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The first model from Seat's standalone performance brand is an unconventional launchpad with some pace and precision, but lacks the hallmarks of a great driver’s car

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This week, we turn to a question that fans of a certain popular line of affordable European performance cars might well have been waiting for an answer to since March 2018.

Exactly what might we get from a Cupra ‘Seat’ that we haven’t so far been given by one of the many Seat Cupra hot hatchbacks that the Spanish firm has brought to market since the very first, the 148bhp Seat Ibiza GTI Cupra Sport of 1996?

I’m not sure if the new Cupra brand icon looks more like it belongs on an ’80s BMX bike, a Transformer figure or the local market’s knock-off jewellery stand. But I don’t like it on a performance car.

The newly independent Cupra performance brand, announced at the Geneva motor show last March, has finally borne fruit in order to begin addressing that question. And, rather intriguingly, the Cupra Ateca performance crossover SUV is the car with which the brand has chosen to introduce us to its new, founding values.

Those values are “performance, drivability, usability and sophistication,” as defined by Cupra’s own claims – an interesting combination that suggests Seat will no longer be in pursuit of cars with Ford RS, Renault Sport Cup or Honda Type-R badges but instead be using the performance engineering resources of its motorsport division to offer cars not unlike the GTIs made by its parent company, Volkswagen.

And, as if to underline, capitalise and highlight such a decisive change in tack, Cupra is opening for business with a high-rise, four-wheel-drive, go-faster family car with more power than any of its kind yet to be produced by any car maker outside of the premium-branded sphere. The Cupra Ateca might be a product marketing Venn diagram bullseye.

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In principle, it combines the engine, gearbox and driveline of a popular and critically acclaimed hot hatchback (and hot hatchbacks like the VW Golf R are bigger business in Europe now than they have been in some time) with the fashionable, desirable, added-convenience bodystyle of a crossover hatchback.

But in the real world, as executed in this particular case, is that combination as appealing as it may have seemed in theory?

Price £35,900 | Power 296bhp | Torque 295lb ft | 0-60mph 4.9sec | 30-70mph in fourth 8.3sec | Fuel economy 28.9mpg | CO2 emissions 168g/km | 70-0mph 52.4m (damp)

What Car? New car buyer marketplace

DESIGN & STYLING

Cupra Ateca 2019 road test review - hero side

So what makes a Cupra a Cupra and not a Seat; or, more specifically, how might this car have been different had it simply been a Seat Ateca Cupra?

The answer as regards this Ateca’s mechanical make-up is probably very little. This is, after all, only a more powerful, more performance-focused version of Seat’s medium-sized crossover SUV – although entirely separate and more clearly distinguished Cupra models are rumoured to be in the pipeline.

Copper colour of Cupra logo is a welcome departure from the palette typical of performance cars like this. If you like it, the optional alloy wheels included with the Design package are coloured similarly.

The car uses the latest, WLTP emissions-compliant version of the VW Group’s EA888 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine (which is also due to appear in the 2019-model-year Golf R and the Audi SQ2 very soon) and produces a peak 296bhp of power and 295lb ft of torque. The forthcoming BMW X2 xDrive M35i will beat those outputs, but no other crossover hatchback at a similar price point currently does so.

The Cupra Ateca features a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox and a clutch-based electronically controlled four-wheel-drive system as standard. Suspension is by the same arrangements of MacPherson struts at the front and multiple links at the rear that four-wheel-drive versions of the Seat Ateca use; but the Cupra gets stiffer suspension springs and anti-roll bars, uprated adaptive dampers, 19in alloy wheels and uprated brakes as standard.

The car runs with a ride height lowered by 20mm compared with that of a regular Ateca and offers a ground clearance improvement over that of a normal five-door hatchback of about the same margin. With air springs almost unknown on cars of this type, there’s no mechanism to make the car capable of switching between jacked-up and lowered suspension modes.

However, the Cupra Ateca does have ‘progressive’ passive variable-ratio power steering, which cuts the rack’s lock-to-lock travel to just 2.1 turns. But, unlike other four-wheel-drive performance machines, it has no dedicated asymmetrical torque vectoring hardware, although it does allow you to adjust the behaviour and inter-axle torque distribution of the Haldex-style four-wheel drive through various drive modes.

The car has some distinguishing exterior design features, but they’re restricted mostly to bumper and grille embellishments. Most testers agreed that the Cupra Ateca is appealing enough, but also felt more could and should have been done to produce a more clearly identifiable visual appeal for a car from an all-new brand.

INTERIOR

Cupra Ateca 2019 road test review - cabin

For a stand-alone performance brand derived from a marque whose marketing efforts promote playful chic, the Cupra Ateca’s interior feels unapologetically Volkswagen Group.

