New Cupra Ateca review - how does the first of SEAT's new Cupra brand stack up?

SEAT launches its new Cupra brand with a pragmatic product – a sporty SUV, but it's the Leon we're waiting for...

Evo rating
from £35,900
  • Quick and handles well – for an SUV, practicality, few rivals – for now
  • Still drives like an SUV, expensive relative to other practical performance cars

It’s not often that you witness the birth of a new mass-market car maker, but that’s exactly how SEAT is positioning Cupra, once the high-performance derivative of its regular range, now a standalone brand that it believes fits somewhere between the mainstream and so-called ‘premium’ marques. We’d never not be excited about a new performance-focused brand, particularly when the company positions it as ‘the ultimate expression of sportiness’, so it’s frustrating and more than a little disappointing from a die-hard evo perspective that there’s no glamorous coupe, innovative sports saloon or class-redefining hot hatch to blaze a trail from the off, but rather another VW Group parts bin SUV. Yet these are the times we live in, and Cupra knows it’s the safest bet for sales success across Europe and beyond.

Engine, transmission and 0-60 time

‘Leveraging the VW Group technological tool kit,’ Cupra calls it, but whatever the semantics the Cupra’s powertrain is as effective as it is predictable. The combination of the familiar 296bhp 2-litre TSI engine with the seven-speed DSG twin-clutch ’box (SEAT, sorry, Cupra now allowed to move up from the old six-speed unit) and the Haldex four-wheel-drive system gives this Ateca very useful performance indeed for a smallish SUV. Think 0-62mph in just 5.2sec, with a top speed of 154mph.

Technical highlights

The Cupra Ateca employs the same suite of driver modes as seen in other performance SEATs, with Comfort, Sport, Cupra, Individual, Snow and Off Road, and adjustment for the steering, damping, engine and gearbox available, amongst other parameters.

Buyers in the UK will need to specify the Design Pack if they want to gain the uprated Brembo braking system, in which case it’s combined with Cupra’s trademark copper alloy wheels and gloss black detailing in the cabin.

Moreover, the first 7000 Cupra customers globally will receive a small carbonfibre box when taking delivery of their cars, within which they’ll find a carbon key cover and a carbon bracelet – all to help, ahem, build the Cupra ‘tribe’. There will be 277 Cupra dealers, with 80 per cent up and running by the end of the year: in the UK, every SEAT dealer can sell a Cupra, but there’ll be a selection of dealers that specialise in the cars with a more extensive demo fleet, a corner of the showroom being given over to Cupra and decorated accordingly. Customers will also be given access to exclusive experiences and merchandise.

What’s it like to drive?

It’s hard to imagine anything with this powertrain and the platform’s sophisticated chassis going, stopping and handling in a sloppy manner, and the Cupra Ateca is another example of the inherent proficiency of this package. It certainly feels fleet of foot in a straight line, surging up through the gears crisply, the motor hinting gently at its performance with a subtle growl from the quad tailpipes at lower revs, but sounding slightly coarse at higher rpms.

Much of the car’s character is governed by the rotary mode switch, the DCC damping smoothing out the ride nicely in its softer settings, but inevitably inducing an aggressive rebound motion in Cupra mode as it attempts to deal with the higher centre of gravity and increased body roll of an SUV being driven quickly. The steering is smooth in response, light and free of feel, while brake response is soft underfoot even with the optional Brembo set-up, which nevertheless does stop the car well repeatedly from higher speeds. Typical VW Group frustrations are present, including the tiny paddles so awkward to use and automatic kickdown, even in manual mode, while it’s a shame the optional bucket seats won’t be coming to the UK market: they offer much more support, and also visually lift the cabin.

Embellishment on the inside would be welcome, for the Cupra Ateca looks much like any performance SEAT from the driver’s seat, bar the new logo on the steering wheel boss and copper stitching here and there. There’s a lot of black plastic, alleviated by Alcantara door panels, fancy mood lighting and the modish fully digital instrument pack that offers a variety of views, and everything works with the Germanic certainty you’d expect.

Overall, it’s a very undemanding sort of car to travel surprisingly quickly in, but a vehicle that sits slightly uneasily with the ‘developed by car lovers for car lovers’ line that Cupra claims lies at the heart of its products.

Price and rivals

At £35,900, plus a further £3345 for the aforementioned Design Pack, there are two ways of looking at the Cupra Ateca pricing strategy. Cupra claims the car has no rivals in the SUV market, offering the performance from a class above (think, say, Mercedes GLC43) without the price tag, and including an extensive standard specification. Yes, those with young families will understandably always be drawn towards an SUV, but in pure load carrying terms it’s worth noting that a VW Golf R Estate offers a greater load capacity (605 versus 510 litres) and costs from £35,555 – and it’s a much, much better drive. Meanwhile, saloons may be out of fashion in the mainstream market, but a delectable Alfa Romeo Giulia Veloce – our sports saloon of the year, no less – starts at £38,975.

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