be abandoning the UK market altogether, due to poor sales of its other models.
Fortunately, the plug-in SUV isn't going anywhere. Indeed, there are now dozens of options to choose from – some practical, some sporty and almost all of them considerably better than the Mitsubishi that blazed the trail.
Our first contender is actually a former What Car? Car of the Year. Spacious and family-friendly, the Volvo XC40 was originally available with only a conventional petrol or diesel engine, and while a plug-in hybrid version has been offered for some time now, here we’re testing the new Recharge T4 version, which trades some performance for a lower price tag.
A sportier contender comes from a brand you might not have heard of: Cupra. The performance arm of Seat, its latest car is the striking Formentor, which is part coupé and part SUV. It's available with pure petrol engines ranging from 148bhp to 306bhp, but here we’re testing the more powerful of two plug-in models.
As for our third protagonist, that appears to have both bases covered. The BMW X1 has long been one of the most practical family SUVs, but the xDrive25e actually promises to be even faster than the Formentor. Is it flawed in other areas?
Performance, ride, handling, refinement
Let’s start with performance, something plug-in hybrids are often very good at. That’s because, as well as a petrol engine, they have an electric motor to help give them a spring in their step. In the Formentor and XC40, the combined efforts from both power sources are fed to the front wheels, whereas the X1’s electric motor drives the rear wheels to give it four-wheel drive.
Four-wheel drive is a big advantage when it comes to transferring lots of power to the road from a standstill, and this largely explains why the X1 is able to outsprint the Formentor from 0-60mph. However, when you’re already rolling, the Formentor’s extra muscle (242bhp, versus 217bhp in the X1) starts to tell; it accelerates from 30-70mph in 5.0sec, compared with the 5.7sec taken by the German car.
The XC40 is the slowcoach here, but these things are relative. It’s still capable of getting from 30-70mph in a very respectable 6.9sec, so motorway slip roads and caravan overtakes are no challenge, although there’s no doubt its whole demeanour is more about getting you where you’re going in comfort rather than super-quickly.
To that end, the XC40’s supple suspension does a fine job of smothering general road scars and minor imperfections. The trade-off is some gentle swaying from side to side but, all things considered, it’s the most comfortable of our trio.
Although the Formentor can’t match the XC40 in this respect, its standard adaptive suspension allows you to soften things off for a reasonably supple ride. It’s certainly more compliant than the X1, in which you feel bumps most readily as they pass beneath the car. That said, you still wouldn’t describe it as uncomfortable.
If you’re looking for something that’s vaguely good fun to drive, the X1 will suit you best. It’s the most agile and feels the most well balanced through corners, plus its steering is accurate and gives you a good sense of connection to the road.
The Formentor, meanwhile, feels a little nose-heavy and is more prone to running wide of your chosen line when cornering quickly. Accelerate hard and the steering wheel sometimes feels as though it’s connected to the wheels via an angry snake, tugging one way and the other in your hands. At other times it’s accurate and nicely weighted, though.
Don’t expect to have much fun in the XC40 when the road gets twisty. Sure, it handles tidily enough when you’re driving gently, but push a bit harder and there’s lots of body lean. The steering is rather numb, too.
While other versions of the X1 suffer from lots of road noise, we found this less of an issue in the xDrive25e. Indeed, it wasn’t much noisier than the XC40 at a 70mph cruise. The Formentor is the least peaceful cruising companion, but then Cupra is supposed to be a sporty brand and, if you select the eponymous mode, it mimics the sound of the five-cylinder engine from the Audi RS Q3 (it’s completely fake, of course).
But one of the main advantages of a plug-in hybrid is the ability to cover most journeys using only battery power, so how do our trio fare at that? Well, there isn’t a great deal in it for real-world range, with the Formentor managing 24 miles in our test before needing to call on its petrol engine and the X1 and XC40 topping out at 22 and 20 miles respectively.
The XC40 does have the weakest electric motor, though, so it struggles to get up steep inclines without requisitioning the petrol engine’s assistance. On the plus side, it’s most efficient of our trio when its battery is out of juice, averaging an impressive 45.9mpg in our hands. The Cupra managed 41.5mpg and the X1 a disappointing 35.4mpg.
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