What are you driving?
What am I driving? That is a bit of a tricky question, and one without a simple answer. Technically, this is the Cupra Ateca, a high-performance SUV from a new brand. Obviously, though, it's not quite that - it's a SEAT Ateca wearing a new badge and using the 300hp four-cylinder turbo engine from the VW Golf R and SEAT's own Leon Cupra.
And this is where it gets really confusing. SEAT wants to build up Cupra as its own high-performance skunkworks, a standalone brand that can be, if you like, a more affordable Spanish version of Mercedes-AMG. The idea being that, decoupled from the more day-to-day SEAT brand, Cupra can make faster and sharper cars and, more importantly (from SEAT and the Volkswagen Group's twin perspectives) charge more money for them, at a higher profit margin.
A nice idea, but starting off what is supposed to be a new, standalone brand by rebadging an existing car seems to represent a touch of fuzzy thinking. This is, technically, a Cupra Ateca, not a SEAT Ateca, and has been rebadged as such. But the disguise is only skin-deep, and the confusion is amplified by the fact that, for now, SEAT isn't rebadging high-performance Cupra models of the Leon - they remain as SEAT Leon Cupras, rather than Cupra Leons. See what we mean about confusion?
Name its best bits
Well, whatever you think about the marketing guff, the Cupra Ateca looks good. The standard Ateca is already a nice-looking car, and to that pleasant shape Cupra has added a muscular body kit, courtesy of the brand's chief designer, Alejandro Mesonero-Romanos. It includes a honeycomb radiator grille and a new bumper with the Cupra name emblazoned, eighties-style, above the lower splitter. The roof rails, wing mirrors, window frames, side mouldings, wheels, front grille and front and rear diffusers, as well as the spoilers that frame the rear window, are all finished in a glossy black (which has a rather more striking effect on a car painted something other than black, as was our test car). There are also 19-inch wheels, finished in a mixed black-and-copper colour, and new copper-finished Cupra badges. It looks mean, moody and bloody good.
Inside, there are bucket seats with Alcantara suede centres, and that suede is continued on the door panels. There are aluminium pedals too, and a smattering of those new Cupra badges. It's all topped off by an eight-inch central infotainment touchscreen and a new digital instrument pack, which you can flip through four display modes, one of which is rather BMW-esque, another of which is clearly a nod of the head to Audi's RS digital displays. It all works well, is really nicely put together and space is excellent - there's legroom to burn, and a decent boot.
If you really want me to name the Ateca's absolute best bit, though, it's the engine. The 300hp turbo four-pot is familiar from other Volkswagen Group applications, but frankly it never gets old. The combo of a big turbo and the DSG dual-clutch automatic gearbox means that there's a touch of lag when slapping down on the throttle, but the engine soon wakes up and performance is never less than exciting. A 5.2-second 0-100km/h time is quick in anything, but feels quicker still when you're sat a good 30cm higher than usual... Better still, it sounds fab, rumbling with intent at low rpm, and doing a really convincing impression of an old Escort BDA rally car engine at higher revs. It's not even desperately thirsty, generally averaging around 30mpg, which isn't bad considering the power and the Ateca's chunky 1,615kg kerb weight.
The 4Drive all-wheel-drive system means that traction is never an issue (although the inclusion of an off-road mode seems a bit daft considering those scrape-prone alloys and the Pirelli P Zero tyres) and as long as you keep Comfort selected on the driving mode panel, the Ateca is comfy enough for daily family duties.
Anything that bugs you?
If you're going to inaugurate a new performance brand, starting with an SUV may not be the best choice. The fact is that, although the Cupra Ateca is fast, its handling is limited by its height and weight. Keep it on fast, open roads and it feels mighty, with good steering feel and weight and not too much body roll. Tighter and bumpier roads (i.e. an Irish back road) reveal that it's only grippy enough up to a point, after which the Ateca lapses into near-terminal understeer.
That's a disappointment, but we'll allow that it may be tyre-related. Pirelli P Zero tyres are notoriously finicky when it comes to damp conditions, and it's quite possible that swapping those boots for, say, Michelin Pilot Sports, may improve the Cupra's on-the-limit behaviour, but for now it's a touch limited.
Two other things bother us - the price is pretty stiff, with our test car clocking in at €58,000 thanks to having €8,000 worth of extras, many of which (the wheels, the Beats audio system, the alarm (!), the electric tailgate, the metallic paint) really ought to be standard-fit on a range-topping performance model.
Finally, there's the badge itself. Not Cupra, as such, but the physical badge, which either looks like some sort of double-bladed Klingon dagger from Star Trek (not a classic Bat'leth, but still...) or the sort of badge used by one of those dodgy Russian tuning firms that does horrible things to Porsches and Bentleys. It lacks class, frankly.
And why have you given it this rating?
Starting Cupra's life with an SUV was always going to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, everyone wants an SUV. On the other, you're always fighting an uphill battle against the laws of physics. The Cupra Ateca is, therefore, about as good as it could ever be - fast, quite good fun, good looking, but held back a little (possibly by tyres) at the limits of traction.