There are, of course, benefits to this. The ergonomics are all but infallible and, alongside the car’s generous, visibility-enhancing glasshouse, soaring head room for all on board means the Ateca’s cabin has a lofty, airy feel absent from, say, a Golf R. It’s also very easy to slide into, and while the packaging of the multilink rear suspension robs the car of some load-carrying potential, 485 litres of capacity comfortably exceeds that of comparable hot hatchbacks.

Bucket seats are said to be on their way and they can’t arrive soon enough. The standard sports seats are too unsupportive and perched to give you a real sense that you’re in a serious performance car.

The standard of material fit also feels encouragingly high although, unsurprisingly, not quite on the same level as a Volkswagen Tiguan. Oddly overlapping cupholders aside, you could live with this car so very easily, which is the point.

But what Cupra has struggled to do is move the Ateca away from the perception that practicality lies at the heart of the offering. Performance cars should feel more cosseting than this, and while the touch points send the right message – perforated leather on the satisfyingly firm, thin rim of the steering wheel, generous Alcantara for the bolstered seats and copper-coloured stitching – this environment doesn’t automatically make you want to get stuck into the driving experience. If the Cupra’s interior had been more urbane in the wider choice of materials, this might not matter so much. As it is, even sporadic gloss black, chrome and Alcantara trim can’t divert one’s gaze from the more ordinary dashboard and window-sill mouldings.

The instruments and display feel more in keeping with a car whose asking price is well on its way to £40,000. As in the Seat Ateca, the Cupra’s infotainment screen and its digital instrument binnacle (standard for this model) are set on the same plane and look superbly crisp. They do much to lift the ambience of an otherwise subdued interior and are an antidote to a busy transmission tunnel and centre console smattered with switchgear.

The Cupra’s digital array does much to lift the ambience of an otherwise staid cabin. Both the central 8.0in touchscreen display (which handily retains some physical switchgear, for quick adjustments on the move) and the entirely pixelated instrument binnacle come as standard, as does DAB, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring.

The various menus for the media, navigation and information functions are as straightforward to negotiate as we’ve come to expect from the Volkswagen Group stable, and the Cupra gets an additional readout for turbo boost pressure, power output (in kilowatts, alas) and all-important g-force.

The instrument binnacle is the real star, though, with four different skins that prioritise the legibility of engine speed, road speed and navigation as you see fit. There’s a mode that attempts to tick all boxes, but we’re not sure dials that scroll up the side of the readout will ever catch on (although BMW has recently chosen to go down this path).

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Cupra Ateca 2019 road test review - engine

The Volkswagen Group’s EA888 four-pot has served many a hot hatch supremely well, so it’s little surprise that this 2.0-litre turbo is one of the Cupra Ateca’s biggest selling points. Although it is not immune from lag, the throttle response is notably crisp, and there’s a rare cleanliness to the smooth manner in which it pulls to the 6500rpm redline.

We might have wanted more character from the sports exhaust when Sport or Cupra mode is selected (there are, after all, a full quartet of exhaust tips), but equally this engine’s aural refinement in normal use is beyond question. If you’re driving the car every day, it’s the engine’s sense of classiness, coupled with its breadth and flexibility of performance, that make it seem like a motor with few peers. A dual-clutch gearbox whose discreet mechanisms are generally very well timed completes the picture agreeably.

It controls its body well, grips decently and feels direct by the standards of a crossover SUV, but it fails to deliver the lasting driver appeal of a good hot hatch

Perhaps it might follow, then, that the car seems a bit aloof. The Cupra Ateca’s outright performance is certainly stronger in objective terms than it feels from behind the wheel.

Hooked up to the road test telemetry equipment, this 1615kg crossover SUV recorded a 0-60mph time of 4.9sec, shading that of even the 5.0-litre V8-engined Ford Mustang Bullitt tested recently.

However, in-gear acceleration feels slightly less muscular. The important overtaking metric of 40-60mph in fourth gear took 3.9sec while, in a full-fat hot hatchback of a similar price, it’d be little over 3.0sec. Given that the Ateca is more than 100kg heavier than a Golf R and more than 200kg heavier than the last Honda Civic Type R we performance tested (2017), this is simply the price you pay for practicality, although similar can be said regarding aerodynamics and a raised driving position (which in turns stifles the sensation of speed).

In short, and in the real world, you’ll be going quicker in a hot hatch, and feel like you are going quicker still when your chance to give the Ateca its head finally presents.

Elsewhere, the Cupra Ateca is the respectable, usable, civilised car it’s cracked up to be. Its 55-litre fuel tank allows 350 miles between fill-ups on motorway runs. At 70mph, the engine is turning over at little more than 2000rpm and our microphones recorded cabin noise at that speed at 67dB. That’s reasonable for a performance car wearing low-profile tyres and some aggressive body styling and is a match for the more slippery profiled Golf R.

