For 10 years the Qashqai has been to the nation’s driveways what a loaf of medium sliced white is to its bread bins. Ubiquitous. Essential. Standard. Assured of what they’re getting, a generation of young families has made the British-built Nissan virtually its default choice. It has provided us with a standard too; the one we’ve used to measure practically every affordable crossover that has followed in its wake.
Typically, all have been found wanting. The Qashqai has not proven the best because it was first or cheap or even overtly brilliant, but because it was a savvy mix of practicality, efficiency, functionality and understated desirability. While Nissan likes to claim credit for the fortuitous half-spark of originality that helped establish the industry’s gravy train segment, its real triumph has been to nurture the model’s cleverly balanced appeal in the decade following its introduction.
It’s possible though that none of the competition in that time has been as potentially formidable as the new Seat Ateca. True, the Spanish firm has never built an SUV of any stripe before – and even the efforts of its parent company, the mighty VW Group, have been patchy – but the latest model promises to be rather different. Underpinned by the MQB platform, the Ateca has a raft of exemplary, right-sized offerings to call close relations, and only last week we described its sister car, the Volkswagen Tiguan, as the definitive compact SUV.
Of course, Wolfsburg’s idea of a high-riding family car comes with a valuation to match: the flagship R-Line Tiguan costs at least £7k more than the most expensive Qashqai. But Seat’s version, starting from just under £18k, is clearly priced to cause Nissan dealers some discomfort. For the same £27k that buys you a trim-topping, two-wheel-drive 128bhp Qashqai Tekna, you can have a 148bhp, four-wheel-drive Ateca in its equally bountiful Xcellence format.
It looks the part, too. The current Qashqai is as shrewdly hewn as a Trojan’s helmet, but it’s rival - even as a first ashore left-hooker - looks no less engaging in its presence; the rather staid horizontal lines of the Tiguan benefitting hugely from the wet strop apparently used in Seat’s Barcelona design studio to sharpen up VW’s modelling clay. The Ateca is slightly shorter than the Nissan, although it is marginally wider and taller, as well. Both cars get the standard crossover costume jewellery (metallic roof bars, conspicuous fog lights, burly plastic sills) and both offer the all-important raised flowerbed convenience of step-up ingress.
Inside each, the usability pay-off continues. Both are well-sized family cars. Accommodating a brace of growing pain sufferers in the rear is essential, and while the Ateca offers a little more head room, neither is found wanting. Differentiation occurs in marginal gains: the Seat, courtesy of its longer rear doors, is easier to get in and out of; the Nissan sports a split-level load floor courtesy of its removable two-partition system.
The Ateca’s claimed boot space is bigger than the Qashqai’s by 55 litres, and it alone provides the rear-mounted levers that collapse the back seats without requiring a return journey to the cabin. Its real stowage victory though comes amid a wider triumph upfront, where it trumps the Nissan’s measly 12-volt-equipped centre console cubby with an antenna-enhancing bucket ahead of the gearbox capable of swallowing not only an oversized smartphone, but also charging it from one of two USB ports.
The amenable hollow is typical of the Ateca’s terrific utility. We’ve praised the Qashqai before for the quality of its ergonomics and switchgear placement in a cabin that obviously values orderliness over style, but the Seat gets the MQB dash architecture, elevating its layout to an exemplary level. To experience its driving position and the uncannily intuitive positioning of all the major controls is to belatedly realise that Nissan perches you a little too high, with a needlessly tall gear lever and a gangly, tough-to-adjust steering wheel.
The Ateca, while adroitly keeping most of Seat’s implied sportiness hidden under a bushel, is a little bit more indulgent of the driver. The high scuttle convinces you that you’re sat lower on the more supportive seats, faced with a smaller steering wheel and the likeable stubbiness of a much shorter throw gearbox. The onus here is on acute yet apparently informal usability - although its ascendancy over the Nissan extends to the higher grade of cut-price plastic that the Seat can summon up to clad its fascia with, too.
The creeping feeling of greater sophistication is confirmed by a turn of the key. The Ateca’s utterly familiar 2.0-litre diesel engine is externally gruff, yet suppressed to the status of background hum internally by sound deadening; in the Qashqai, the telltale chug of its own 1.6-litre oil burner is more audible at idle and considerably louder than the bigger-selling 1.5-litre dCI. Better performance is at the heart of the 128bhp unit, although it doesn’t necessarily always measure up to the snappy Seat – despite a significant weight advantage claim.
