Cupra Ateca long-term test: the six month verdict

Published: 29 January 2020

► We live with a Cupra Ateca
► Just a gussied-up Seat? Or more?
► Real-world test, regular updates

Month 6 living with a Cupra Ateca: yours in abject confusion...

After six months and 5247 miles I'm still not sure what to make of the Cupra Ateca. It's an immediately familiar car with an odd logo that follows a traditional and very well-trodden performance upgrade path. Its combination of presence and performance should work a treat, but in reality leaves me oddly indifferent.

Let's start with the good stuff. The Cupra is a brisk, versatile, well-equipped and easy-to-live-with family car. Hardly surprising when you hook up the rather excellent Ateca to the equally excellent powertrain from the Golf R. For this price, there's nothing in the same style that comes close to matching its eyeball-flattening
performance. It annihilates corners far better than a high-
riding 1615kg SUV has any right to. It's spacious, its infotainment, convenience and safety features are all top-drawer, and it's free of ergonomic quirks and – execrable badge aside – design foibles.

The not so good news centres on economy and comfort. Drive the Seat with any degree of intent and consumption plummets below 25mpg. Even when handled very gently, the Cupra just scrapes into the low 30s. The ride quality on even the softest setting is too firm for our pocked and acned roads, and painful in Cupra mode.

The biggest issues, however, are the intangibles. There's no steely glint in the Ateca's eye, neither sparkle nor elevated level of driving engagement. It feels inert and stolid even when you give it the 
full beans.

What disappoints the most is how much the Cupra smacks of quick and emotionless marketing. It doesn't come across as special or bespoke, the way the first-out-of-the-blocks model for a new performance brand should feel. Instead, it strikes you as a rushed Friday-afternoon pick-and-mix of VW Group chassis, drivetrain, componentry and technology.

Perhaps the biggest problem is the Cupra's naming convention. Had it been launched as an Ateca Cupra, our familiarity with Seat's in-house performance sub-brand – and its attendant expectations – would have perhaps cast a more flattering light on the Ateca. But that's very different to a Cupra Ateca.

Am I reading too much into this? Possibly, but when Seat describes Cupra as a marque 'born to captivate car enthusiasts around the world' and one that will 'conquer a new group of car lovers' you do tend to recalibrate your anticipation gauge accordingly.

Cupra's electric Tavascan and hybrid Formentor concept cars hint at a more interesting future. But this is a tepid first arrival.

By Ben Whitworth

Logbook: Cupra Ateca

Price £35,915 
Performance 1984cc turbocharged four-cylinder, 296bhp, 5.2sec 0-62mph, 153mph 
Efficiency 34.0mpg (official) 29.2mpg (tested), 168g/km CO2 
Energy cost 19.2p per mile 
Miles this month 1434
Total miles 5247

Count the cost

Cost new £35,915 
Part-exchange £28,160
Energy cost 20p per mile
Cost per mile including depreciation £1.72 per mile

Month 5 living with a Cupra Ateca: and another thing!

Who's died?

Cupra Ateca interior

The bright red Cupra may be all bicep and bulge on the outside, but climb into its cabin and things quickly turn very solemn and strait-laced. It's very dark in there, with the bronze stitching and logo fighting a losing battle against the black and grey plastics and fabrics.

Too hot, too cold
Cupra side pan
The driving experience continues to be a combination of grin and grimace. As a family car it scores on versatility, packaging, visibility and compactness. But even when giving it the full beans, it feels too aloof to roll up its sleeves and hoon about.

With knobs on
Cupra dial
My wife always selects the Motorway option – soft throttle, slushy gearshifts, softest ride and greatest steering assistance. I go for the Personalised option – plumpest suspension with everything else turned up to 11. Maximum engagement with a kidney-bruising ride.

Mild at heart
Cupra engine
It's certainly smooth and cultured, but if anything the Ateca's turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol four is perhaps too subdued and velvety for its own good. There's no serrated redline yowl for the driver to indulge in on the well-trodden route to the petrol station.

