When it comes to SUVs and crossovers, I’m like a stuck record. However good one of these high-riding heavyweights is, 99 per cent of the people buying them will usually be better off with a lighter, cheaper, better-looking hatchback or estate car.
It’s something that has to be said, even if its in vain, doing pretty much squat to stop the inexorable rise of the SUV and the sad, steady decline of the wagon. And now, my poor colleagues have to put up with me bleating on in defence of the estate car, as a Cupra Ateca has just snuck its way into our long-term test car ‘garage’.
Since actions speak much louder than words, I’ve decided to put my money where my mouth is, and bring the sportified Ateca together with its estate equivalent, the Seat Leon Cupra ST. And immediately, this causes a little bit of confusion. Cupra may have been turned into a standalone brand, but the process isn’t quite complete - while the Ateca doesn’t carry any prominent Seat badging, the Leon still wears a big ‘S’ on its nose.
Despite the different branding, though, these two are quite clearly cut from the same cloth. Both are powered by VW Group’s ‘EA888’ inline-four turbo, with matching 296bhp outputs. That power is sent to all four wheels via a Haldex-type differential. Each is designed using ‘MQB’ platform architecture, and looking at the cabins (above) of the two cars quickly turns into the world’s least interesting game of spot the difference.
On the move, the Cupra Ateca certainly uses those familiar ingredients to good effect. It’ll hit 62mph from a standstill in 5.2 seconds, and that four-wheel drive system hangs on commendably before the inevitable understeer arrives. The seven-speed DSG does have an irritating habit of self-shifting even when you’re in manual mode, though, and it’s surprisingly laggy off the line.
In isolation, you’d be quite impressed with the Cupra Ateca’s on-road manners. But today, it’s not in isolation. And switching to the Leon Cupra quickly highlights its SUV sibling’s compromises by feeling so much sweeter to drive using - for the most part - the same box of bits.
With a car that’s about 75kg lighter to punt along, the 2.0-litre engine feels so much perkier. The Ateca I’d describe as ‘brisk’, but the Leon? I’d be tempted to use the word ‘quick’. The factory acceleration figure is only three tenths faster than the Ateca’s, but it only tells part of the story - it’s when you put your foot down on the move that the elder of the two Cupras feels so much more eager to gather speed. Weirdly, it sounds quite different too.
Potential cornering speeds increase dramatically, thanks not just to the drop in weight, but the decrease in ride height too. The Leon Cupra sits low and snug with the road surface, and although it still rolls, it’s not anywhere near enough lean to be a problem.
The ride is better, too. The adaptive damping set up is more than up to the task of more dynamic driving while remaining reasonably comfortable during normal use. Ateca, meanwhile, might be better at soaking up things like speed bumps thanks to its superior suspension travel, but it becomes irritatingly firm when set in sportier modes.
Switching back to the Cupra Ateca to see if it can mount a counter-attack, I do finally find something it offers over its estate cousin: body movement. The extra weight means the Ateca feels noticeably more mobile through the corners, which does mean it’s at times more entertaining than the Leon. It’s a perverse pleasure, though, and it doesn’t detract from the simple fact the estate car here is a more capable and more convincing performance car.
None of this is particularly surprising - impressive though it is for an SUV, the Cupra Ateca remains…an SUV. There’s only so much that can be done when working with something tall and heavy, but that makes Seat’s decision to give the Ateca exactly the same amount of power as the lighter Leon all the more puzzling, particularly as this is the car tasked with spearheading the Cupra’s brand’s rebirth.
To the Cupra Ateca’s credit, the difference between it and the Leon ST Cupra, while by no means small, is at least not as big as you might expect it to be. And it’s not like Seat is charging a stupid amount of money for the car - its £35,900 starting price is only £2640 more than the entry-level ST Cupra. If you really must do the crossover thing, this Ateca does at least make sense from a value-for-money standpoint.
As for me? I think you already know the answer to that - I’d have the estate car every day of the week.