Good: styling, practicality, most models well priced, decent to drive
Not so good: some refinement and quality issues, this version is expensive
Given the sheer length of time that SEAT has taken to bring an SUV model to market, the Ateca has managed to arrive with unusually good timing. The boom, the seemingly endless boom, in SUV and crossover sales has become so ubiquitous that it's almost a moot point now - we love our SUVs and the fashion doesn't show any signs of passing. In that sense, SEAT can be forgiven for the almost-decade it has taken to go from its first Tribu concept 4x4 in 2007 to an actual model you can buy.
More significantly, the Ateca arrives at a time when, for once, there is a noticeable and exploitable gap in the vast Volkswagen Group product range. Yes, the Tiguan is already here, but it's quite an expensive car, with realistic versions priced above the €30k mark. The Skoda Yeti is cheaper than that, but it's close to replacement and is sized below the Ateca's roomy and practical mass. The new Skoda Kodiaq, a seven-seater, will be more expensive. So, with the enormous success of the Hyundai Tucson proving that what Ireland wants is a mid-size SUV priced from around about the €25k mark, the Ateca, for all its lateness, has arrived bang on time and bang on price.
Well, not the one we're test driving here. This one is a bells-and-whistles-and-some-more-bells XCellence version, complete with the range-topping 190hp 2.0-litre TDI diesel engine, four-wheel drive and leather seats in a shade that can only be described as 'melted Cadbury's.' With its new eight-inch touch screen, automated parking and heated everything, it's about as far removed from the hurly-burly of the family car buying market as it's possible to be. The €41k price tag of our test car is well beyond the means of most buyers-with-kids, so in that sense this is a bit of a pointless test.
In another sense though, the Ateca's fundamental strengths still shine through, but we'll come to those in a moment. For now, let's dispense with the trinkets.
The 190hp 2.0-litre TDI diesel engine is most emphatically not worth paying the extra for. The more affordable 150hp version has sufficient torque to make it just as useable in real-world situations, and it would likely do better than the mid-thirties-mpg we were able to extract from the 190hp model. The basic 115hp 1.6-litre diesel is actually probably enough for most people, albeit we wouldn't try any snap overtakes in one.
The 4Drive four-wheel drive has its uses, especially as we're coming into winter and it's never heartening to see a supposed 4x4 slipping and sliding across an icy patch. The 4x4 setup and the entire driving experience can be adjusted by a rotary controller that allows you to toggle between Eco, main road, sport and various off-road settings. It's nice, but of use to most? Not really - again, the majority of family buyers would be just as well served by front-drive and some all-season tyres.
The leather seats are nice; I'll give you that. Hugely comfortable and really quite good looking too, they do lift the ambience of a cabin that otherwise tends towards being a bit dark. But I'd sacrifice them to pay instead for the optional eight-inch touchscreen, which has really gorgeous new graphics, is easy to use and comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for the smartphone-obsessives (or 'everyone').
Right, that's the tinsel out of the way. Now for the tree itself. Is the Ateca any worse off than a Tiguan, in mechanical terms? Yes, a little but the downgrade is more in refinement terms than anything else. Tyre and road noise are more noticeable than you'd find in a Tiguan, which can make longer journeys more tiring than they should be, but for most purposes it's acceptable. The steering is entirely free from the burdens of trying to provide actual feel or feedback (why couldn't SEAT have fitted the sweeter rack from the Leon?), but it's nicely weighted, and the Ateca provides a decent compromise between ride and handling. It's tidy and well-mannered, but never exciting. Then again, precisely the same could be said of pretty much any rival you might care to mention.
It's also roomy. Head- and legroom in the back are fine, and the rear seat width is just good enough to make the fitting of three child car seats a genuine possibility. The boot, at 510 litres, is big, square and at just the right height for you to avoid over-working your back. The optional powered tailgate is a bit pointless though - have we all really become so lazy? Other high points are an excellent reversing camera and brilliant (in both senses of the word), but optional LED headlights.
The flaws are in the fit and finish. The cabin, which isn't actually lifted wholesale from the Leon, but looks as if it might be, does feel a little cheap in some places, and there were both some noticeable rattles and a faint but occasionally intrusive vibration through the floor. SEAT has demonstrated pretty solid build quality and reliability over the past decade, but these are mildly concerning, and hopefully they won't turn out to be long term quality issues.
Still, the Ateca now has a pretty much open goal in front of it. It's Volkswagen's only up-to-date, similarly-priced rival to the Tucson, the Kia Sportage, the Renault Kadjar, the Nissan Qashqai and more. It's got the right price tag, a good spread of engines and equipment and if the cabin is a little plain, then the exterior is sufficiently sharply-styled to make it an appealing bit of driveway furniture. Can it leverage its propitious arrival time to Tucson-beating effect? We shall see...