Ssangyong is back in Australia. It’s a factory importer, rather than running through a distributor, armed with a range of products designed to recalibrate people’s perceptions of a brand perhaps best known for creating one of the ugliest cars ever to roam local roads.
The new Korando is critical, given the popularity of mid-sized SUVs. Pricing will start below $30k when it arrives in July, which is compact crossover money, but the car sits somewhere between cars like the Nissan Qashqai and Hyundai Tucson dimensionally.
That's why we're in Korea, at the Pocheon Raceway about 90 minutes north of Seoul (and just 30km south of Pyongyang as the crow flies) – to put the Korando through its paces before it arrives locally.
At 4450mm long and 1870mm wide, it’s 30mm shorter than a Sportage and 36mm shorter than a Tucson, and around 15mm narrower than both. Its wheelbase is very similar to both fellow South Koreans, however.
Ssangyong has made it abundantly clear Hyundai and Kia are the target, although our technical briefing also included plenty of references to the Peugeot 3008 for good measure. Nothing like a good Franco-Korean battle.
Power comes from a choice of two compact turbocharged engines: a 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol and a 1.6-litre four-cylinder diesel. The diesel will likely be all-wheel drive only in Australia, while the petrol will be offered with a choice of all- or front-wheel drive.
The petrol is also expected to be the best seller. Although a manual will be offered as a price leader, the vast majority of people will opt for the six-speed automatic, as is the market’s wont.
With 120kW of power and 280Nm of torque, the latter on tap between 1500 and 4000rpm, the petrol is an impressive little unit, pulling from idle without much fuss. It also revs out smoothly, rather than getting stroppy as the needle sweeps round the tacho.
Our driving was skewed toward highway miles, but it’s easy to envision it handling the urban grind effortlessly.
Refinement is a strength, especially at low speeds, with minimal noise and vibration sneaking into the cabin. Ticking over below 2000rpm at 100km/h – no faster, thanks to persistent speed traps on South Korean freeways – the engine fades into the background, and wind rustle from the mirrors is a non-issue.
There’s a bit of road roar from the tyres, but it's never overwhelming on Korean tarmac. Of course, the real test will come when the car is faced with some typically Australian coarse-chip tarmac. Stay tuned.
The new Korando rides quite well, without being standout. Not much can be learned from our racetrack experience, given the track is brand new... and a racetrack. But out on the open road, the car handled potholes without too much fuss, although sharper expansion joints elicited a noticeable thwack in the cabin.
It's worth noting, our test cars were pre-production models, so there's still the potential for NVH tuning to change before the Korando hits our shores. They were also running a Korean suspension tune instead of the European tune we'll get from launch, or the local tune that'll be developed atop the Euro base.
Slung around our test track, the car handles as you'd expect. Safety understeer is unavoidable if you get too vigorous, but the chassis is sure-footed enough for what it needs to do.
Bury the throttle and the petrol happily pulls to around 4500rpm, backed by a gravelly engine note. It does its best work down low and through the midrange, but didn’t shy away from a few runs to redline on track.
Although the petrol will be the volume seller, Ssangyong was keen to highlight the importance of having a diesel option. That’s partly because of its two-tonne towing capacity, and partly down to the fact rural buyers prefer it.
Offering 100kW of power and 324Nm of torque between 1500 and 2500rpm, it also feels willing down low, although it isn’t keen to chase the redline like its petrol counterpart. Goes with the territory, of course.
Like the petrol, it settles down to a comfortable cruise on the highway, and like the petrol, it’s happy to shuffle through the ratios below 3000rpm in town. Refinement is, once again, a strong point.
We didn’t sample the manual transmission, but the six-speed auto is perfectly capable without ever really standing out. It’s unobtrusive on light throttle openings, and does a good job keeping both engines in their power bands.
Bury the slipper and it’s surprisingly keen to kick down, hanging onto gears gamely. You’re able to take manual control, but the transmission is hard-headed in its refusal to change down when the engine’s doing more than about 2500rpm.
Doesn’t matter how many times you pull the left-hand paddle, the gearbox will only change down when it’s ready. It also refuses to let you touch redline, instead automatically upshifting 500rpm short.
Will the average owner care? Probably not, given journalists are the only people who’ll drive the Korando on a track, but it was annoying trying to get the Korando set for our track's tight hairpin.
Although its exterior is compact, the cabin is spacious. Boot space is 551L with the rear seats in place and 1248L with them folded flat, which is class-leading, accessed through a generous aperture.
Taller drivers will want to watch their heads when the tailgate is open, though. It caught me on top of the head, much to the amusement of those watching.
The focus on practicality extends throughout the interior, with the Korando’s model line director at pains to highlight the deep door pockets and properly usable glovebox. There are two cupholders on the transmission tunnel, and storage space under the infotainment system. It's home to a single USB port and a 12V outlet, which is the bare minimum for connected families.
