We've had eight months to get to grips with the idea that Cupra is a standalone brand and no longer the trim badge applied to hot Seats. Now we get to meet its first product: the Ateca, which is actually a Cupra version of a Seat model. Go figure. As puzzling as this is - and will continue to be because an Ibiza is due next - the brand wants desperately to be taken seriously. With seven models due by 2020, its bosses promise that making Cupra its own entity isn't just a marketing ploy; it's about unleashing the Spanish performance division from the ties of its parent. "We want to take it out of the Seat world to the race track," is how sales and marketing boss Wayne Griffiths put it earlier this year. The Ateca is the first physical example of that ambitious process.
It absolutely has to leap out of the starting blocks and hit the ground running, so Cupra's first model gets the Volkswagen Group's ubiquitous EA888 turbocharged 2.0-litre in 300hp and 295lb ft form, meaning it's got the same power and more torque than the Seat Leon Cupra 300 (erm, yes, to add to the confusion Seat still sells the Cupra-badged model for now) and is more potent than any other SUV of this segment. In fact, the four-cylinder unit puts it so far ahead of the rest of the pack (think Nissan Qashqai and Peugeot 3008 et al), the only SUVs with comparable performance are in the class above and made by the likes of Jaguar, Audi and even Porsche. Cupra's first model ought really to be sailing in clear waters.
As standard it uses the VW Group's new seven-speed DSG automatic and sends drive through a front-biased Haldex all-wheel drive system. This setup enables the hot Ateca to sprint from 0-62mph in 5.2 seconds, leaving it only three tenths shy of the 300hp Volkswagen Golf R and its closely related technical setup, despite being 130kg heavier at 1,632kg all in. The car also gets standard-fit adaptive dampers with drive modes ranging from comfort to sport, as well as a Cupra mode. Plus, there are four-piston Brembo brakes and a new exhaust system, too.
Given the extent to which the hardware has already proven itself, it's a compelling specification - which makes it somewhat disappointing to climb aboard the Cupra Ateca and find it very much in Seat mode. It's true there are no visible S-logos; only triangular Cupra badges adorn the interior, each looking for all the world like the kind of Transformer stickers you can get off eBay. But the cabin is wholly familiar and even where Cupra has indulged - with some bronze finish and a sportier-looking TFT display - it fails to spice things up much. Our press car came with deep bolstered sports seats up front, but disappointingly these are only available as a cost option.
The engine note at least will be unfamiliar to current Ateca owners. It's that same deep, purposeful tone which has been filling VAG cabins since the start of the decade, and on the move it pulls strongly, with the keenness we're accustomed to in the Golf R - with perhaps the slightest discernible edge removed. Even when set to Normal mode the Cupra Ateca is rapid though, building speed from low pace with real urgency, helped in part but a set of tightly stacked ratios (first is very short) and the quick shifting DSG. You'd lose in a drag race to a Golf R, obviously, but not by as much as you might expect. Cupra's opted against the use of a sound symposer in the Ateca, and apparently that's not down to cost cutting either - brand bosses even went so far as to brag about it in the press conference. According to them it allows the engine to project a more natural, albeit less rorty, sound. There are a couple of crackles on the overrun from the exhaust as well, though generally it's quieter and more mature than other EA888 models.
That trait signals the car's overall character, because it's no yob, being far too concerned with making progress in the smoothest, quickest way possible. On the even tarmac of our Catalonian launch drive, the adaptive dampers did an excellent job of eradicating unwanted body roll, and even with quick direction changes you won't unsettle it easily. Nor will you provoke the chassis into the kind of playfulness that tends to make a good hot hatch such a diverting steer. Dive deep enough into the infotainment menus to turn the stability control off - it remains on until you do this, even in Cupra mode - and it becomes apparent that the inherent safety bias is plumbed into the chassis as much as the electronics.
The Ateca has clearly been developed to enable quick cross-country running without drama, pushing into slight understeer if you test the limits of mechanical adhesion on turn in. Otherwise its nigh on impossible to make the Pirelli P-Zero-wrapped 19-inch wheels come unstuck even when you dispatch the engine's full potential through a corner on smooth Spanish tarmac. The brakes are ultra strong, too. It's the kind of package that speaks to ground-covering ability of a modern crossover, without doing anything to satisfy someone looking for a deeper level of engagement.
Ultimately, there's no doubt the Cupra Ateca fills its niche very effectively - so much so that it's hard really to see what alternative there is in the sub £40k price bracket. Of course, if we were in the market for something family-sized and performance based heralding from south of the Pyrenees, our money would be spent on the cheaper Seat Leon Cupra, because, well, you can't deny the laws of physics. The wagon - which shares basically the same powertrain - will get you where you going slightly more quickly, slightly more cheaply and without the handling handicap of a higher roofline. If you must have an SUV though, the Cupra Ateca sets the bar for its size - even if its maker's standalone status still leaves a somewhat bad taste in the mouth. To us, its first model is too much like a Seat Ateca performance variant. Which needn't have been a bad thing in the first place.
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)