Sven Schuwirth talks to Megan Lampinen about his strategy around EVs, connectivity and alternative retail
Future mobility trends are forcing established automakers to reinvent themselves as technology companies, but what does that mean for a performance brand based on the love of driving? Cupra is a relative newcomer, but with the backing of the Volkswagen Group. Spun off from SEAT as a standalone brand in 2018, it’s jockeying for position in a future that’s electric and connected, but also one that prioritises the driving experience.
Chief Operating Officer Sven Schuwirth is charged with the day-to-day operations of the brand, overseeing a radical strategy rewrite in the wake of electrification, connected technology and the retail revolution. As he tells Automotive World: “It’s honestly the best time of my life and the most exciting project I’ve worked on in the automotive industry.”
Cupra unveiled its latest concept model, the electric DarkRebel shooting brake, at IAA in Munich. What does this particular model say about the future design direction of the brand?
We have positioned Cupra as an emotional contemporary brand with a clear focus on design and performance. It is for people who love to drive. The DarkRebel shows the potential of Cupra. It’s a model that could lift up the brand. It’s not a car for everyone, but Cupra’s not a brand for everyone.
Was it designed as an answer to specific mobility needs?
This kind of car is not a need on its own. It’s more a benefit, something you buy to honour yourself. There will always be a market for this type of car because people still want to enjoy life. We’re looking at doing that in a sustainable way—this is an electric car, and electric cars should not be boring.
So, will the future be electric?
In Europe and China, from a car perspective, it’s a clear yes.
What are some of the challenges in transforming a performance brand into electric?
It’s more of an opportunity. The feel of the pedal becomes more relevant, as does the steering. The one thing that is naturally missing in electric cars is the sound. It sends a signal to your senses. We need to think about that one and transfer it to an electric car. It will need to be a Cupra-specific sound. We are interested in all the senses: maybe not taste, but certainly smell, sight, sound, and touch. These things need to be orchestrated perfectly within the Cupra DNA.
What does electrification mean for your cars’ sticker price?
The relevance of sticker price is declining, as most people finance or lease their car and are therefore looking at a monthly rate. In the past we went for a low sticker price, but all the optional features were configured separately. That meant it took shoppers ages to configure a car, and they ended up with another 30% or 40% on top of the sticker price. We recently decided to bundle together features in packages for a product that is more user friendly. In a few clicks, you have your car.
How might electrification feed into model design or material choice?
There’s a wider focus on sustainability, and this includes the energy and the materials. I cannot call a car or electric mobility sustainable if the energy or the materials are not renewable. On the Cupra Born, we incorporated recycled materials and are continuously increasing the amount of recycled material in our show models
Much of your background is in digital strategy, with previous positions such as SEAT’s Head of Digital Business and Audi’s Head of Digitalisation. How important is a strong digital strategy for automotive brands today?
It is super important. As automotive brands ramp up their own digital ecosystem, they are ignoring the fact that the customer already has their own digital ecosystem in their pocket—the smartphone. They use that all day but spend perhaps just one hour a day in a car. We need to more smartly incorporate that within our ecosystem. When driving, you’re not allowed to touch your smartphone, so we want to display only the information that is relevant in that certain moment and get rid of all the rest. Less is more.
How closely are you working with Apple or Google?
We already have Apple CarPlay and Android Auto in our cars, and it’s been a great success, but it is just the beginning. Why should we redevelop everything? Why should we develop our own music library in our cars when Spotify already comes with Apple CarPlay?
It’s not just cars that are evolving but also retail strategies and ways that people access mobility. What sort of alternative approaches are you exploring on this front?
We offer subscription services in five markets with the Cupra Born, but it’s still early days. When it comes to dealers, we took a different format when Cupra launched in 2018 with the City Garage approach. This is more than just a retail store: it’s a three-dimensional space to engage with the brand. You can go there to buy a car, get a service, or just drink a coffee and meet people. It’s also used for nighttime events with DJs and art galleries. In all these different forms, it represents the brand inside the metropolitan area. These locations are staffed by Cupra Masters, which blend sales and service. They are your friend and hopefully accompany you through your entire lifetime, like a concierge in a hotel.
There has been quite a lot of brand activity from Cupra recently. What’s the main message you want to get across with it?
Electric mobility is sexy—short and sweet.