By Ben Whitworth

Logbook: Cupra Ateca

Price £35,915 
Performance 1984cc turbocharged four-cylinder, 296bhp, 5.2sec 0-62mph, 153mph 
Efficiency 34.0mpg (official) 27.4mpg (tested), 168g/km CO2 
Energy cost 21.1p per mile 
Miles this month 339 
Total miles 3813

Month 4 of our Cupra Ateca long-term test: still haven't found what we're looking for...

Cupra LTT front cornering

I normally rack up 1000 miles a month in my long-term test cars, but the 356 miles accrued last month and this month’s 687 signal my lukewarm feelings about the Cupra. Given its 27mpg average fuel economy, our other Seat – a languid diesel Altea XL that never returns anything less than 48mpg – more often than not gets the nod.

How is it falling so short? It’s certainly quick in a straight line, but it feels very buttoned-down. No ferocity, no fun, little character. Fuel bills aside, there’s nothing to dry the mouth and dampen the palms. It hasn’t even got a nickname. Since my daughters could talk, every car that’s spent time with us has been given a name. Not so the Cupra. 

All of which is disappointing. I’ve liked Seats (and I’ve yet to find a reason to think of this as a Cupra rather than a Seat) well enough to have purchased two; our Altea was preceded by an Alhambra. I’ve usually preferred Martorell’s output to its Wolfsburg and Mladá Boleslav cousins. Sadly not this time around.

By Ben Whitworth

Logbook: Cupra Ateca

Price £35,915
Performance 1984cc turbocharged four-cylinder, 296bhp, 5.2sec 0-62mph, 153mph
Efficiency 34.0mpg (official) 27.1mpg (tested), 168g/km CO2
Energy cost 21p per mile
Miles this month 687
Total miles 3474

Month 3 living with a Cupra Ateca: is it as sporty as the looks purport?

Cupra Ateca long-term test by CAR magazine's Ben Whitworth

Funny how a car's looks and dynamics can be so at odds with each other. The Cupra wears gauche badging and a muscular bodykit, rides on 19-inch alloys, exhales through quad exhaust pipes and features plenty of gaping intakes and vents. Settle yourself into the sombre cabin, dial up Comfort mode and the Cupra feels anything but – it's refined, docile and entirely undemanding.

The problem is, when you do switch to full-attack Track mode, there's no grin-inducing transformation from mild to wild. Instead the ride becomes intolerably harsh, the steering gets heavier but still numb, body control remains roly-poly and there's disappointingly little in the way of fizz, effervescence and zing.

By Ben Whitworth

Logbook: Cupra Ateca

Price £35,915 (£35,915 as tested) 
Performance 1984cc turbo four-cylinder, 296bhp, 5.2sec 0-62mph, 153mph  
Efficiency 34mpg (official) 27.3mpg (tested), 168g/km CO2 
Energy cost 22p per mile 
Miles this month 356
Total miles 2787

Month 2 living with a Cupra Ateca: go fast enough and they won't notice the badge...

1. Define sporty

Ah, the irony of parking up an understeery, 1615kg SUV outside Goodwood race circuit. It's no trackday weapon, so let's see if 296bhp, four-corner grip and adjustable suspension make it a real-world winner.

2. Dialled in

Cupra Ateca dial

There are five pre-set driving modes, plus the option of a personalised sixth mode which means I can have steering, engine and transmission in full attack with the suspension in Comfort. Perfect.

3.  Downhill fast

Down Duncton Hill the Cupra feels whipcrack fast and secure, but the brakes have to work very hard for the 30mph potter through Duncton village. A second downhill blat and the pedal goes spongy.

4. And relax

Cupra Ateca rear quarter petworth

Along the fast A285 and into sleepy Petworth. The fast Ateca is surprisingly good in urban areas – its refinement, good visibility, direct steering and a 360º bird's-eye camera make manoeuvring a doddle.

5. It's anyone's guess

The Cupra certainly turns heads. Few are admiring glances, though – most are from squinting and confused drivers utterly stumped by the Ateca's badge. And it is, as far as performance badges go, bloody awful.

6. Gulp...

Cupra Ateca cowdray

West on the ribboning A272 and along the base of the South Downs to Cowdray for coffee. Here the muscular Cupra shines, breezing by slower traffic. But fuel consumption slumps to 25mpg.

