SEAT is adding the Ateca SUV to its product line-up, giving it a Nissan Qashqai rival in the fast-growing and hugely popular SUV and crossover marketplace. It might not be first to market, but our early drive suggests it'll be right up among the class best to drive in every area. SEAT is also promising a smaller Ibiza-based SUV in the next two years, so the Spanish firm's recent growth will likely continue apace.
In the metal
Neat proportions mix with some sharp detailing to create the SEAT Ateca, the Spanish firm helping its new entrant in the busy SUV and crossover marketplace stand out from the amorphous norm. It's bold, but not divisively so; everyone seems to like the Ateca's form, and it's unashamedly SUV in its stance. No surprises with its overall shape, then, but its surface treatments give it a classiness that's more upmarket than anything else the firm offers. That's no doubt deliberate, as the Ateca pushes SEAT into new market areas and it needs to convince buyers unfamiliar with the brand that they want the Ateca over the usual SUV and crossover options such as Nissan's Qashqai and the Kia Sportage - not to mention the runaway success of 2016 so far, the new Hyundai Tucson.
It betters the Sportage and Qashqai for boot space and is only three litres less capacious than the Tucson with the rear seats in use. On top of that, the interior, despite the compact exterior proportions, is generously spacious. The dashboard is typically clear and simple, while the material fit and finish also bear the SEAT hallmark of fine quality that's still a little deferent to its Volkswagen parent, as befits its brand positioning. There's all the connectivity you could wish for, though much of it will be on the options list, something we'll be able to report with certainty on when we review Irish specification cars later in the year. SEAT is promising a strong equipment/price position though, in a bid to attract new customers to it, so expect it to be better equipped as standard than its most obvious rivals.
Like all its SEAT siblings, the Ateca plays borrows heavily from its Volkswagen parent, so it's basically a Volkswagen Tiguan underneath. That's no bad thing, though SEAT's engineers claim a lot of development work goes into making it drive like a SEAT. It's worked, too, as the Ateca is an enjoyable steer, with agility that's more hatchback than SUV. It's eager to turn in and grips well. The pre-production examples we tested all had four-wheel drive, though sales in Ireland are anticipated to be predominantly front-wheel drive. That all-wheel drive system brings with it a multi-link rear axle over the more basic standard set up, but fundamentally the Ateca demonstrates a breadth of talent that looks very promising even in lesser specifications.
In the four-wheel drive models there's a drive control unit with six different driving modes from eco through to snow. Front-wheel drive models do without the snow and off-road settings. In truth you can fiddle around with the various modes endlessly and you'll be hard pushed to notice an appreciable difference in the steering, throttle and six-speed DSG automatic transmission response (a seven-speed DSG unit is standard on the range-topping 4Drive 190 TDI). Leave it in Normal and you'll not be left wanting, as the steering is quick and light, while the response from the accelerator is brisk enough for most - it's notably dulled in Eco mode.
Engine choices include a pair of petrol units: a three-cylinder 1.0-litre TSI engine with 115hp and a 1.4 TSI with 150hp; the diesel line-up consists of 1.6- and 2.0-litre four-cylinder TDIs; the 1.6 produces 115hp and that 2.0-litre is available in either 150- or 190hp states of tune. It'll be the entry-level diesel engine that'll make up the bulk of sales here. The petrol units are only offered with front-wheel drive, while four-wheel drive is only available with the 2.0-litre TDIs. That 1.4 TSI petrol option is the surprise hit in the line-up; it's eager and smooth and its emissions are only marginally worse than the 2.0 TDI engine with the same output - the diesel is rather coarse in comparison. Nonetheless, most buyers will favour the diesel, because of its bigger torque, which makes it easier to drive is useful if you're towing, while its greater real-world economy will count in its favour too.
Being a SEAT the drive is a little on the sporting side, and the chassis set up is nicely judged. The Ateca's suspension is firm without being unsettled, its control and comfort good even when riding on larger 19-inch alloy wheels. There are no variable dampers as per its Volkswagen Tiguan relation, but you don't miss them, as the Ateca is an agile, enjoyable drive, regardless of engine choice. Given the choice we'd be grabbing the keys to that 1.4 TSI.
What you get for your money
While Irish prices and the line-up have yet to be confirmed, it's safe to say though that SEAT's in fighting mood, so you can expect the Ateca to offer an equipment list that's comprehensive, and certainly among the best offerings in the class. We've seen the base level infotainment screen and it's fine, though the Ateca can be had with a vast array of technology options covering connectivity, self-parking, satnav and infotainment plus a big touch screen if you wish. Other kit that'll feature includes one of those leg-waving boot opening functions; it also closes with a wiggling leg if your hands are full - and you've got good balance.
It's taken a while for SEAT to catch up with the runaway SUV and crossover marketplace, but the Ateca is a very strong contender. It's fun to drive, looks great, has plenty of space and the promise of good specifications and competitive pricing, all adding up to a convincing package. We'll know for absolute certain when we drive examples closer to our market specification in the coming months, but fundamentally, the new Ateca looks and feels very impressive indeed.