Cupra Ateca review: is this the future of the hot hatch?

Alex Robbins
Keen drivers can use most of the Cupra's capabilities without being daft - Jakob Ebrey

The white Cupra Ateca sits outside, ready to go back to its maker. (No, don’t worry, it’s not being sent off to the scrapheap – just being collected by a friendly chap called Dave so that it can be cleaned and sent back out to another motoring hack). It’s the first day since it arrived that there hasn’t been snow on the ground. Which has made this an interesting week to have such a car in on test.

Because, as the fact this Seat doesn’t wear a Seat badge may have signalled to you, this is the go-faster Ateca; a car that’s very important for Seat, as it spearheads the company’s new sub-brand, Cupra, under which Seat will sell all of its performance models.

That in turn means this particular Ateca gets four-wheel drive as standard. But it also means it gets a 296bhp, 2.0-litre petrol turbo engine, the very same you’ll have seen so far in all sorts of other Volkswagen Group machinery, and that in turn allows it to snort and pop its way to 62mph in only 5.2 seconds.

This, then, is an Ateca on steroids; a hot hatchback for an era in which the hatchback is being usurped by the small SUV. It is also just the sort of thing you might want to have around if you want a performance car that you can still use even in the midst of snowmaggedon (or, in reality, just about enough of the white stuff in your back garden that you can have a snowball fight with the kids).

In these circumstances, the four-wheel drive system does an admirable job of helping you to find traction where the soles of your shoes might have convinced you minutes earlier there was none. And there’s a snow mode, which scales back the throttle response to help you reduce wheelspin – although the big, fat summer tyres remind you that this particular Ateca is designed, first and foremost, for going fast rather than for crossing the San Bernardino Pass in midwinter.

Obvious dynamic compromises aside, this is a sporty car that could hassle a hot hatch Credit: Jakob Ebrey 

And it certainly does go fast, at least when the roads aren’t covered in snow. Plonk your foot down on the throttle, and after a couple of ticks while the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox finds the right gear, the Cupra launches itself. This engine’s power, as we know from its other applications, is vast and unrelenting; it doesn’t matter where in the revs the gearbox places you, the Cupra simply hooks up and goes.

Mind you, for all of its remarkable pace, it’s impressively undramatic. Despite its extra height, you never get a sense of the car leaning back on its haunches or its bow rising when you pile on the power. And while there is a little bit of a juicy rasp to the exhaust, you don’t get the out-and-out histrionics you’d find in some hot hatches.

When you aren’t hooning it about the place, the Cupra becomes even more easy-going. There’s an occasional jolt as those vast wheels and slim tyres are caught out by sharp-edged ruts, yes, but that’s the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part the electronically adjustable suspension in ‘Comfort’ mode does a good job of keeping things… well, comfortable.

The automatic gearbox is smooth and quick to shift; the throttle is docile and measured; and while there’s a gentle background drone to remind you you’re in no ordinary Ateca, for the most part the Cupra is quiet and easy-going.

A comfy, well-made interior should please newcomers to the Cupra brand

The interior treads a good line between sporty and tasteful, too, with its swathes of alcantara and red mood lighting. There’s Seat’s usual snappy-ish infotainment system, and a flat-screen dashboard display which is rather smart, if not quite as snazzy as some. And as per the standard Ateca, there’s a tonne of room in the back seats and plenty in the boot, too – though you’ll have to push longer items of luggage over a significant step in the floor when the rear seats are folded.

The Cupra is even fuss-free in the way it handles. There’s a sense of the fast Audi to it; the kind of car you can bowl into pretty much any bend and, as long as you’re not going so fast that you push the nose wide on entry, you can floor the throttle, allow the car to work out how much power is appropriate and where it needs to go, and catapult out the other side at a faintly antisocial rate of knots.

That extra height proves to be of little impediment, by the way. You can firm up the suspension by selecting ‘Sport’ or ‘Cupra’ modes; the latter is a touch too severe for the average British back road, but the former is pretty well-judged. No matter which you choose, there’s a touch more slack than you might find in some of the Ateca’s more ground-hugging rivals, but you’ll be hard-pushed to spot it unless you’re really pressing on.