By Ben Whitworth

Logbook: Cupra Ateca

Price £35,915 (£35,915 as tested) 
Performance 1984cc turbo four-cylinder, 296bhp, 5.2sec 0-62mph, 153mph  
Efficiency 34mpg (official) 26.9mpg (tested), 168g/km CO2 
Energy cost 22p per mile 
Miles this month 1103
Total miles 2431

Month 1 living with a Cupra Ateca: hello and welcome

I like Seats a great deal. When my children were toddlers I purchased an Alhambra. With its seven full-sized seats, sliding rear doors and generously appointed cabin it was – and, I’ll argue, still is – the finest family car money can buy.

Our current family car is an Altea XL. One of the many odd things about children is that the bigger they get the smaller the car you need to lug them around. The opposite is true for their accommodation. So, when the Alhambra went, and the savings pot for the house extension came out, I needed something inexpensive to buy and run, and something reliable and hardy. With its larger boot and better-balanced proportions, the well-spec’d Altea XL TDI with ultra-low mileage from its one-little-old-lady-owner perfectly hit my £4k spot.

Cupra Ateca hello

And now there’s another Seat on my driveway. Except this is not a Seat. It’s a Cupra. Yes, it’s an Ateca, it’s made and sold by Seat but don’t you dare call it a Seat. 

Seat is aiming to position Cupra as – and set your bullshit detector to flambé – its premium performance brand. Viewed in this light, the Cupra Ateca falls between two, now possibly flaming, stools. It’s not that premium compared with other top-spec Xcellence Lux models. 

And although it packs the Volkswagen Group’s familiar turbocharged 2.0-litre EA888 four-pot (used in the Seat Leon Cupra and VW Golf R) that channels a plentiful 296bhp and 295lb ft through a seven-speed twin-clutch ’box to all four wheels, ferocity and fun in this portly 1615kg SUV are notable by their absence. More of that later, and back to the riddle of the Cupra’s true identity.

The Cupra will be a name very familiar to Seat fans, a badge having first adorned the 1996 Ibiza hot hatch and applied to pretty much every fast Seat since. First glimpse of the Cupra’s new badging a year back didn’t go down well. Yes, style and design are emotively subjective topics, but I think the logo looks like one of the nasty tattoos that muscle-clad young men and their orange-faced girlfriends sport as holiday mementos from their package holidays to ’beefah.

Our new long-term test car: the 2019 Cupra Ateca

Brows furrowed even further when we heard the first full Cupra model was going to be based on the Ateca. Not on a brawny Leon to take on the Civic Type R, or a frisky Ibiza to take on the Clio Renault Sport. Nope… SUVs are sales chart kings, so it’s a fast and frumpy brick for us. 

If all this comes across as a tad harsh, then look at the Mercedes, BMW and Audi route. Yes, Mercedes-AMG, BMW M and Audi Sport take stock cars and give them the full go-even-faster treatment, but they don’t try to sell them as a standalone brand in a small cordoned-off area of the showroom with a plush rug and a shiny Gaggia. If you really want to successfully spin off a stand-alone brand, don’t do a Citroën with DS, do a Renault with Alpine. Still, Seat plans seven Cupra-badged models by 2021, so there’s time to pick itself up from this first-hurdle stumble.

To the test car itself. We’ve opted for the stock model priced at £35,915 in no-cost metallic Velvet Red. That means saying no to the only options available – the £3345 Design option (copper wheels, Cupra Brembo brakes etc), and the £1930 Sound and Comfort option (BeatsAudio, heated front seats and the like). 

I’ve covered around 1200 miles since the Cupra arrived, and I’ve spent all of them unsuccessfully trying to find its fizz, its dynamism and its personality. Hopefully I’ll eventually track down the Cupra’s worryingly elusive emoción over the next six months.

By Ben Whitworth

Logbook: Cupra Ateca

Price £35,915 (£35,915 as tested)
Performance 1984cc turbo four-cylinder, 296bhp, 5.2sec 0-62mph, 153mph  
Efficiency 34mpg (official) 27.1mpg (tested), 168g/km CO2
Energy cost 20.5p per mile
Miles this month 1184
Total miles 1328

By Ben Whitworth

Contributing editor, sartorial over-achiever, HANS device shirt collars