SEAT Ateca: Compact class conquistador

SEAT’s status is sure to grow now that it is starting to roll out sports utilities here, starting with its first effort, the Ateca.
Monday November 20, 2017

By Richard Bosselman

LOOK at the customer sign-up tally over the seven weeks since SEAT restarted here and the prediction about the VW Group affiliate being set to make a small start seems exactly accurate.

Just three sales is … well, not big, right?

Consider where those cars have gone, though, and it might seem that the Spanish are claiming territory like conquistadors.

See, with Auckland being home to the brand’s sole national outlet – which, by the way, isn’t even open yet (the doors to the Nelson St store open on December 8) – and one of the three service agencies, this fledgling outfit quite naturally assumed the first punters for a marque that ‘completes the set’ of locally-available mainstream VW-made models that all share common platforms, drivetrains and technology but different badges, looks and tuning would wholly hail from the City of Sails.

True to form, all three sales were made there. But only one of those purchases seems set to stay local. 

The other two have been shipped halfway down the country, to a place that is roughly equidistant in terms of travel time – about half a day, either way – to the service points (still also being established) in Wellington and Christchurch.

With Nelson holding status as the country’s sunshine capital, it seems kinda fitting that it should become an initial hotbed of SEAT success.

But here’s an interesting thing: the double hit was not co-ordinated. Insofar as James Yates – the man charged with re-establishing this VW Group marque in New Zealand – is aware, those early adopters from the South Island’s northernmost city are strangers to each other. Perhaps they soon won’t be.

This sort of thing might become more prevalent now that SEAT has introduced another car to follow the first-in Cupra hatch.

Kiwis are rushing to buy into sports utilities at unprecedented pace; at the moment, the primary interest is in medium models but we’re also happy to take ‘em small and large.

SEAT NZ aims to hit all three targets over the next 18 months. By next April we’ll have a compact car, the Arona, and in early 2019 there will be a large model, equivalent to Skoda’s Kodiaq. The locals don’t know too much more about the latter – it hasn’t been revealed and doesn’t even have a name yet – but they’ve already signed off on the baby.

Arona will be landing in $29,990 Style and $33,900 FR forms, both with an 85kW one litre petrol engine. Buyer trend dictates it’s only in front drive … so pronounced is the consumer bent for this that all-wheel-drive isn’t even considered for production. Competitors will include a sister Skoda, the Karoq, also coming in about the same time.

So what of the one in the middle? That’s the Ateca and Kiwis can say hola to it starting from now, with four formats to think about.

There’s a front-drive 1.4-litre petrol with outputs of 110kW and 250Nm in Style and Xcellence trims, respectively at $38,900 and $44,900, plus a pair of 2.0-litre four-wheel-drives - a 140kW/320Nm turbo petrol FR, at $50,900, and a 140kW/400Nm turbodiesel Xcellence, at $52,900. The latter has landed already, the others are en route (we drove some UK-spec car here as tasters).

Look at, and sit in, this vehicle and you get a good idea of the VW Group strategy that allows the parent brand and its subordinates to live together without necessarily outright treading on toes.

While the Ateca is quite patently closely related to the Tiguan, and might well steal sales from it, this is hardly an exercise in rebadging.

Mechanical commonality is the big link between this car, its donor and the impending Skoda but design-wise there’s enough largesse allow to ensure the two are not quite dead-ringers in look or, indeed, dimension.

Get out a measuring tape and you’ll see the Spanish model is 120mm shorter than the VW. They’re both still small enough to be considered "compact" SUV – meaning less than 4.5 metres front to rear – but it also means that Ateca competes in a much wider sphere than the family group. Others on SEAT’s radar are the Kia Sportage, Hyundai Tucson, Mitsubishi ASX, Nissan Qashqai and Subaru XV.

The new entry seems set to square up well against those models for interior room and cargo capacity. Rear passenger space is pretty decent, especially regarding headroom, and though boot space differs depending on the drivetrain - 510 litres in front-wheel drive models and 485 in AWDs, increasing to 1604/1579 litres when the seats are down – it betters most cited rivals.

How will it otherwise shape up? In look, just fine. Despite the overall styling ethos being similar to VW’s, SEAT has through implementing its in-house familial elements – not only the bespoke headlights, LED daytime running lights, but also taut bodywork creases and a distinctive shoulder line - created a sharp-looking car.

If you’re insistent on seeking continuity with the owner’s offer, look in the cabin. There it’s relatively easy to pick the VW bits – including an infotainment system that is dead easy and intuitive to use - though in other respects change is more evident that first casual scrutiny might decipher. The main shroud across the instrument console being a good example. The shape and overall appearance is the same, but SEAT uses softer plastics.

