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Many years after launch, what has become of this once class-leading compact SUV?

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As you’ll soon learn from this comprehensive test of the Seat Ateca, we are now reaching the end of the road for the car brand once touted, in fairly ambitious yet serious terms, as the Volkswagen Group’s answer to Alfa Romeo.

In a recent interview with Autocar, VW Group board member Thomas Schäfer revealed that if Spanish car maker Seat has a future, it’s probably not in making cars.

Over the short to medium term, he explained, Wolfsburg’s Spanish outpost is set to transform into something that may sound more interesting at first – an e-mobility provider, or some other kind of pioneer of alternatives to traditional car ownership. 

One by one, the firm’s models will either morph into sportier, more desirable, pseudo-premium successors sold under the new Cupra brand, or be removed from sale altogether. And by the end of this decade, Seat will cease to exist, at least as we have come to know it.

Were we to look for where it went wrong for Seat, we certainly wouldn’t start with the Ateca compact SUV. This Nissan Qashqai rival has been one of its maker’s most widely acclaimed cars since its 2016 launch and was for a significant period Autocar’s class favourite.

Here, then – without sentimentality or agenda – we find out what kind of car the Ateca has become in later life; whether it can still be considered one of its class’s more attractive picks; and what kind of impression of the Seat brand it might leave an owner with, as its manufacturer moves towards its new and uncertain future.

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The range at a glance

Models Power From
1.0 TSI SE 109bhp £28,385
1.5 Eco TSI SE 148bhp £30,310

The Seat Ateca range has been cut down a couple of times since its 2016 launch and now consists of only the front-wheel-drive petrols that would once have made up the lower echelons of the offering.

For model grades, you start with SE and SE Technology, and progress up through the various sporty-looking FR versions, with Seat’s Xperience and Xperience Lux derivatives offering an alternative higher-end treatment. There are no hybrid or PHEV versions.


seat ateca review 2023 002 panning side

At its launch, the Seat Ateca tapped right into Europe’s burgeoning appetite for compact SUVs – and its neat looks, keen prices and equally keenly tuned driving experience met with approval from the critics and public alike. 

To recall the breadth of its engine and trim range in those early years is like looking back several model generations, but in fact this car has yet to complete even one full model cycle on sale. Since there is already a Cupra Ateca, though, we’re perhaps safe to assume that life will go on for the car, even without a Seat badge on its nose.

Having been sold for a number of years with a multitude of petrol and diesel engines and a choice of front- or four-wheel-drive layouts, a cull of derivatives executed earlier this year left the Ateca with just two petrol engines in its range, each of which drives the front axle.

A 1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder petrol provides 109bhp of peak power, as well as sub-£30,000 affordability. It can only be had in tandem with a six-speed manual gearbox.

Above that sits the 1.5-litre Eco TSI four-cylinder engine that used to be called the 1.5 TSI Evo. It doesn’t use the 48V mild hybridisation of VW’s related eTSI but it does have active cylinder shutdown technology and it produces 148bhp and 184lb ft of torque, channelled through a choice of six-speed manual or (as tested) seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. 

So there’s no mild- or plug-in hybrid Ateca and no fully electrified option – absences that age the car compared with key rivals. The most efficient version is rated for WLTP emissions of a little under 140g/km.

The Ateca continues to use the Volkswagen Group’s MQB platform. The removal from UK sale of its more powerful 2.0-litre petrol and diesel engine options, which could be had with clutch-based all-wheel drive, means Seat also now offers only one axle configuration for the car: MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam at the rear.

However, if you go for a higher trim level such as the car we elected to test, there are some mechanical upgrades thrown in. Atecas on 19in wheels all benefit from a front brake disc upgrade (from 288mm to 312mm) and, from FR trim up, all are fitted with a ‘progressive’ variable-ratio steering rack that quickens as you turn and needs only 2.1 rotations of the steering wheel between extremes of lock.

Our FR Black Edition test car is a UK-only limited-edition model based on FR Sport trim. Its gloss black 19in alloy wheels, black roof bars and window trim, and black badging are intended to set it apart from other Atecas.


seat ateca review 2023 010 dash

Novelty puddle lights, which typically shine a brand logo onto the ground as you unlock the car, have been fairly common features of mid-market cars looking to make an impression for a while now.

The Ateca’s problem, however, is that it’s no longer very clear what kind of impression it’s trying to make. Before Cupra came along, it might have shone some mildly racy car animation on the darkened ground, but instead it simply projects the word ‘Hola’ onto the pavement as you unlock it, the word presented in a large but otherwise blank, plain and stark-looking circle of light.

