Cupra Ateca 2021 review – fresh looks for fast SUV

Cupra’s performance SUV has been spruced up, but it’s not enough to keep it competitive in a very crowded segment

Evo rating
from £35,900
  • Engine is strong and responsive
  • Ride is brittle; not engaging to drive; expensive

We’ve had a few years to digest the notion of Cupra as a standalone high-performance brand in the VW stable, in that time expanding its range to include a new Leon and the bespoke Formentor. But the Ateca got there first, and has recently undergone a subtle nip and tuck to keep it fresh.

The most obvious change is its new face, but there are also some trim updates, new interior tech and a high-flying £45k flagship model. Under the skin, though, its hardware is little different to that seen in the 2018 Ateca, and in 2021 this SUV sits amongst an increasingly crowded segment of evermore talented rivals.

Engine, transmission and 0-60 time

‘Leveraging the VW Group technological toolkit,’ 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 EA888 engine with the seven-speed DSG twin-clutch ’box and a front-biased four-wheel-drive system gives this Ateca very useful performance for a small SUV.

Thanks to some software changes to the transmission the updated car is 0.3sec quicker to 62mph, arriving in 4.9sec, with a top speed of 155mph. British Cupra dealerships are no longer able to fit the Abt performance kit to the powertrain directly, but the pack which ups the engine to 345bhp is still available through UK third party suppliers. 

Technical highlights

As part of the 2021 range update, the Ateca is available in three trim levels, with the only technical upgrade being fitment of an uprated set of Brembo calipers gripping larger 370mm discs (+30mm) on the front axle for the top-spec VZ3. The uprated brakes are optional on lesser models. Unfortunately, along with the update, the Ateca Cupra’s Akrapovic exhaust system has been removed from sale, for now. The package is otherwise standard VW Group fare, with MacPherson front and multi-link rear suspension on adaptive dampers and a resolutely front-biased all-wheel-drive system that does without any clever torque vectoring differentials.

Something that Cupra has always done well, however, is its variable driver modes, which here extend beyond the usual normal, Sport and Cupra modes to also incorporate a low-grip mode and the crucial ability to pick and choose between each variable element. With passive dampers, this only includes the powertrain, dampers, steering, engine noise and, oddly, the air conditioning. It’s also worthwhile mentioning the transmission’s sport mode also works independently of the selected drive modes, which is another likeable VAG standardisation.

What’s it like to drive?

At the risk of sounding predictable, with any Volkswagen Group vehicle on a MQB platform with this powertrain combination there is a fairly consistent baseline to how they drive. The engine is inherently strong and responsive, and while there is a touch of lag to overcome the delivery is linear, and extends right to the 6600rpm red line. The transmission isn’t the most intuitive of the DSGs, but once into its stride the shifts are sharp and the shift software well calibrated.

The adaptive dampers do an admiral job of smoothing out the ride in softer settings, but inevitably induce an aggressive rebound motion in Cupra mode as they attempt to deal with the higher centre of gravity and increased body roll of an SUV being driven quickly. Where the suspension lacks finesse is with its poor secondary ride, with a brittleness over rough sections that can jar, even in the dampers’ slackened setting. As speeds rise, this also translates as a leaden feel to its wheel control.

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.

But the whole package is feeling pretty old hat. The cabin is ancient, sharing the same layout and design with a Leon that’s now two years out of production. The new infotainment system does little but remove some of the physical controls, and makes the interface harder to navigate than before, plus it has the same odd driving position that makes you feel like you are pitched over the steering wheel – something shared with the Audi Q3 and Volkswagen Tiguan, and clearly a quirk of the MQB’s SUV derivatives.

All is not lost though, as experience in the previous Limited Edition model fitted with the combination of the Akrapovic exhaust, Abt power pack and those Brembos actually made for a very entertaining, if still flawed, driving experience. Each of those components added another 20 percent of capability to the package, the exhaust adding some welcome aggression to the soundtrack. Unfortunately, that model was pushing on for nearly £50k as specified, which is an astounding amount of money for a small SEAT SUV. 

Price and rivals

At £38,600 the Cupra Ateca is an expensive enterprise no matter the spec, but go for the upper VZ3 model and it’ll cost from £45,520 before paint. This puts it within a few hundred pounds of VW’s new £45,910 Tiguan R, which shares much of the Ateca’s oily bits, but features an updated version of the same engine, a torque vectoring rear differential and a few other trinkets.

Audi’s 394bhp RS Q3 is then only a few thousand more at £50,810, and packs a superb five-cylinder engine as a major point of difference. Looking downwards slightly, VW also has the T-Roc R priced from £40,735 in its stable, but it’s smaller and more of a rival for the smaller Cupra Formentor, which is where the Ateca’s biggest threat lies.

The Formentor might be slightly smaller, but it’s the superior car, both by showroom standards – its interior is superb, and the tech, although still annoying, far better integrated – and on the road, where its spread of ability and driving experience feels a level up in sophistication and execution. It’s also distinct from other SEAT models, which is where the whole notion of Cupra has to appeal if it’s going to justify its higher price points.

Those with young families will understandably always be drawn towards an SUV, but in pure load carrying terms it’s also worth noting that a VW Golf R Estate offers a greater load capacity (605 v 510 litres) – 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 starts at £40,195.

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