It has, you'll have noticed, been the year of the ultra-fast SUV. The decade, too, really - but 2018 really tightened the screw. Not content with already building improbably quick SUVs, manufacturers have latched onto the idea of building the 'quickest' full stop. We've had the 650hp Lamborghini Urus, which is good for 190mph. We've had the 700hp Jeep Trackhawk, which is claimed to hit 60mph in 3.5 seconds. And we've had the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio, which makes do with an almost modest sounding 510hp - but which also found its way around you-know-where half a second quicker than Sport Auto managed in a BMW M2 Competition.
The effect has filtered down, too. Mainstream crossovers have been getting steadily quicker as they breakout into the same fertile sales territory pioneered by hot hatches over 40 years ago. Nissan launched the 197hp Juke Nismo in 2013. Yes, it was awful - but inevitable, too. Five years later, for a little over £35k, you can now have a 300hp Cupra Ateca, good for 0-62mph in 5.2 seconds and 153mph. And no matter what you think of SEAT's attempt to spin-off a performance brand, its first bespoke model could hardly be more of its time. Or better equipped to exploit it.
Its power to price ratio alone makes it a standout prospect. The Mercedes-AMG GLA 45 is of a similar size and quicker still - but is around £12k more expensive. An X3 in M40i drag is almost £20k costlier. Ditto the Si4 version of the Range Rover Evoque. A Mini Countryman JCW ALL4 is cheaper, yet (comparatively) underpowered - and rubbish, too. Ford has just launched a 335hp Edge ST - its first 'performance' SUV - but will only sell it in the States. For now, Cupra can justly claim to have us all to itself.
So why test it against the Stelvio, a car that starts at almost double the Ateca's sticker price? Well, for all the increased competition at its level, the Quadrifoligio is similarly conspicuous in its own segment. The Cayenne Turbo, Range Rover Sport SVR and Mercedes-AMG GLE 63 S all produce more power than the Alfa from larger engines, but are significantly more expensive - and slower, too. The car arguably closest to the range-topping Stelvio in concept is the 550hp Jaguar F-Pace SVR, and for now that remains firmly beyond the horizon.
All of which makes the thought of upstart versus upstart rather appealing. As does the sneaking suspicion that Cupra has rather thrown down the gauntlet with the hatchback-based Ateca. Can it really only be half as good as the saloon-based Stelvio? First impressions suggest not. SEAT isn't going to win any design awards for the Ateca's interior, but it's nailed together with a consistency that escapes the much more expensive Alfa. The cheap feeling plastic that has been virtually eradicated among its direct rivals is still disappointingly prominent in the Stelvio, and for the Cupra - by no means a paragon of material plushness - to outdo it in terms of finish is certainly notable.
Attempting to programme the respective sat nav systems only serves to underline the disparity. Infotainment is an acknowledged weakness for this generation of Alfa, and while the Stelvio's interface (which borrows liberally from BMW's iDrive setup) is serviceable, its foibles are mercilessly highlighted by the Ateca's better thought out alternative. Couldn't give a monkeys? Well, okay - but the difference speaks directly to buyer expectation and ease-of-use, commodities that modern SUVs are supposed to deliver in spades.
Right out of the gate, the Cupra does a much better job of delivering on that your-life-made-easier promise. Primary among its advantages is the most obvious one: buried somewhere under the Ateca is much of what makes the Volkswagen Golf R such a compelling everyday choice. Sure, it's been diluted by too much mass in the wrong place and a driving position ill-suited to enjoying yourself - but the ghost of this decade's all-wheel-drive hero-hatch is very much in the machine. And, unless you don't like comfortable, fast, refined, well-made things, that can only be a good thing.
Certainly, it punts about at low to middling speeds extremely effectively. The newer seven-speed DSG is still not immune to the occasional fluster when slowing, but the 300hp version of the familiar EA888 four-cylinder motor is so adept at having you up to speed again that it's rare to think ill of the powertrain. In many ways, its chipper, mannered response to even modest throttle inputs is well suited to an SUV - especially when its combined with running gear that pitches the ride quality neatly between assertively firm and nicely pliant (in its 'Comfort' mode, at any rate).
In contrast, when driven sedately, the Quadrifoglio does a good job of convincing you that it isn't very special at all. It is anonymously quiet at low speeds and low revs (albeit in a manner that makes it seem a notch less refined than the Cupra) and the ZF transmission, chiefly concerned with not emptying the tank, does a good job of leaving you in too high a gear out of slow corners. It is plainly no Rolls-Royce Cullinan either. Exmoor's weather is tough on B roads, and where they are bumpy and inconsistent, so is the Stelvio. Its 20-inch wheels and the stiffness of its taller springs account for the twitchiness, and while the result is not uncomfortable per se nor is it as sophisticated as anything sold from a Porsche or Land Rover dealership.
Factor in the quixotic speed of the steering (amplified by the wheel's dinky size) and the well established problems with Alfa's brake-by-wire system, and what you're left with is a slightly edgy driving experience - one that you could argue is roughly the equivalent of the interior's unevenness. The Ateca, by virtue of being comfier, quieter, better put together and equipped with better tuned control surfaces, manages to be the satisfying prospect for at least half the time - and for half the cost, don't forget.
And don't think that doesn't include pressing on a bit either. Up to a point, the Cupra's impression of a Golf R persists admirably. Its initial roll rate is very well controlled considering the SUV's ride height, and the connection between steering column and front axle seems no less assured than in the hatchback. No forethought is required to start leaning into the generous amount of grip available - nor is there any real requirement to seek out any drive mode beyond the default one. The Ateca just gets on with the business of going faster with the minimum amount of fuss or worry - and while it doesn't do it with quite the same directness or dexterity as its lower-to-the-road cousin, it does it easily well enough to live up to its Cupra billing.