Once on the other side of the door, you find yourself in a cabin that seems competitively spacious and comfy by current compact SUV standards. Six-foot adults can sit comfortably one behind another, the back seats offering plenty of head room and decent – if not quite class-leading – leg room.

Meanwhile, there are two USB-C charging ports for those in the back, as well as usefully large door pockets, and a fold-down centre armrest with integrated cupholders.

Boot space is also fairly generous. Our car did without a split-level boot floor, but it did carry a spacesaver spare wheel and it made room for 910mm of loading height above, as well as up to 1.6m of loading length with the rear seatbacks (which fold 40/60) stowed down.

In the front, the driving position is typically raised but sound, on top of comfortable leather sports seats with decent lateral support.

The Ateca’s primary and secondary controls are quite simple. It has a sensibly sized conventional lever for a gear selector; fixed and physical ventilation and heating controls; just enough steering-hub switchgear to be useful but not so much as to bamboozle; and digital instrumentation that is, in the main, simple, readable and clear.

If the cabin has a problem, it’s that – even in this upper-level model – it looks and feels a little plain and unlovely. Hard, shiny, grey plastic mouldings are found quite widely across the door consoles, fascia and centre console and do little to lift the ambience above the functional.

You can see, here at least, why a Seat regular would jump at the chance of upgrading to that much nicer Cupra across the showroom.

Multimedia system

The entry-level Ateca gets an 8.0in digital instrument pack and an 8.3in touchscreen infotainment system without factory navigation, but that does offer full wireless smartphone mirroring.

Our FR Black Edition car, at the opposite end of the scale, has a 10.0in instrument screen and 9.0in infotainment system with a networked navigation system of its own.

Because it’s an older model, the car avoids the Volkswagen Group’s latest MIB infotainment technology, with its much criticised slider controls and usability quirks. Although the system the car does get is quite clearly laid out for left-hand-drive access, it’s simple enough to operate and works quite well – but you do often have to penetrate through lots of layers of menus to achieve quite simple things.

The FR Black Edition gets a nine-speaker Beats Audio stereo as standard (340W, subwoofer, surround sound). For clarity, it’s not exactly cutting edge and it has a lot of road noise to compete with, but it’s powerful enough to drown out the drone.


seat ateca review 2023 018 engine performance

The proliferation of hybrid powertrains across the SUV classes has made it strategically important to put greater refinement into even smaller and more affordable cars within the Ateca’s niche, in order that their owners really appreciate the advantages of light-throttle and even engine-off running.

That has given this car some increasingly cultured competition as it has aged – competition against which it now feels a bit rough-mannered.

The car’s 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine hits a perfectly respectable standard for refinement, but it nonetheless generated 3dBA more cabin noise at a 50mph cruise than the Hyundai Tucson Hybrid we tested in 2021 and 2dBA more than the 1.3-litre turbocharged petrol Nissan Qashqai tested the same year. Both are differences that even an average ear would notice.

It isn’t just the Ateca’s engine that contributes to this, to which we will come in due course, but what can be at times a slightly buzzy, strained, chuntery-idled motor certainly plays its part.

The Ateca’s engine just doesn’t make as polished an impression here as it has, over the years, in other Volkswagen Group applications, which suggests that Seat isn’t working as hard as some of its sibling brands on refinement and isolation.

Likewise, the engine and gearbox provide decent but not especially strong performance for the car. It averaged 8.9sec from rest to 62mph, and 30-70mph in 8.0sec – figures that represent an average turn of pace for a car like this in 2023, and performance that only really becomes remarkable when, for whatever reason, the car falters for a moment. 

It gets your attention, for example, when engine torque seems to surge a little as the dual-clutch gearbox engages each new lower intermediate ratio, making the car feel impatient to get going. But also when the engine gets a little harsh and breathless at having to spin beyond 4000rpm, or the gearbox clunks a hurried downshift under sudden load – in both cases making the car feel considerably less keen to hurry.

In broad terms, there’s little wrong with this powertrain. It’s acceptable for outright performance, and pleasant, economical and drivable enough, and it’s reassuringly conventional. But when you notice what it’s doing, it’s more often because of an irritation rather than an unexpected trace of sophistication, energy or polished accomplishment.


seat ateca review 2023 003 cornering rear

The 19in alloy wheels, 235-section Bridgestone Potenza S001 tyres and ‘progressive’ sport steering of our Ateca made it a peculiarly tenacious-handling member of the compact SUV set, which isn’t a description that makes a great deal of sense at first – and less still when you consider the car’s slightly disinterested performance level.

