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Up for the Cupra

Wednesday, 12th June, 2019 4:20pm

There’s just no mainstream anymore. Everything now has to be ‘premium’ or ‘high-end’ even if it’s honoured more in the breach than the observance.

Everyone’s phone now has to have an edge-to-edge screen and the sort of camera technology once the sole preserve of spy satellites.

Every kitchen has to have a massive island plonked in the middle (with breakfast bar of course) while every wristwatch has to be made from 316L-grade stainless steel.

There is no space left for the normal, the simple, the everyday. Which is, I guess, why Seat feels that it has to create, more or less out of thin air, its own high-performance, premium, sub-brand.

Cupra, as a thing, has been around for some time now, appended to the badges of various Leons and Ibizas down the years.

It has been Seat’s equivalent of GTI or ST or, if you’re feeling especially generous, AMG.

Leon and Ibiza Cupras have often been fast, fun, and occasionally distractingly good value (especially compared to the VW models with which they share their mechanical makeup). Now, though, Cupra has to stand on its own four wheel.

Seat has decided that being an affordable and mildly sporting Spanish brand is no longer enough, and that our obsession with having something posher than them’uns next door means that it has to have its own high-end offering.

Doubtless cognisant of how long it took Toyota to establish Lexus as a ground-up premium offering, Seat has decided that its existing Cupra badge would become a brand.

Quite what it all stands for, as brands go, is a little fuzzy. After all, what makes what was a Seat Cupra now a Cupra?

I mean besides a bespoke badge that looks rather too much like a kind of goth jewellery, or the kind of abstract insignia-like tattoo favoured by those who’ve spent too much time watching ‘Star Trek’.

Seat wants Cupra to be enough of its own thing that it not only stands apart from its mainstream family car business, but so much so that it can charge you extra for it. That’s, ultimately, the game here — maximising profit margins.

Cupra will, in due course, get its own, standalone models, to help separate it from Seat.

In fact, at the recent Geneva Motor Show, we’ve seen the first one — called Formentor, it’s a rakishly handsome SUV-coupe thing, with a 245hp plugin hybrid powertrain.

In the meantime, before the Formentor forments itself, we’ll have to make do with this — the Cupra Ateca. But to be fair, this still feels rather more Seat than it does Cupra.

You see, while this is badged entirely as a Cupra (you’ll not find a single Seat badge anywhere on it) it is instantly and unendingly recognisable as the same family-friendly SUV that normally comes with a stylised ‘S’ badge front and rear.

Not that Cupra has been unstinting in its efforts to create some differentiation — our test car seemed at times more bodykit than car. Those copper-and-black alloy wheels were certainly distinctive (if rather carrying the whiff of the aftermarket tuning community), and such items as gorgeous high-backed bucket seats, swathed in Alcantara suede, certainly help.

It’s still an Ateca, though. That upright shape, the entire interior, the big, useful, boot — all available just across the showroom floor for considerably less cash than the €58,732 Cupra is asking for this one.

Of course this one does come with an engine you can’t have in a ‘norm’ Ateca. It’s the same 2.0 litre turbo that you’ll find in a VW Golf R and indeed Seat’s own Leon Cupra (which, confusingly, remains a Seat Cupra rather than a Cupra) and it’s packing 300hp.

Performance is impressive. A 0-100km/h run time of 5.2 seconds is pretty exciting for a tall, family SUV and the gravelly exhaust note that this engine makes as the revs climb is more than a little reminiscent of the old 1970s Ford Escort BDA rally cars.

The only drawback is that with 400Nm of torque on offer, this mighty turbo petrol is only matching, not exceeding, the torque level of the standard Ateca 2.0 litre 190hp TDI diesel.

So, unless you’re really spanking it, and making full (and thirsty) use of the upper reaches of the rev range, this Cupra doesn’t feel all that much quicker than a well specified diesel Ateca.

The handling is pretty good though. There’s a bit of body roll and cornering lean, which you kind of expect and accept, and the Cupra Ateca’s sharp steering is sufficient to keep you entertained.

You do have to accept that, however clever the chassis engineers have been, there are limitations to what a tall, relatively heavy SUV can do compared to a lower-slung hot hatch or sports saloon.

There’s no question that the Cupra Ateca is massively good fun to fling about, but it’s still massive (relatively speaking) and so you will have to deal with a certain amount of body roll, and eventually some understeer.

You could call the Cupra experience a little mixed for now. It’s certainly lots of fun, and it can sprint in a straight line in a fashion to entertain and amuse, even if it’s not a proper drivers’ machine in the true sense.

The high price and firm ride reduce its margin to be a useful all-rounder.

I think that eventually, the Cupra Ateca will be seen as more of a taster, an amuse bouche for the full-on performance banquet of the Cupra brand.

That’s fine — you’ve got to start somewhere, and with its glowering looks, punchy performance, and its still-practical bodyshape, it’s not hard to see the basic appeal of the Cupra Ateca under all that bodykit.

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