RIDE & HANDLING

Cupra Ateca 2019 road test review - cornering front

If Seat’s aspiration for the Cupra Ateca was simply to mimic the handling of a bona fide hot hatch at greater altitude, then the car ultimately falls short. However, when you consider just how high the bar is now set in the hot hatchback segment for body control, outright grip, handling response and adjustability, failure to live up to such exacting standards need not necessarily make this car a total disappointment.

Select wisely one of the six driving modes and the Cupra Ateca displays a fairly adaptable dynamic character. With the dampers in their more relaxed setting, the ride quality is taut but reasonably yielding and, as an everyday, every-road compromise, it’s somewhere between satisfactory and creditable. Admittedly, if you only rarely exercise this chassis on more testing routes, the insistent firmness of that ride and the immediacy of the initial steering response would both likely become tiring, but the Cupra’s ability to maintain good body control – and generate decent grip and plenty of handling directness – when commitment levels rise give it certain qualifications as a driver’s car.

Ateca readily darts into corners, and patient use of the throttle helps fire it out in short order. Get greedy and understeer is inevitable.

Go looking for a more compelling kind of driver reward, though, and this chassis can’t cut it in the same manner as the best hot hatches. The raised ride height and extra weight demand a pretty authoritarian suspension tune – one unyielding to the extent that the front axle can deflect as it tries to digest the more pronounced flaws in a road surface.

Were it to provide a platform for more balanced handling when it comes to the crunch, you might forgive the twitchiness. As it is, no combination of steering (well weighted and swift, but anaesthetised) and throttle unlocks meaningful mid-corner adjustability.

The clever, torque-shifting driveline software that creates just enough of a rear-driven sensation in the Golf R is also absent, and hard, initially neutrally balanced cornering quickly bleeds into understeer. The result is a car found wanting for agility, poise, grip and personality just when it needs to raise its game.

During the marketing build-up before launch, Cupra hinted at the track-day mentality of its very first model. A few laps of Millbrook’s Hill Route put paid to the slogans, however. Although the Ateca remains within itself more often than not on the road, this tortuous circuit quickly reveals a stubborn chassis prone to understeer, as the tall body is tugged in the preceding direction of travel.

The car’s relatively short wheelbase and spry steering ratio make short work of the course’s tight hairpins – although, even at maximum attack, there’s precious little in the way of communication or a palpable sense of involvement.

Four-wheel-drive traction and a muscular engine make the Cupra Ateca deceptively quick, but any attempt to enliven the car’s handling will end in frustration.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Cupra Ateca 2019 road test review - hero front

With only 25 of Seat’s UK dealers taking the Cupra franchise initially, those Cupra Ateca buyers for whom the ordering experience need involve a dealer visit might need to travel further than they’d like to at least once or twice.

But they’ll be getting decent performance value. The Cupra Ateca’s premium over the price of a Golf R Estate is less than £1000; trading up into one instead of, say, a BMW X1 sDrive20i M Sport could be done for less than £2000; and, since our residual value experts suggest the car should hold its value rather well, monthly finance deals ought to be pleasingly attractive, too.

A near-60% three-year value for the Ateca shows the popularity and esteem the Seat brand has earned in the UK

Cupra’s standard equipment tally includes LED headlights, Alcantara sports seats, keyless operation, 19in alloy wheels and all the infotainment features you’re likely to want, with convenience features such as a powered tailgate, high-beam assist and heated front seats corralled into a £1930 Comfort and Sound package.

On real-world economy, our testing suggests you’ll do well to average better than 30mpg on a daily basis, but on a longer run, you should see better than 35mpg. For any 300-horsepower, five-seat, sub5.0sec-to-60mph performance car, that looks entirely acceptable.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace

VERDICT

Cupra Ateca 2019 road test review - static

If Seat’s decision to launch Cupra as an independent entity seems perplexing, time behind the wheel of its first offering is unlikely to offer much clarification.

This hot Ateca’s performance is muscular enough even if your yardstick is VW’s Golf R, and there is usability to trump what any hot hatch can offer. As an affordable familyoriented driver’s car, it evades most attempts at serious objective criticism – but not all.

Hot crossover is objectively impressive but lacks true driver reward

What’s lacking is charisma and true driver engagement. We have reservations as to whether Cupra’s interior feels special enough, whether the exterior is suitably bold and whether the powertrain is vociferous when you’re in the mood. Beyond stability, the chassis also captures little of the suppleness or handling reward that have made some of this car’s mechanical relations so appealing. Frustratingly, the precision in the driving controls and body control suggest a more rewarding dynamic compromise might have been struck.

This opening salvo seems some way from being the best driver’s car that the firm might have given us. Thankfully, it’s also good enough to suggest that much better is yet to come.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Cupra Ateca First drives