In short, this car has quite a lot more grip and body control than it really needs, or that the average customer of a compact SUV is likely either to want or to expect. It feeds into a driving experience that feels a little haphazard and mismatched – one of about half a driver’s car, which has somehow found itself in the wrong body and running on half its usual power.

The standard front-drive reaction of understeer is provoked in some corners, but the Ateca is astute enough to marginally tighten its line, given the chance

One thing we can say for sure is that the 19in wheels and sport tyres of the FR Black Edition wouldn’t work nearly so effectively to add genuine dynamic purpose to very many other compact SUVs in this class. It’s thanks in no small part to the firmish-sprung, moderately athletic chassis that the Ateca has always had that it handles so smartly.

It declines to roll much even when hustled along, maintains plenty of wheel control and damping authority even over tougher roads taken at speed, and dives in to corners as gamely, precisely and securely as you like.

A proper performance derivative would have meatier and less filtered steering feel, not to mention a more energetic turn of speed, and for those who do seek this car out as some strangely reluctant and unlikely driver’s car, it’s certainly greater tactile feedback that they will miss (as well as a better engine). 

But, aside from making it sweep quickly around traffic islands, the Ateca’s fast steering also enables it to be wieldy in car parks and around junctions and maintains a level of ease of operation that even less enthusiastic drivers could no doubt appreciate.

Comfort and isolation

The Ateca’s ride isn’t plush, quiet, settled or polished. Compared with rivals that aim for a really upmarket, isolated and comfortable on-board feel, our test car was something of a misfit.

Earlier examples of the car always had a note of tautness about their suspension, but the 19in wheels and sport tyres of our FR Black Edition test car really seemed to compromise its rolling refinement. 

As well as conducting plenty of surface noise, its wheels appeared to pick up on ridges and bumps in the road, fidgeting over bigger inputs, and laying waste to any particular sense of filtered cushioning from the secondary ride much greater than you might get from a lukewarm hot hatch or low-riding sports saloon.

So stark was the car’s deficiency in this respect that a few testers assumed it was on some special extra-firm suspension, when in fact there’s no difference between the tuning of the FR Black Edition and any other Ateca.

In addition to the cabin noise comparisons we made earlier, the car recorded 70dBA of ride noise at 70mph – 2dBA greater than in a like-for-like Nissan Qashqai and 3dBA greater than in either the current Hyundai Tucson or Kia Sportage.

The car’s seat comfort is good, and its visibility to all quarters is likewise good, but neither quite makes up for the car’s wider refinement shortcomings.


seat ateca review 2023 001 tracking front

The Seat Ateca has always been fairly competitively priced, but now that most of the compact SUV class is made up of fresher rivals, Seat has really little choice but to make it even better value.

Our range-topping FR Black Edition lacked power and efficiency compared with plenty of its opponents, but it enjoyed a price advantage worth up to £2000 in some cases – at showroom list price, that is.

The Ateca’s new-car buoyancy makes mincemeat of already soft Qashqai value

However, weakened residual performance hurts the car’s value on monthly finance, even after the chunky deposit contribution that Seat will currently give on the car. The Ateca ends up only broadly as cheap on a PCP as its newer rivals. 

The cost of insurance is lower than it might be for a hybrid or PHEV rival, though, and equipment levels are decent. And real-world fuel economy doesn’t seem to suffer a great deal for the lack of electrification.

The Ateca returned broadly similar results on our touring and average-schedule economy tests to the Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage full-hybrid models when we tested them. The hybrids would be more economical cars in urban use, very likely, but for the Seat, 44.4mpg at a steady motorway cruise is competitive.


seat ateca black rt jh 40

At its launch, the Seat Ateca was an Autocar class leader – a ‘Game-changer’ award-winner, no less – and emblem of success for a firm that was going places.

Now, towards the end of its life – and after much upheaval in the car market – it feels like a car that’s bereft of a target audience and isn’t doing the right things to find a new one.

There are some notable strengths among this car’s fundamental ingredients. Its well-packaged cabin, for example, still gives inward space without outward sprawl, and it’s entirely intuitive to inhabit. Its turbocharged petrol engine and dual-clutch gearbox, although lacking in refinement and sophistication, provide decent drivability and efficiency. Its chassis is wieldy and makes for unexpectedly grippy, purposeful handling.

And yet, with a noisy, overly firm ride that soon becomes irksome, a dearth of choice on engines and a sense of anonymity about its presence almost as clear as the antiquation of parts of its interior, this car has plainly become an outlier in a class it once owned.

Seat’s case may be an unusual, particular one. But class-leading cars aren’t often left to go to seed quite so obviously.

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.

Seat Ateca First drives