Devilish Spaniard: our first impressions on the spicy Cupra Ateca
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‘Identity crisis’ is a pretty nailed-down term, generally prompting thoughts of uncertainty and insecurity. It’s a term I’m tempted to apply to SEAT.
The Spanish/German–cross has been selling cars in New Zealand now for over a year, ambitiously inserting themselves into the thriving luxury European SUV and hatchback market as a cost-effective alternative for those wanting to step into something European (a position they've successfully held for decades abroad).
But, the road to becoming a household name is a tough one. And Seat are seemingly about to make it even tougher by adding the 'Cupra' moniker to the mix.
Cupra isn’t a total stranger to the SEAT nameplate mix. It’s long been the carmarker’s go-to name for all of their most hot, most hardcore vehicles. These include the SEAT Leon Cupra and Cupra R, which were first launched to the New Zealand market in 2017.
Now, Cupra is becoming a separate new sub-brand, and the first of their self-titled vehicles has hit our shores; the Cupra Ateca.
The Ateca is the Spanish sister to the Skoda Karoq and Volkswagen Tiguan, built on the same popular Volkswagen Group MQB platform. We tested the SEAT-badged 140kW 2.0-litre turbo-diesel Xcellence model back when it came out and found it to be an … err … 'excellent' choice in the segment. Pricing starts at $63,900; some $12,000 more than the warm-SUV FR 4Drive and $19,000 more than the aforementioned Xcellence (which has had a price slash since we tested it).
Our first taste of the Cupra Ateca was at the manufacturer's local launch; encompassing a fun drive from Auckland through the winding Hunua Ranges.
Visually, the SEAT badges get traded for Cupra’s copper-toned insignia, with supporting ‘Cupra’ text front and rear to double down on the message. Hungrier bodywork — including a deeper front spoiler and blacked out side-skirt and diffuser — remind you that you’re in ‘the fast one’, while an angular set of 19-inch wheels complete the sinister appearance.
The Ateca's cabin — typically one of the more conventional and fuss-free living spaces of those in the combined VW universe — gets an injection of sportiness via a D-shaped steering wheel, copper-coloured contrast stitching, sport pedals, and faux-carbon highlights.
These details are supported by some impressive tech, including a digital cluster behind the steering wheel, adaptive cruise control,
Perhaps the most important interior addition is the slightly innocuous gloss black and chrome control dial on the centre console. This is where the driver can access the Cupra's unique drive-modes, which include mainstays Comfort and Sport, the customizable Individual, the slightly idealistic Offroad and Snow, and — of course — Cupra.
What makes this dial important is that it links to where Sea... sorry, Cupra... have made the most changes; under the bonnet, and under each corner.
A new turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol produces 221kW of power and 400Nm of torque, coming hooked up to a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox that helps send power to all four wheels. That's the same engine that propels with Leon Cupra hot hatch, but with 20 extra Newtons of twist to help get the larger SUV frame percolating.
For those of us who appreciate a bit of rasp and growl from our motors, the Ateca's potent unit might come as a mild disappointment. Thanks to the new Euro 6 and more specifically the Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure (WLTP for short), there is no more characterful popping and banging from the exhaust. There is the odd DSG-style parp on upshifts, and the occasional rolling cough splutter from the pretty quad exhausts when you come off throttle.
The 100km/h mark is said to come in a swift 5.2 seconds and, from behind the wheel, that certainly doesn't feel like hyperbole. Despite its turbo leanings the charged 2.0-litre enjoys repeatedly marching to redline (particularly when you kick off with launch control), and naturally the rapid-fire DSG box is the perfect companion for embarrassing local boy-racers at the lights.
Not that we'd recommend such things, of course.
Of course, dumping stacks of power into an SUV is only part of the equation. The thing needs to be able to take corners, too.
To help illustrate the Ateca's corner-carving abilities, SEAT also had the revised VW Golf GTI–rivalling Leon Cupra on hand — a lower, lighter, leaner package that would provide a good primer for Ateca expectations.
The Leon is a proven fun machine, and a car we were happy to revisit. It's a hatch of balance; taught and firm when you're diving at apexes between the trees, civil and calming on the serene motorway stretches in between.
Unsurprisingly the Ateca didn't feel quite as sharp and sprightly as the nippy Leon. But, the gap between them dynamically is less of a gulf than you'd expect.
The Ateca has a handful of performance aces up its sleeve. Each corner comes with a Pirelli PZero, plus an uprated Cupra suspension, active damper, and brake package. It's 10mm more squat than the FR, which helps tame the SUV's mortal enemy; body roll.
While you don't get any torque-vectoring trickery, you do get VW's Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC) system that can relax or tighten the Ateca's suspension, power, and steering calibration on the run.
While Cupra mode is arguably a little firm and crashy for the b-roads we were tackling, Sport mode felt like a better balance. Most impressively, deep dips in the road (of which there are several in the Hunuas) were dealt with neatly without the Ateca feeling like it was bottoming out. A reasonable feat for a 1615kg SUV.
Combine that level of grip and control with all-paw functionality, and you've got a vehicle that feels much quicker than it ought to be while simultaneously feeling assured and comfortable. In other words, it's a quintessential player in its chosen field.
Which makes that $63,990 figure quite awkward — in Cupra's favour, at least. At that figure, there aren't really any direct rivals with which to bump heads. The less powerful 162kW 4WD Tiguan R-Line is $68,990, while the upcoming Audi SQ2 Quattro (featuring the same 221kW/400Nm engine) will start at $81,900 when it lands later this year. And that trend of value follows the Cupra Ateca in almost every comparison with any loosely relevant potential rival from Europe.
There are a few optional extras that can bump up the price, of course. More substantial Brembo brakes will cost $4700, while electronically adjustable bucket seats are an extra $2300 or $2800 depending on whether you're after them in leather or Alcantara. A special edition model that comes loaded with all these extras (plus a few extra spicy touches, like an Akrapovič exhaust package) is set to arrive next year.
A SEAT, a Cupra ... whatever you want to call it, it's a compelling buy in that fast-SUV space. The aim is that it'll snare buyers upgrading from hot hatches, wanting a more spacious and family friendly quarter-mile weapon.
If value-laden all-rounders like the Cupra Ateca keep hitting showrooms (and if SEAT extends its store borders to beyond Auckland), there's no reason why they can't establish a firm foot-hold in the SUV arms race.
'Identity crisis', in this case, might just be a frame of mind.
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