The Cupra Ateca is the first instalment in a new line of performance derivatives from Spanish car firm Seat, all of which will be sold without Seat badges.

From here on out, top-of-the-line sporting models from the VW Group’s Iberian outpost will simply be badged ‘Cupra’. As far as anyone knows, however, they will continue to be factory-tuned versions of existing Seat cars rather than entirely distinct models.

So does such a move from a southern European volume car maker sound familiar? Well, it should. Because when Fiat stopped using its Abarth nameplate like Volkswagen uses ‘GTI’ or like Honda uses ‘Type R’ and instead set it up as a brand in its own right, it tried something very similar to what Seat is trying now.

The first CEO to be installed at the fully-fledged and restored Abarth company was ex-Fiat boss Luca de Meo, appointed some 11 years ago now. And yet, despite its history and having built one or two interesting performance cars since its modern renaissance, Abarth is arguably still in the process of re-establishing itself as a discrete modern car brand today.

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So, with a product strategy similar to that of Abarth’s but less history to leverage, how long will it be until we get used to the idea of dropping the ‘Seat’ bit from Seat Cupra? Someone ask Luca de Meo – who’s been president of Seat since 2015. He’s done all this before, after all – and it’ll be interesting to watch how his current employer does things differently from his old one.

Is it a smart move, for instance, to launch a performance car brand with a warmed-over version of a crossover hatchback? For marketability’s sake it might well be, even if it might have chosen differently to produce instant creditability among performance car aficionados. Crossover hatchbacks are hugely popular, after all – and the Cupra Ateca is one of the first to offer a potentially sporting driving experience packaged along with all of the familiar crossover advantages: space, convenience, and in this particular case four-wheel drive.

The car uses much the same ‘EA888’ 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine, seven-speed twin-clutch gearbox and Haldex four-wheel-drive system as the current VW Golf R; but with 296bhp on tap it’s slightly less powerful than the Golf, and being a crossover it’s got a higher centre of gravity and is carrying a hundred-and-something-kilogram relative weight penalty around with it.

Is the Cupra Ateca a true hot crossover hatch?

The Cupra Ateca’s edgy, gently pumped up, high-rising exterior and its dark, tech-laden cabin with crisp digital instruments certainly have their appeal. They reminded this tester of the unsatisfied ache I had, as a kid, for a Raleigh Vektar ‘computer bmx’ bike. You remember the one: big plastic five-spoke wheels, oversized mudguards, and an angular computer console stuck to the crossbar that was big enough that Data from The Goonies might have approved of it. The Vektar had a speedometer. It made bleepy, blurpy, whooshy noises when you pressed a button on the handlebar. You could get one in red and white or super-cool jet black. Oh lord, off I go again...

Anyway, the point is this Cupra Ateca isn’t the dog’s dinner to look at that you might imagine a jacked-up, slammed down crossover would be. The car’s 19in rims fill the car’s arches quite nicely, and the performance styling is handled just right: dialed up far enough to notice it, but not overcooked.

The interior has all of the qualities that make the regular Ateca an effective crossover hatchback. The seats come at you at a convenient height, and all four of them are roomy enough even for full-sized adults. Because this is a four-wheel-drive Ateca it has a slightly shallower boot than some of its siblings, but one that’s still a good size at 485 litres. It’s a very usable family car.

Up front you get a reasonable selection of richer materials than you might otherwise: part-leather sports seats, Alcantara on the doors, textured mouldings and leather on the steering wheel. But if Seat was aiming for an air of sophistication as well as for performance kudos here, it’s not quite achieved everything it hoped for. There remains a few too many plainer-looking and feeling mouldings around the Ateca’s cabin to make it feel particularly expensive, while Seat’s choice to default to high-gloss black and chrome for decoration is a bit unimaginative. The cabin certainly feels technologically ritzy, though: the digital instrument display, with its wide choice of modes, sees to that.