Some of the Ateca’s extra bulk is useful; attributable as it is to the 4Motion all-wheel-drive system. With the rear axle chiming in on-demand, the car had sufficient gumption on a wet day to post a 9.2sec 0-60mph time; well clear of the front-drive Qashqai’s 10.5sec best effort. Nissan, it should be noted, does make a four-wheel-drive model, but doesn’t sell many in the UK, and it claims an even slower 0-60mph time for this version.
In gear, the Qashqai’s lower kerb weight, slightly shorter gearing and negligible torque deficiency (producing just 15lb ft less than the Seat), does eventually pay dividends. The Qashqai proved just as prompt as the more powerful Ateca from 30-50mph in third, and from 50mph to 70mph in fifth, it was a full second quicker. This oil-burning tractability never evolves beyond the competently brisk, but is nevertheless key to the Nissan’s broader appeal as it underwrites the car’s innocuous ability to press on.
This it will do blithely and without complaint; its respectable balance, obliging stability and cordially progressive steering are all part of the reason why so many buyers found the switch from a family hatchback seamless. The Qashqai’s admirable lack of awkwardness and its amiable management of a high roll axis remain at the core of its appeal, as does the generally tolerant ride quality that keeps the suspension from seeming unduly loaded up during cornering, while feeling benignly permissive everywhere else.
This unflappable, unfussy character (Mr Normal, we’ve called it before) has provided the mainstream crossover benchmark for at least a life cycle, which makes the Ateca’s romp away from it on a B-road all the more compelling. Transferring the mild sportiness of a higher spec Leon ought to have been a dynamic hurdle for Seat; potentially resulting in a car no more glumly likeable than the Audi Q3.
But it hasn’t. Instead, on 19in wheels and a passive suspension that includes the more sophisticated multi-link rear axle that comes with all-wheel-drive, the Ateca’s compromise seems expertly struck; delivering not only a more incisive experience, but a better all-round one as well. Predictably, the car is more firmly sprung than the lighter, lazier Qashqai - yet as it’s more consistently damped too, on surfaces where its rival fidgets pensively on how best to settle, the Seat resolves on its happy medium almost immediately.
When the obstacles get larger (or deeper) the Nissan’s seemingly longer spring travel and higher profile tyres do provide a more forgiving attitude to impact, but the Ateca is so astutely poised that the sensation of it being that little bit more pinched barely registers; this is helped no end by the fact that the roving function of its running gear is considerably quieter.
When the road really does open out, the Seat’s advantage is unequivocal. It is palpably quicker, quicker to steer, endowed with more grip and, at higher speeds, marshals its high-sided lean far more ruthlessly. The result, aside from being pleasing in the fastidious way common to most MQB models, is a far speedier, flatter turn-in, followed by the satisfaction of knowing that a very enthusiastic exit isn’t going to have the stability control checking the rotation of an unloaded inside wheel as it occasionally does in the Qashqai.
While its knack for ride and handling is redolent of the physics-defying trade-off that’s been achieved by far more expensive SUVs in the last 10 years (a substantial compliment in its own right) the Ateca’s broader supremacy actually brings to mind the impact on the city car class made by the Volkswagen Up in 2011. Ultimately, the Seat’s superiority is not rendered in originality, scale, price or even running costs (unlike the Qashqai, there is no sub 100g/km option).
Instead, like the Up, it is in the acutely well-reasoned and persuasive improvement on what you feel under your fingertips, what you see and what you hear and, ultimately, how fulfilling it is to sit in and steer. In all, the Seat is a measurable enhancement of the Qashqai’s basic good sense recipe – no less obviously a white bread solution to family necessity, yet one clearly better stocked with Omega 3, wheatgerm, fibre, vitamins and every other additive essential to establishing class-apart desirability. Overcoming the Qashqai’s market share will be tough, but Seat has given the Ateca the best possible start in life.
Seat Ateca 2.0 TDI 4Drive XCELLENCE - 4.5/5 stars
Price £27,425; Engine Four-cyls, 1968cc, turbocharged, diesel; Power 148bhp at 3500rpm; Torque 251lb ft at 1750rpm; Gearbox Six-speed manual; Kerb weight 1548kg; Top speed 122mph; 0-62mph 9.0sec; Economy 57.6mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 128g/km, 22%
Nissan Qashqai 1.6 dCI Tekna - 4/5 stars
Price £27,160; Engine Four-cyls, 1598cc, turbocharged, diesel; Power 128bhp at 4000rpm; Torque 236lb ft at 1750rpm; Gearbox Six-speed manual; Kerb weight 1419kg; Top speed 118mph; 0-62mph 9.9sec; Economy 61.4mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 120g/km, 21%