Both the Tucson and Sportage offer more places to plug in, so preserve iPad battery accordingly on long road trips.
Moving on up, the second row is a good place to spend time. Without a style-driven sloping roofline to ruin things, there’s more than enough headroom for even the lankiest teenagers – I was more than comfortable at six-seven, which is a real positive – and the rear bench is well padded.
There’s an impressive amount of legroom on offer too, even for leggy passengers behind leggy drivers. There are no air vents down back, however, which could be an issue come summer. Both the Sportage and Tucson offer vents for the kids, as does the Peugeot 3008.
Slipping into the driver’s seat reveals a well-presented, high-tech cockpit. A total of three model grades will be offered Down Under, the top two of which come standard with a 10.2-inch virtual cockpit in place of conventional dials.
It’s a real standout feature, especially when you consider neither South Korean rival offers anything remotely similar. The design borrows heavily from Peugeot, but Ssangyong offers things even the 3008 can’t – smartphone mirroring in the instrument binnacle, for example. In terms of showroom wow factor, the system is potentially a big drawcard.
Base cars will get normal dials and a monochromatic 3.5-inch display, in keeping with its rivals. Infotainment is handled by one of two systems: an 8.0-inch touchscreen flanked by hard buttons, and a 9.0-inch touchscreen with capacitive buttons and a volume knob. Dual-zone climate control will be standard across the range.
The larger screen will be optional on the mid- and top-grade car, and brings satellite navigation for smartphone mirroring-averse drivers, with pricing to be confirmed. Rural buyers don’t love CarPlay and Android Auto, given the patchy nature of mobile coverage when you escape the big smoke.
Our test cars were fitted with the top-spec system, which impressed with its sharp graphics and snappy response. The fact there's a proper volume knob is a welcome, too. The menus were all in Korean, of course, but that’s besides the point.
The dashboard itself is neatly presented, with high-set air vents blending into a sliver of gloss-black trim cascading toward the passenger door. The design has a clear Audi influence, not that anyone will confuse the Korando for an A7.
You’re even able to option a cool three-dimensional ambient lighting setup, with 34 different colour options and illumination patterns. Like the digital display it offers a splash of showroom cool factor, but it’ll only be fitted to top-spec cars. Heated and cooled front seats (and heated rears) are available.
It's clear Ssangyong has made an effort to deliver a more upmarket feel, and it mostly succeeds. With that said, the Sportage and Tucson still feel a bit more 'premium' from behind the wheel.
Even without climate control, the front pews are a nice place to spend time. There’s plenty of adjustment on offer, and the steering wheel telescopes out nicely to meet you – the basics are good, in other words – while the seat cushion itself offers plenty of under-thigh support. All of that bodes well for long stints behind the wheel.
Unlike some previous Ssangyong offerings, the Korando is also a sharp looker outside. Its best angle is unquestionably from directly front on, where the upright nose and slim headlights – a development of the Tivoli's look – give it strong presence. LED headlights, fog lights and indicators are standard on top-spec cars, and complete the design nicely.
The rear isn't quite as attractive but still has nice presence about it, thanks to distinctive taillights and a chunky skid plate. There's a bit of Suzuki Vitara about the overall design, although the Korando is more grown up to behold.
It's clear Ssangyong is proud of the new Korando. The name, we confirmed with the company, is a portmanteau of Korean Can Do, and that attitude pervaded our time in Seoul with the company.
The development team appears keen to engineer its way to success, and there's no denying the Korando is a meaningful step forward from what we've seen it deliver in the past.
What's more, there's a pure-electric model capable of towing and a 400km range coming in the second half of 2020, and a 48V mild hybrid to follow in the first half of 2021. That's a serious step toward making the car competitive with the tide of manufacturers moving toward electrification.
Ssangyong has also committed to offering a strong spread of active safety equipment. Autonomous emergency braking (radar and camera-based), lane-keeping assist, high-beam assist, driver attention alert and forward-vehicle start alert will be included across the line-up
How it fares in Australia will depend on price. The 1.5-litre petrol is a good engine, and should stand out against the naturally-aspirated units common at the bottom-end of rival ranges. There are also plenty of neat features to draw buyers in, although the best tech will be reserved for upscale models.
Ssangyong's seven-year warranty will no doubt help convince fence-sitters the brand is here to stay, and the dealer network is set to expand from the current 36 to a more substantial 45 by the end of 2019. All signs point to head office supporting the Australian market will its full might, which should inspire some confidence.
First impressions are good, then. But the mid-sized SUV crowd is stronger than ever, and the Korando will still have its work cut out when it arrives. We're looking forward to seeing how it fares on local shores.
NOTE: Due to insufficient images supplied from the event, we've used a mix of video screengrabs and earlier press photos with this review.