What’s more, the little bit of roll that there is turns out to be quite useful in helping you to gauge what’s happening beneath your backside. It’s needed, because the steering doesn’t deliver much information to your fingertips, although it is quick, direct and nicely weighted, which makes it quite pleasing to use to carve the Cupra through a series of S-bends.

Has the hot hatch been replaced by the hot SUV? Credit: Jakob Ebrey 

So far, so crushingly competent, then. But clearly, the hot Ateca has been set up to play it safe; there’s no chassis mobility, no attitude switch if you goof around with the throttle mid-corner, no lairy oversteer on offer if you fancy playing the hooligan. It will get you around sensationally quickly if you want – but as with everything else, it’ll do so with the minimum of drama.

If you’re looking for the loony playfulness of a Focus ST or the incisive thrills of a Honda Civic Type R, then, you’re going to be disappointed. The Cupra will put a grin on your face simply through its capacity to bludgeon the road into submission and propel itself onward at a terrific rate, no matter what, but it can’t offer the layers of character or the delicious joy that comes from learning to get the best out of it offered by the most entertaining hot hatches.

Would you have a hot SUV over a hot hatch? Let us know in the comments Credit: Jakob Ebrey 

But to be fair, many buyers don’t care about or need that. Certainly, that’s one reason why so many examples of the Volkswagen Golf R have found homes. Indeed, this cousin upon which the Cupra is largely based is potentially its biggest problem. After all, why wouldn’t you just buy a Golf R instead of a jacked-up facsimile with an odd badge on its nose? The Golf, after all, can match the Cupra’s talent for mindless rapidity and all-weather ability, and if you go for the estate version, its vast boot trumps the Ateca’s by an order of around three good-sized cabin bags.

But the huge WLTP economy/emissions test-related delays currently being experienced by Golf R buyers means there’s an opening for the Cupra. As, indeed, does the fact that it is what it is. SUVs with a sporting bent are enormously popular further up the market – see the Range Rover Sport, Jaguar F-Type and Porsche Macan. If the Cupra can convince buyers that it distils these cars’ essence down into a smaller, more affordable package, it could be quite a hit.

Either way, variety is the spice of life; if we all liked the same things, the world would be a very dull place. And for those who like the idea of an all-weather hot hatch that’s tall and short, so to speak, rather than low and long, there’s simply nothing out there like the Cupra Ateca.

That even hot hatch buyers will be pleasantly surprised with what they find is only to its credit.

Cupra Ateca – facts and specifications

Cupra Ateca

TESTED 1,984cc four-cylinder petrol turbo, seven-speed automatic gearbox, four-wheel drive

PRICE/ON SALE £35,900/now

POWER/TORQUE 296bhp @ 5,300rpm, 295lb ft @ 2,000rpm

TOP SPEED 153mph

ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 5.2sec

FUEL ECONOMY 38.2mpg/31.7mpg (NEDC Combined/Urban)

CO2 EMISSIONS 168g/km (NEDC)

VED £515 first year, then £140 per year

VERDICT Seat’s… sorry, Cupra’s Golf R on stilts is a surprisingly effective hot hatch substitute, and retains all the good points that make the cooking Ateca such a winner. It’s not as involving as some hot hatches, but it’s still plenty of fun – and it offers something unique.

TELEGRAPH RATING Four stars out of five

Cupra Ateca – main rivals

Volkswagen Golf R Estate, from £36,125

More of the same, but packed into a longer, lower body. You pays your money, you takes your choice – but for barely any extra, the Golf R is more practical and just that little bit more taut. Trouble is, can you get hold of one?

Volvo XC40 T5, from £36,120

About as close as you’ll get to a direct rival to the Cupra, but lacks its power, pace and overtly sporty styling, and doesn’t feel as sharp to drive, either. Classy interior, smart infotainment and chunky styling might win over some buyers, though.

Skoda Kodiaq vRS, from £42,870

A rung up from the Ateca in size and in price; comes with a big twin-turbo diesel and seven seats. Can’t match its smaller sibling’s performance, but might be the weapon of choice if you’ve a larger family to move and you still want something sporty.

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