Demand remains high for affordable SUVs that are as good at towing and off-road as they are at doing the school run. Sales of the Isuzu MU-X, Mitsubishi Pajero Sport, Ford Everest, Holden Trailblazer and Toyota Fortuner would not have totalled 35,000 in Australia last year otherwise.
It’s this part of our cluttered market where South Korea’s SsangYong – returning to Australia this November as a fully fledged factory distributor with a believable enough long-term plan – hopes to make an impact with the new-generation Rexton seven-seater.
The company reckons it’s “tailor made” for Australia, claiming it’ll offer all the capabilities of its competitor set at a better price point and a plusher feel from behind the wheel. It’s quite likely that anyone who recalls SsangYong products of yesteryear will be surprised by the quality here.
The macho Rexton will sit atop the company’s range alongside its Musso dual-cab derivative, and above the Tivoli and XLV small crossovers. A new Korando mid-size SUV will follow in 2019. By focusing on SUVs and light commercials, it’s covering the market’s key growth areas.
Those in the know may recall that SsangYong was at the point of going bust a few years ago, before being bailed out by Indian behemoth Mahindra & Mahindra. Subsequent investment has seen the small company revitalised, and its market share at home is growing.
Right off the bat, the Rexton has a better shot at success in Australia than some other failed product, though it’ll be a long and hard road to get there. For one, the company has presence in the UK, so it’s good at making right-hand-drive products that meet our standards.
Like its rivals, it’s a body-on-frame construction rather than a monocoque soft-roader such as the Hyundai Santa Fe. At 4850mm long, 1960mm wide and 1800mm tall, it’s about the same size as the Ford Everest. And its kerb weight tops out at a hefty 2.2 tonnes.
Hero versions will be part-time 4x4s with low-range and a locking rear diff, and use an in-house (SsangYong-designed) 2.2-litre turbo-diesel engine that meets Euro 6 emissions standards, produces up to 133kW of power and 420Nm of peak torque from 1400rpm, and is rated to tow 3.0 tonnes. That’s highly competitive.
This engine is mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission supplied by Mercedes-Benz. You may recall the 1990s era Musso with its MB diesel engine. Clearly the two companies remain on good terms – SsangYong needs components and Daimler likes profitably selling them...
On first impression when driven in Korea last week, it’s a pretty solid drivetrain. It’s certainly very refined and free of cluttering compared to rivals Isuzu or Holden (the latter using an engine supplied by Italy’s VM Motori), and offers a class-par torque-to-weight ratio.
Interestingly, SsangYong will also offer a rear-wheel-drive Rexton using petrol power, a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine making 165kW/350Nm and mated with an Aisin six-speed auto. These outputs are the same as the LDV D90 and similar to the Haval H9’s unit, both SUVs out of the burgeoning Chinese market.
The Rexton’s suspension set-up comprises double wishbones up front and a 10-link independent/coil set-up at the rear, though it’s crying out for some damper and spring tweaks locally, à la Hyundai and Kia. It’s a little fidgety and turbulent when unladen, though experience suggests a trailer’s weight may actually settle it down.
We’re looking forward to hitching up a horse float when the Rexton lobs here to discover how it rides and how far we can get on a 70L tank of diesel. SsangYong has promised to lend us a car right away for this purpose – evidence of supportive management at the very least! Unfortunately, the images you see of the car with float are just supplied press images.
The steering is very light and easy on the arms, and the turning circle is a reasonable 11m. It’s quite pleasant to doddle about in, though also a little vague. It may not have the dynamic sophistication of the locally engineered Ford Everest, but there’s plenty good to work with.
One area where the Rexton certainly impressed was refinement. There’s a lot of sound-deadening material in the firewall, wheel wells, underbody and window seals, and at highway speeds the big SUV struck us as being unusually hushed and quiet.
This cosseting feeling is enhanced by the interior, which presents really well and is missing almost nothing. Anyone climbing out of a 10-year-old tow vehicle, or a brand-new Isuzu MU-X for that matter, will be taken aback by how nice things are in there.
The seats and dash/door inlays on our test car were trimmed in soft Nappa leather, offset by contrasting plastic inserts, dark headlining, well-made buttons and dials with damping, and ambient LED lighting. It’s easy to see ‘grey nomads’ and the like being wowed.
It’s also a seven-seater, with middle-row seats that present every bit as well as those up front. The third row folds flat into the floor when not in use, while the middle row folds down 60:40. With five occupants aboard, there’s still room back there for four golf bags stowed width-wise, or so the company claims.
Equipment fitted to our test car included seat heating and cooling, a sunroof, HID headlights, a 9.2-inch screen with satellite navigation, a 360-degree camera and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, an electric tailgate, keyless-go, a big digital instrument cluster, three-zone climate control with cabin ioniser, a 220V power socket… It’s more a question of what it didn’t have.
Available safety tech includes nine airbags (though it appears the third row is only partially covered), and active/preventative tech such as AEB, high-beam assist, lane assist, blind-spot monitoring and traffic sign recognition. However, without an NCAP crash test score, we can’t yet commend its safety. SsangYong would be smart to rectify this, pronto.
Beyond this, areas where the Rexton really needs to shine are value for money and customer care. The fact SsangYong will no longer take the cheap option of using an external distributor like Sime Darby/Ateco sets it in good stead to do well in both areas.
In terms of pricing, it clearly needs to start below $40,000 drive-away. We’d advocate a starting point at least 10 per cent below the mainstream rivals mentioned earlier.
The other side of the coin is warranty. SsangYong’s global minimum is five years, though in the UK its distributor offers a seven-year/150,000-mile policy. We’d hope SsangYong Australia matches Kia with a seven-year term of its own. It’s indicated it wants to do this very thing.
All told, and while we need to reserve full judgement until we drive the Rexton on our roads, and test it properly, there’s plenty here to be enthused about. Or at the very least, open-minded.
Experience suggests buyers will consider a rugged SUV with a palatial cabin and diesel donk if the price is right, even if it’s made by a brand many folk have never heard of. Especially if there’s a decent warranty safety net and a supportive dealer network to reassure them.
Korea’s SsangYong is certainly a brand to watch, albeit cautiously. The Rexton, as its flagship, is a big reason why we think it has a chance of eking out a following.
NOTE: With no SsangYong photographer present on the day, we've used a selection of UK-market images and smartphone photos for this review.