It's enough, too, to make its lead on the Stelvio seem less like a nose and more like head and shoulders. Right up to the point where you stopping faffing about in the Alfa, that is. Quit relying on the eight-speed gearbox's auto mode to tap into the extraordinary potential of the Ferrari-derived 2.9-litre twin-turbocharged V6 and the Quadrifoglio romps into a different league. Selecting your own cog - be it with the flagrantly massive paddles or the sequential shift of the BMW-aping gear lever itself - is the equivalent of waving a magic wand furiously and expectantly at the erratic Stelvio. The response is electric.
Alfa claims 3.8 seconds to 62mph for its 1,830kg SUV and as impossibly small as that number is, it almost undersells just how rabid the car feels when the engine gets into its stride in any gear below sixth. With the Stelvio's habit of pitching back slightly, and the V6's preference for rasping like a Sicilian banshee above 3,000rpm, it feels every bit as quick as a Lamborghini Urus. Quicker even. Easily quick enough for the palms to go clammy at the end of even moderately long straights as you suddenly realise just how much speed you're about to carry into the next corner (or else messily shave off).
That's a measure of the engine's elastic charisma at 7,300rpm as much as anything; it virtually dares you to trouble the limiter in low gears - so much so that it's likely the Stelvio would have been irresistible even if Alfa had just strapped the odd-firing V6 to any old FCA platform and simply left it at that. But it didn't. Instead its Q4 all-wheel-drive is predominately rear-driven - and that obvious bias is all about making the car feel adjustable on the throttle and 'lively' in a way that few other SUV makers can claim to have explored.
The result is not what anyone would call perfect, of course. Indeed, it's perfectly possible that you might actually prefer the Ateca's traditional, front-end focused way of doing things given that the Cupra is no less predictable than the hatchback that spawned it. Sure, it can't quite mimic the Golf R's gift for neutrality (surprise, surprise) - yet its directness and understeer-finding predictability make it nothing if not confidence inspiring.
That's about where it ends though. SEAT has astutely broadened the Ateca's handling bandwidth, but its limit has merely been raised, not reconfigured with greater nuance in mind. That's completely understandable, of course, but its stability-minded, one-trick-pony temperament does rather point up just how unprecedented the Quadrifoglio's myriad possibilities are - not least because they include the real possibility of visiting a ditch backwards if you've elected to tear about in 'Race' mode with the driving aids extinguished.
Even in 'Dynamic' the Stelvio encourages you to stay on your toes. The dampers' firmer setting is too unforgiving for mooching about in, but at speed it does a decent job of smoothing flat the preceding choppiness. Better consistency in the ride quality makes it easy to drive with more conviction, and while the Quadrifoglio lacks the buttoned-down, burly turn in of a Porsche Macan, it is not difficult to start threading bends together in a way that speaks to the car's ground covering abilities. All the time the presence of 510hp at the back end is unmistakable - ditto the drivetrain's eagerness for vectoring its torque delivery from side to side via a brace of clutches.
Seek to take liberties with the available traction - as the yowling V6 will encourage you to do - and the Quadrifoglio will certainly start to rotate. A year ago, when we drove it up a closed two-lane mountain road in the UAE, its capacity for doing so seemed hugely entertaining; on a freezing December day in Devon its tendency to breakaway abruptly on cold tyres is a little more hair raising, even with the Q4 system seeking to limit your ham-fistedness by judiciously returning up to 50 per cent of available torque to the front axle whenever it senses over rotation at the rear.
This doesn't necessarily make it the most intuitive or subtle car to drive briskly - or anywhere near as good as the saloon on which its based - but it does lend the most expensive Stelvio the kind of raucous handling character that does seem consistent with its firecracker of a V6; not least because you engage with it relentlessly and on a level not traditionally challenged by even its quickest rivals. Truthfully only the Range Rover SVR approaches its ferocious, frenzied way of doing things - and it costs £30k more to buy.
So is it £35k better than the Ateca? Not across the board, clearly. For all the naffness of its rebrand, the Cupra version ticks some desirable boxes. Being comfier, quieter, easier to use, more coherent, better finished and (to these eyes) better looking, is likely to get it rather a long way in the nation's good books. However, while it is without question the most appealing compact SUV to buy, the Ateca's biggest fault is probably the most obvious one: for practically the same outlay, you could actually buy a five-door Volkswagen Golf R, which is superior to it in every way save for the slightly smaller boot and marginally lower ground clearance.
Even if you did though, it wouldn't shade the Alfa. For one thing, there's just too much engine here to trump with a four-pot of any stripe. There's never any doubt that the boisterous V6 has been expensively laid on for your amusement either. In the business of finding a gear and holding on to it for its own outrageous sake, the Stelvio is rivalled only by the Ariel Nomad for high-pitched, eye-swivelling, pseudo-off-roader swagger. Against such a scintillating backdrop, it almost seems fitting that the Quadrifoglio is capable of leaving T junctions and roundabouts like an oversized muscle car. Understated it is not - and when it tries to be, its flaws show through like Donald Trump's scalp. But puerile fun? Yeah, it's a whole lotta that. And if we're going to living in the age of super-fast SUVs, we'd prefer the comical sticker prices come as standard with an additional and absorbing reason to chuckle.
SPECIFICATION - CUPRA ATECA
Engine: 1,984cc, 4-cyl, turbocharged
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 300@5,300-6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 295@2,000-5,200rpm
Top speed: 154mph
MPG: 38.2 (NEDC combined)
SPECIFICATION - ALFA ROMEO STELVIO QUADRIFOGLIO
Engine: 2,891cc, twin turbocharged V6
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 510@6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 443@2,500rpm
Top speed: 176mph
MPG: 31.4 (NEDC combined)
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