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Cupra's performance SUV gets mid-life tweaks but is it now outshone by the newer Formentor?
27 November 2020

What is it?

Yesterday’s news, if we're being a bit flippant. Cupra has a brand-new debutant being promoted from the rafters: the Formentor. It’s a significant milestone for the Spanish performance marque as its first bespoke product designed separately from its Seat close relation. 

The Formentor is also significant in this context because it’s an SUV, and one of broadly (but not exactly) similar size to the first model launched with only Cupra badges: the Ateca. So why, you might ask, does a sub-brand turned brand in its own right dedicate two-thirds of its model range to effectively the same class of car? 

There are two trains of thought. The first is that whatever Cupra sells - and it must sell, because few brands have the cash for vanity projects nowadays - has to be a desired product not just for most of Europe, but now new markets such as Mexico, and likely others. Given Cupra's positioning, that means sporty SUVs, and two spun off the same platform is better than one. 

The second is that the Ateca itself has kind of done its job of establishing Cupra in its two years on sale. Along with the Leon, which for some reason kept its Seat badging until the new model recently arrived, Cupra clocked up nearly 25,000 sales last year. But for the brand to really succeed on its own, like DS has for Citroën, it must gradually move away from rebadged, steroid-injected Seats. 

So with the Formentor around, is there any real reason to buy the Ateca? Clearly, Cupra thinks so, having facelifted the latter, which we’re driving for the first time.

What's it like?

Not drastically different from the old car. Perhaps that's no surprise for a Volkswagen Group facelift, but we expected more effort to extend this car’s lifespan a bit, given it’s a generation behind the Leon and Formentor. 

Externally, as with the updated Seat Ateca, it’s a light re-dress with new LED light designs and tweaks to the front fascia to engender more visual aggression. Aluminium-effect detailing and trinkets such as puddle lights displaying the striking brand emblem go some way to livening it up, but it’s a pretty subtle renewal for a subtly attractive SUV.

It’s the same story inside, and this is fundamentally where the Ateca looks most outdated these days. Sure, there’s now a digital cockpit, better voice control and a supportive pair of Alcantara sports seats, but our car lacked the new wheel design with a neat, Audi R8-style integrated engine start button. 

It also doesn’t get the newer, more minimalist dashboard design, and although it does use the latest infotainment software and digital dials, it doesn’t receive the high-mounted glossy touchscreen panel of its siblings. Frankly, we’re not huge fans of the new design’s lack of physical climate control switchgear, but while the button-heavier Ateca is more ergonomically sound, it does seem quite dark, bland and oh-so-2016 in there. 

The Ateca is still the space champion of Cupra, though, with the clear intent being that the Formentor functions as a style-led coupé alternative. Although shorter, the Ateca is a full 150mm taller, with easier ingress and egress, more rear head room and a slightly bigger boot. But the Formentor is a chunk longer to account for its sloping rear end. To be honest, both are plenty roomy enough for most family needs and the Ateca isn’t substantially better in that respect.

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Perhaps by virtue of it being the new kid on the block, the Formentor is 10bhp more powerful than the Ateca, which has the same 296bhp 2.0-litre turbo EA888 unit as the pre-facelift car. However, off-the-line pace of the latter has improved via revisions to the all-wheel drive system and throttle mapping, taking the 0-62mph time just below the five-second mark. 

You’d have to drive it back-to-back with the pre-facelife car to really discern a difference, we reckon. And, more to the point, the same issue we raised when reviewing the outgoing model remains, in that, due to a combination of being higher off the road and significantly heavier than something like a Cupra Leon, it doesn’t feel quite as fast as the figures suggest during in-gear acceleration. 

The kick in the back you’d get from the engine-sharing VW Group hot hatchback equivalents is dulled a little, although without that context, it’s still an agreeably rapid SUV with an engine of stellar flexibility, if not a great well of character. The whip-crack dual-clutch automatic changes, accompanied by the now-traditional EA888 exhaust fart, do increase the theatre, though. 

Once again, familiarity reigns in the updated car’s overall dynamics. As before, adaptive chassis control is standard, while the only notable revisions are tweaks to the steering set-up and a new Brembo brake option (not fitted to our car). It’s capable, effective and composed, but far from perfect.

Even with the dampers in their slackest mode, there isn’t quite enough compliance for our liking. You can never really escape the feeling that engineers accepted compromise here to help prop up the tall, heavy body to a respectable degree in harder driving. Which could be fine, but on Britain’s gnarliest road sections, the vertical bounce and crash of pothole impacts can grate. 

It also means that, despite being easy to place thanks to pleasingly quick and weighty steering, it can get knocked off line quite sharply by mid-corner lumps when you up the pace. There’s none of the faint rear-driven sensation of the Golf R and new Audi S3, either, with its prodigious grip giving way to typical front-end wash. 

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Should I buy one?

Despite the dynamic foibles, there’s a fundamentally capable car here. The ride certainly isn’t deal-breakingly hard, and although ultimate dynamic appeal is lacking, the Cupra Ateca is a convincing enough fast daily driver. 

The familiar muscular and responsive powertrain - which still excels in low-rev refinement - is present, too. But as well as feeling less potent than its hot hatch siblings, it’s pretty thirsty. We never saw anything more than high 20s to the gallon even when trying. 

It’s perhaps too easy to compare the Ateca to equivalent hatchback offerings, where it falls short, while ignoring the versatility and desirability benefits of the SUV body. But the compromises are a little too evident here. And the prettier, fresher and dynamically more rounded Formentor shows what Cupra is capable of when it really gets to do its own thing, and that’s where our money would go. 

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Comments
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rob26 29 November 2020

Another pointless fast SUV clogging up the roads. Who buys SEATS? I can understand who buys Skodas - VWs with added value. But Seats? A VW with less build quality. 

Antony Riley 30 November 2020

I agree what is the point of this car.Do Seat have such a loyal following of buyers? I think not a total waste of resources to develop this  I know of no one who has expressed a desire to go and buy a Seat.V E have tried to make it brand that is wantable well they have not.They should have keep it a low cost high value brand chasing Dacia instead why compete with your core brand of V W pointless to me 

Antony Riley 30 November 2020

I agree what is the point of this car.Do Seat have such a loyal following of buyers? I think not a total waste of resources to develop this  I know of no one who has expressed a desire to go and buy a Seat.V E have tried to make it brand that is wantable well they have not.They should have keep it a low cost high value brand chasing Dacia instead why compete with your core brand of V W pointless to me 

jason_recliner 28 November 2020

Jebus christ!  What a beautiful ring bind folder!

si73 27 November 2020
For Cupra to succeed as DS has, has it? Its cars don't seem to be as outstanding as the standard Citroen cars. I don't see many about compared with Citroens.

As for two cars instead of one being a good thing, not sure that it is if everyone only buys the formentor. I guess sales will show and when appropriate they will pull this.

catnip 27 November 2020

"But for the brand to really succeed on its own, like DS has for Citroën, it must gradually move away from rebadged, steroid-injected Seats. "

But we read on these pages that there will be a Seat version of the Formentor, so its never going to escape that connection. Still, as long as the 'brand' is as successful as DS ...