Our Cupra Ateca is a sheep in wolf's clothing

Published: 07 October 2019

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

Month 3 living with a Cupra Ateca: damp squib

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