You get six drive modes to choose between after you’ve thumbed the car’s starter button and begun wondering why those quad pipes you saw a moment ago aren’t quite bellowing like quad pipes usually do. In most of the Cupra Ateca’s drive modes, the car makes a fairly reserved amount of noise, and is likely to leave keener drivers wanting for a bit more vocal presence even in its ‘Sport’ and ‘Cupra’ settings. That’s Seat’s chosen ‘performance meets sophistication’ positioning at play again. Enticing, but not yobby or anti-social, is evidently what they’re aiming for. Fair enough.

At everyday speeds, the Cupra Ateca works quite well. Leave the car’s dampers in their comfier setting and it rides with reasonable low-speed compliance, but it retains a sense of tautness in its deportment, immediacy about its steering, slickness about its drivetrain and muscly, responsive pep about its performance – all of which would make it feel just a little bit special on the school run or office commute.

While it’s considerably more than you’ll be able to use most of the time on busy UK roads, the car’s outright performance level isn’t quite everything a maturing hot hatchback exile might want it to be. The Cupra Ateca has more than enough thrust to make short work of A-road overtaking, and it gets up to the national speed limit from standing with an authoritative sense of purpose. But in outright terms it’s about as fast as a Ford Focus ST rather than a Focus RS, or a VW Golf GTI Performance Pack rather than a Golf R.

And, while its precise handling is enjoyable enough on wider, smoother roads, the car’s chassis struggles to impress on testing A- and B-roads in the same way it did at everyday speeds. The Cupra Ateca is simply too high and too heavy to work well on a B-road when driven like the high-rise hot hatchback that so much in its make-up seems to promise that it might be. And yet it hasn’t been configured or tuned with enough imagination to appeal as a driver’s car in a new and different way, either.

At a keener pace, the car’s adaptive dampers struggle to effectively marshal and control its bulk over lumps and bumps; leave them in ‘comfort’ mode and they allow too much body movement - every jounce, fidget and toss of which you feel because you’re sat further above the car’s roll axis than you might otherwise be. But if you dial that suspension up into ‘sport’ or ‘cupra’ mode the car's ride gets techy, reactive and slightly wooden. Thus set up, the hot Ateca will start to deflect and divert over inputs that affect one side of the car more than the other – and it’ll do it within the national speed limit on a fairly testing cross-country road.

The car’s tactile facets aren’t quite good enough to make the finer details of its driving experience feel genuinely enticing, either. It steers with decent weight in the sportier drive modes, but has a rim that remains muted as you load up the tyre sidewalls and that therefore erodes that last degree of precision with which you’d like to guide the car. And it doesn’t have a four-wheel-drive system capable of enriching the car’s handling with added balance or throttle adjustability, either. The Cupra Ateca corners with strong grip and decent poise up to a point and on a balanced throttle, but it doesn’t seem to know any really effective asymmetrical torque vectoring tricks, and will understeer fairly persistently with power if you chase it through an apex.

How does the Cupra Ateca compare to its main rivals?

For those inclined to invest a pretty economical amount of thought and effort into their considerations, the Cupra Ateca may well represent a lot of things you might want in a modern family car. It’s affordable enough, and it’s also interesting to look at and (at least momentarily) a bit exotic. It has plenty of performance and four-wheel drive too, all accompanied with the usual crossover practicalities. It’s got the lot, right?

Well, yes and no. You’d certainly get more out of this car’s driving experience than you might have from any crossover you’ve owned before. But if you’re trading in a hot hatchback rather than a BMW X1 or Mazda CX5, and you’re hoping the Ateca will appeal to the driver in you just as powerfully as it might to the so-far-neglected-and-ignored family man, I’d say have a good try before you buy. Because maybe you can't have your cake and eat it; not yet, at any rate.

There is a chance the Cupra Ateca will be exciting enough to seal the deal and keep you interested in your daily motoring – but, at the rate that this segment is likely to grow in 2019, there’s a good chance that before long another crossover market player will meet that brief better.

The truth is, this new Cupra doesn’t have the immersive depths of a really good driver’s car – though it’s very far from being a bad one. And moreover, when you stand back and really think about it, you do wonder exactly how different it might have been if it had been a Seat Ateca Cupra, in the firm’s old-money performance parlance, after all.

My guess is, not very much. And, while it’s a start, I’m not sure that’s the most promising start for the Cupra brand to have gotten off to.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Seat Ateca

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