The subject of feel goes further. Broadly speaking, the SEAT customer base is supposedly younger and more vibrant than VW’s. It’s not an outright youth brand, but it does aim to attract hipsters and to draw primary interest from a slightly younger age group, though perhaps in this instance one finding itself in similar circumstances as the Tiguan buyer pool.

Most obviously, for instance, while SEAT does – in Europe at least – seek to spark interest from couples yet to have children, they have hardly reconfigured the Ateca to ignore fun-seeking families. It’s another compact SUV all set up to hit a higher trail with a mountain bike on board.

Expect, however, a difference in driving feel. While none of the variants here are outright tarmac tearaways – that role will fall to a future flagship, the Ateca Cupra, that if presented in the snarling quad-piped all-wheel-drive 220kW format that’s rumoured would be a uniquely AMG-akin but more modestly priced mainstream monster – SEAT’s intention to inject Latin flair and passion into the driving characteristics of all its cars was very much in evidence in FR and 1.4-litre Xpression I drove on the day.

The FR in particular felt like a no-bull matador and also more alert and livelier than any Tiguan I’ve experienced, but the base model also abetted SEAT’s claim that their engineers were enthusiastic about adding more flavour to the somewhat stolid VW tuning recipe.

The FR was definitely enjoyable on the morning’s route comprising winding hill country roads, expressing a level of agility that often seemed more hatchback than a high-set SUV. Some of this aspect also, of course, is reflective of the all-wheel-drive – and those models also have a multi-link rear axle that must surely deliver benefits beyond the front-driver’s more basic standard set up - but fundamentally the Ateca demonstrates a breadth of talent that looks very promising whatever the guise.

The ride is firm but the suspension smooths out most of the rough stuff on the road.

In the four-wheel drive models there's a drive control unit with six different driving modes from eco and snow through to sports and individual. Front-wheel drive models do without the snow and off-road settings.

An FR in its performance mode delivers an appreciable difference in the steering, throttle and DSG automatic transmission response, but leave it in the default mode (Normal) and it hardly regresses to siesta time. The steering remains quick and light and the response from the accelerator retains briskness. Only Eco dulls the latter.

Though the 2.0-litre has longer legs, don’t go thinking that the 1.4 fails to also hit a sweet spot.

It’s easy to understand thought that this powertrain will command the greatest count of sales. Of course the power is less fiery, the power-to-weight still comes out okay, because removing all-wheel-drive reduces the kerb weight somewhat, to a cited 1359kg. Also there’s a lot of torque to exploit. The trick here is accepting a need to work a bit harder to access its wide spread of muscularity and exploit the willingness to rev, which it does smoothly and with relative quiet.

Exception economy is also on the cards. SEAT promises an optimal of 5.4 litres per 100km, which is just 0.1 shy of the diesel – another reason why they think the latter will command a minority of volume. The larger petrol is cited as being able to optimise at 7.0L/100km. All engines run a seven-speed direct shift gearbox.

SEAT’s gameplan in respect to specification is akin to Skoda’s; provision generously enough to make it seem as though you’re getting a pretty good bargain. So it goes here.

The base fitout runs to 17 inch alloys, blind spot monitor, front assist with automated emergency braking, rear camera with parking sensors, an eight inch touch screen that’s Apple CarPlay/Android Auto configured, Drive Select and black roof rails.

Xcellence adds adaptive cruise, a surround view camera, LED headlights, alcantara upholstery, sports seats, heated front chairs, keyless entry and go, an electric tailgate with foot wave operation, more Drive Select functionality and an alarm. The roof rails are chromed and it takes 18 inch alloys.

The FR, has all of the above, also sticks to 18s (but a different design) and can option to the 19s pictured on the car seen here, has a sports steering wheel, body-coloured bumpers, an FR-specific alcantara upholstery and reverts back to black roof rails (plus black window surrounds).

Ateca comes with a five-star NCAP score. Towing capacity for the smallest engine is 1800kg braked; the larger engine models sit at 2000kg.

The sector Ateca enters is not short of choice by any means; some would call it crowded – yet that shouldn’t matter. This is such a well-sorted and sunnily-dispositioned product that it stands every chance of being the life of this party.

Certainly, it’s easy to see why SEAT NZ reckons this – and the future – SUV product gives it a real chance of being noticed, and not just in the handful of places where it has so far set up outposts. Those Nelsonites should know they will certainly not be alone. I’d say that we should become should be prepared to see SEATs in all sorts of new places over the next year or so.