Australia’s small SUV market is not just one of the fastest-growing vehicle segments, it's also one of the most competitive. Buyers are bombarded with choice, meaning lesser-known models - such as the Ssangyong Korando from South Korea - can be easily overlooked.
The current-generation Korando has been kicking around since 2011, but despite sharp pricing - and even sharper lines courtesy of famed Italian design house Giugiaro - it has failed to make a dent against market leaders the Hyundai ix35 and Nissan Dualis (which will soon be replaced by the new Qashqai).
Earlier this month, Ssangyong importer Ateco Automotive introduced an updated version designed to give the Korando a new lease on life, replete with a new frontal design and a revised interior.
The update also saw the range trimmed-back to just two (auto-only) variants: the two-wheel drive Korando S base model powered by a 110kW/197Nm four-cylinder 2.0-litre petrol engine and priced at $27,990 driveaway, and the four-wheel drive Korando SX using a 129kW/360Nm four-cylinder 2.0-litre four cylinder turbo-diesel that costs $32,990 driveaway.
This means each costs $4000 more than the equivalent manual in the old range and $2000 more than the old auto — and it is here that Ssangyong may have some work to do. A brand with relatively little in the way of market recognition can ill-afford to be upping its prices.
We're testing the front-drive petrol version which undercuts direct rivals such as the new Nissan Qashqai, which starts in comparative petrol CVT automatic guise from $28,490 plus on-roads (about $31,700 drive-away), Hyundai’s ix35 Active auto ($29,190 plus on-road costs) and the Mitsubishi ASX LS ($26,990 plus on-road costs).
First thing's first - if you remember Ssangyong's old models such as the awkward Musso and heavily updated Stavic, then you may see Ssangyong's move to outsource the design of the Korando to one of the world’s great design houses as a clever one. While the edgier grille design found on this facelift is arguably less appealing and more generic than the 2011 original, it remains a well-proportioned and pleasingly stylish little soft-roader.
Step inside the cabin and you might again be pleasantly surprised. It is a relatively well-made and ergonomically impressive environment with plenty of space both front and rear, albeit one that lacks key features such as a touchscreen media system, a reverse-view camera or satellite navigation - though the lack of the latter at this price point is more forgivable. Instead, you are presented with a dour orange and black radio screen.
The leather front seats offer decent support and unlikely many similarly priced rivals come with heating as standard, while the instrument fascia is logical and the cabin has nice touches such as the chunky silver ventilation dials, the cute chrome-ringed door tweeters and oversized illuminated vanity mirrors, though the overall design is spookily reminiscent of fellow South Korean brand Hyundai. Some may not be sold on the faux woodgrain finish, either.
Apart from the notable lack of any kind of modern screen, equipment levels are adequate. Along with the hot seats there is dual-zone climate control, carpet mats, rear parking sensors, chrome scuff plates, a luggage cover and net, auto-folding side mirrors, front and rear fog-lights, LED tail-lights, silver roof rails, keyless entry (though the key itself is an old-school turning device, not a fancy modern fob) and Bluetooth phone and audio streaming that pairs swiftly and offers decent sound quality through six speakers. Automatic headlights and rain-sensing wipers are an option.
Safety equipment includes six airbags (dual front, front-side and full-length curtains), a pair of ISOFIX-ready child-seat anchors (or three regular anchors), hill start assist and rollover mitigation. There is no Euro NCAP or ANCAP crash test rating.
The quality of the Korando's fit and finish is largely commendable, with few panel gaps inside and no noticeable creaks or groans. The ambience is improved by soft-touch contact points and felt in the door pockets, though the plastic that adorns the transmission tunnel feels flimsy.
Other downsides include the aftermarket cruise control switch that is tacked onto the right-hand side of the steering column like an afterthought, the wobbly centre console cover, and the old-school zig-zagged transmission gate with a dire manual override ‘switch and button’ setup on the side of the shifter and the front of the wheel respectively, rather than conventional paddles. Why bother?
Still, it all feels rather nicer inside than, say, Ford’s Indian-made EcoSport.
There is also plenty of storage beyond the usual array of cup-holders in the console, doors and rear-middle seat, including a handy iPhone cubby below the climate control and next to the USB/Aux inputs, and an iPad-sized open-faced storage area directly ahead of the gear-shifter.
Knee room in the front is a little tight, and the lack of steering wheel reach adjustment is an oversight that hurts ergonomics. Space in the rear is excellent however, though the lack of rear vents is less ideal. I stand at 194cm and comfortably sat in the (reclining, 60:40 split) backseat behind my regular driving position, and my knees did not hit the back of the seat — a good thing, because it is coated in coarse plastic.
The rear seats also fold perfectly flat, increasing cargo space from 486 litres to 1312L, although the space and the aperture are both narrow. This figure comes in spite of a standard full-sized spare wheel. In comparison, the Hyundai ix35 offers 465/1436 litres, while the Nissan Dualis can handle 413/1513 litres.
Behind the wheel, the first thing you notice is the rather weighty steering. Unlike most rivals with a fuel-saving electric system, the Korando has a tried-and-true hydraulic setup that requires more gusto when manoeuvring about town, and which has the typical dead-spot on-centre of a ‘proper’ off-road vehicle (even though ours is 2WD). Its steering, then, requires a little more effort to park, and more input through corners too.
For what it’s worth, the extra heft of the steering is actually a positive in more aggressive driving, though the dead zone still annoys, and the abundant bodyroll combines with some understeer on more twisting roads.
The ride is a little jittery and busy over low-speed corrugations, though the MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension rounds off pockmarks in an acceptable fashion. Truth is, we’ve felt much worse - especially on 17-inch wheels.
The Euro 5-compliant 2.0-litre petrol engine offers acceptable outputs for the class, though it has to lug about 1600kg of car (an ix35 weighs as little as 1485kg). Between 1500 and 3000rpm the engine feels perfectly adequate for quick take-offs from the lights, though under more duress it becomes a little raucous.
Ssangyong claims combined-cycle fuel consumption of 7.9 litres per 100km, though in a typical urban/extra urban loop driven with a light right foot I averaged between 9.0L/100km and 10.0L/100km — still, not bad for the class.
The six-speed automatic transmission (calibrated originally by Australian company DSI) is a little slow on the uptake at times but is generally unobtrusive. As we mentioned before, forget the manual mode altogether, this is not that sort of car.
New engine mountings and a more rigid sub-frame are said to reduce noise, vibration and harshness by around 10 per cent. We don’t doubt this, because the Ssangyong is acceptably quiet when cruising about town, muffling more road noise than some other offerings we can think of, and even under high revs few engine vibrations filter through to the steering column.
As with some of its well-known rivals, the Korando is offered with a five-year warranty that spans to 100,000 kilometres. It is also covered by a five-year roadside assistance program. However, while its 12-month/15,000km service intervals are acceptable, the brand currently doesn't offer a capped-price program to entice buyers.
So what do we make of the little Ssangyong that could? It is a well-priced and honest toiler with a lot of upside that nevertheless fails to top its main rivals. Potentially, if this update had retained the sharper pricing of its predecessor, things would be different.