IAIN ROBERTSON 

Such has been the unremitting demand for SUVs/crossovers that it is unsurprising to be able to obtain hotter variants and Iain Robertson puts the zestiest version of the Ateca under his unrelenting microscope to see if it is as good as its badge suggests.

Sometime in the mid-1990s, a determination permeated the ranks of the motor industry. Niche marketing would be its future. Of course, all that it leads to is consumer confusion and a worrying tendency for prices to escalate. However, factoring in a fancier set of alloy wheels does not constitute a model renaming, or introduction, strategy of any merit. Carmakers, if they have not all appreciated it by now, need to be more discerning, better defined and less immaturely ‘scattergun’ than they have been.

While we have been travelling through a design era, in which it has become undeniably difficult to differentiate each VW Group model from the next one, Audi retains its ‘bib and tucker’, while Skoda does its ‘ingenious’ thing, VW creates a ‘value-added’ stance and Seat relies on ‘traditional ethics’.

To observe the realignment of the Seat brand has been fascinating. Fifteen years ago, it was a marque in peril. A strange board decision to align it with Audi, by way of separating it from Skoda and its value brand image, was an abysmal error. The UK importer had tried to gift the brand a sunny Iberian personality, which was fine but conflicted with its former ‘cheap Fiat’ image, perpetrated by millions of British sunseekers holidaying in Spain. Seat needed to grow a pair (as they say) and present a more defiant posture but a lot of in-fighting even led VW to question its decision to acquire the brand, when it was on its knees, in the period immediately post-Franco.

It would be fair to state that all the antipathy has now ended. VW is not trying to sell Seat back to Fiat Group. Stronger management, as ever, has been the route to a stronger brand. Whether Ateca looks like Karoq, Tiguan, or even Q3, is in some ways a convenient happenstance. At least, in FR form, it drives as well as, if not better than the other family products.

While FR is a differentiator, so too are the red stitching and red accents within the cabin. They are components of what turns the application of VW Group parts into Seat-specifics. Regardless of what you might feel about VW Group, most of its models are hugely satisfying to drive and live with, thanks to ace build quality. Mind you, it starts to get expensive at this end of the grid, as evinced by the list price of £33,315 for the test car, before any dealer discounts are applied, for which you will be most grateful. The price does include the ‘keyless-go’, digital dashboard, ‘top view’ camera and 19.0-inch alloy wheels, which factor-in £2,635’s worth of extras.

Yet, I am talking about a well-proportioned, spacious for five adults, go almost anywhere and pleasingly zesty five-door hatchback. I did mention the ‘ace build quality’ but it is actually market-leading quality. A beautifully co-ordinated interior, complete with supportive and very comfortable, Alcantara-upholstered sports seats (up-front) and an equally welcoming rear bench is impeccably assembled, with not a stitch out of place. Possessing an amazing amount of manual adjustability for both driver’s seat and steering column ensures that the driving position is perfect. The programmable instrument panel creates a practical, user-friendly display that expounds the brand’s ‘parts-bins’ technological advancements.

Naturally, connectivity is well-considered and there is a charging-pad for mobiles and sockets for in-car electronica, both in front and in the rear of the cabin. The corporate ‘touch-screen’ in the dash-centre operates speedily and thoughtfully. All controls are well-weighted and balanced and add to the impression of occupant-pleasing quality. Even the ‘drive control’ dial between the front seats avoids complexity but feels reassuring to use.

While diesel still forms a vital part of all VW Group engineering exercises, the 2.0-litre turbo-petrol in the Ateca FR is possibly the best installation of this unit that I have experienced so far. It develops a modest 187bhp, which is enough to propel the Ateca from 0-60mph in a useful 7.6s, before topping-out at a more than adequate 132mph. Driving through a seamless, 7-speed DSG (sequential automated-manual, with steering wheel-mounted shift paddles) transmission, the flood of accessible power, when given its head, feels utterly relentless.

Yet, this engine is also mega-efficient, boasting a moderate 159g/km of CO2, which equates to a hefty £515 first year road tax but £140 annually thereafter. Its stated 40.4mpg (Official Combined) average fuel economy is not just achievable in normal motoring but, as I witnessed 47.4mpg on a far-from-slow trip to the Humber Bridge, I can assure you that, even dipping opportunistically into its immensely talented performance palette, the Ateca FR will not eat you out of house and home.

Naturally, you can access the Ateca’s sense of fun by simply mashing the accelerator pedal into the carpet but it would be a lost cause, if its handling and dynamic balance were not up to the task. Only when striking the occasional, late-spotted pothole does the car’s suspension ‘crash’ audibly. However, the driver hears, rather than feels such imperfections, even though they still elicit a wince. The rest of the time, Ateca rides fluently and jar-free across road surface undulations, imparting a visceral muscularity, almost as though it is ironing-out the ruts and ripples that would upset a typical hot-hatch.

Grip levels are very high, aided undoubtedly by the 4×4 drive-train, although the car steers impeccably well and can change direction with the alacrity of a polecat, demonstrating none of the understeering side effects normally associated with an all-wheel-drive system. Whether playing on the back-doubles, or cruising on main roads and motorways, the car’s directional stability and deportment is first-class. In fact, it feels so competently engineered that it more than justifies the price tag.

As a practical family car, its boot is well-shaped, with no unfortunate intrusions, and offers the practicality of both a ski-hatch (for longer, skinny loads) and a 60:40-split of the rear seatbacks. A transverse strengthening bar between the rear wheel-arches does create a small lip in the otherwise flat floor and there is also a few inches drop into it, over the rear bumper, but I cannot imagine anybody complaining about a shortage of space. Overall, Seat has created a characterful, roomy and sporty hatchback in the Ateca FR that will prove very easy to live with.

Conclusion:    As a strong fan of Seat, I applaud its customer-pleasing range of competences. As a true multi-purpose vehicle possessing all-season relevance, it will answer the prayers of a broad cross-section of new car buyers.