Tivoli may not be a household name, and even Ssangyong as a company will be a mystery to many, but that hasn’t stopped the Korean brand from making a return to the Australian market and diving headfirst into the busy small-SUV segment.
In the case of the top-spec Tivoli Ultimate you see here, the $33,990 drive-away price nets you a 1.6-litre turbo-diesel engine with 85kW and 300Nm outputs, six-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive.
At that price, the Tivoli sits at the higher end of the small-SUV class, but against its diesel competitors it is almost $10,000 cheaper than the Jeep Compass Limited diesel and undercuts the CX-3 diesel sTouring AWD by over $1000, with both competitors needing on-road costs added in on top.
There’s also a cheaper 2WD CX-3 Maxx Sport diesel ($28,600 plus ORCs), and there is a 2WD Tivoli ELX model with diesel power ($29,990 D/A), so consider the Tivoli Ultimate somewhat middle of the diesel pack.
Options are limited to contrasting roof paint (pictured) at $500 and a couple of no-cost interior trim options, from the basic black shown here to a classic beige and black, or a rather bold brown and black for the more adventurous.
The Ultimate comes to the party with a comprehensive list of standard equipment, too. Amongst the Tivoli range, features like front and rear park sensors, alloy wheels, leather-trimmed steering wheel, and cruise control are included on all variants.
The mid-grade ELX version also packs in HID headlights, dual-zone climate control, rear privacy glass and roof rails, while the flagship Ultimate adds leather seat trim, heated and cooled front seats with power adjustment, a sunroof, and upsized 18-inch wheels with a full-size spare.
All of which makes the $4K step up from ELX to Ultimate very palatable when you factor in the all-wheel-drive upgrade as part of the deal.
Across all models, a comprehensive safety rollcall of seven airbags, rear-view camera, forward-collision alert with autonomous emergency braking, high-beam assist, lane-departure warning and lane-keep assist ensures the Tivoli meets contemporary expectations. Despite the safety tech inclusions, the Tivoli only carries a four-star ANCAP rating.
While its small-SUV dimensions might make the Tivoli an ideal urban candidate, Ssangyong’s focus for the car will be rural buyers with dealer footprints occupying major regional centres around Australia.
It’s a fairly nuggety-looking little unit, but size-wise the Tivoli is actually a whisker shorter nose-to-tail than the already compact CX-3 (4202mm v 4275mm), but a little longer than the similarly blocky Suzuki Vitara (4175mm).
Its 1798mm width is a touch wider than both the 1765mm CX-3 and 1775mm Vitara, while height at 1600mm towers over the 1535mm CX-3 somewhat, but is 10mm lower than the Vitara.
Even with relatively compact external dimensions, interior space for both front and rear seats is generous. The rear seats offer more legroom than most other cars in the class, and the tall roof ensures no-one runs out of headroom.
There’s not a great deal of support from the front seats, though they are broad enough to accommodate a range of body types and flat enough to make sliding in and out a breeze. Long stints behind the wheel are fairly easy to accomplish, too.
The interior materials offer decent tactility, fit and finish appear accurate, and any of the bits that open and close, move by design, or get leaned on, all feel robust enough to pass the test of time.
The boot floor is quite high, though there’s almost no lip to load over. At 423L, the boot is generous amongst small SUVs, but the floor does get pushed up thanks to the inclusion of a full-size spare wheel and tyre. A reassuring inclusion for anyone living outside of the big smoke.
While the Tivoli may be set up to serve rural buyers better than their metropolitan counterparts, the Tivoli isn’t completely configured for long-range driving.
Refinement is off the pace of most other compact SUVs. There’s plenty of very noticeable diesel engine noise, most noticeable at idle or under load, but also present at steady cruising speeds. The noise brings with it the jittery vibrations of older-generation diesel engines, too, especially during low speed, high-load driving, like accelerating around town.
Once you hit the highway, tyre noise joins the fray, with even normally quiet road surfaces feeding a white-noise chorus into the cabin. There’s also plenty of wind rustle over the side mirrors.
The engine is a little timid, and needs to be coaxed to deliver its all. It’s not big or brawny, but has enough torque to give it some hustle in rolling acceleration.
Transmission calibration for the six-speed torque converter automatic is fairly conservative. The transmission itself is smooth and predictable, with no abrupt shifts or indecisiveness. Alertness and responsiveness are seemingly dialled back a little, so instead of pert, rapid downshifts or snappy gear changes, the Tivoli rests on its torque and opts for a calmer demeanour.
All told, the on-road experience is quite mature and well balanced. There’s some fidgeting from the ride at times, though it’s mostly able to disguise bumpy road surfaces on either tarmac or gravel.
Steering is pleasantly light, which makes parking a breeze, but doesn’t deliver much feel or feedback on the road. Steering weight can be adjusted through three modes, yet there’s very little discernible difference between the three.
On the subject of steering, the lane-keeping assist system is one of the better-judged examples of the technology – surprising given Ssangyong makes no claims to technical leadership in this area.
Steering inputs are gentle, and the system doesn’t try to overrule the human driver with any kind of ferocity. The car stays cleanly between defined lines, and although it can’t completely autonomously steer itself, it strikes the right balance of useful driver assistance.
Ssangyong’s Australian market approach takes into account competitive pressures, which means the brand’s entire line-up is covered by a seven-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty with seven years of roadside assist and a seven-year ‘service price menu’.
Owners can expect basic servicing at $322 per visit every 12 months or 15,000km, with additional costs along the way for air and fuel filters, brake fluid and coolant on separate schedules with additional pricing. The expected minimum cost comes in at just under $3394 over seven years with all scheduled items included.
Ssangyong indicates official fuel consumption of 5.9 litres per 100km, but in our time with the Tivoli, skewed slightly towards urban driving yet with a decent slab of highway usage as well, the car settled at 7.3L/100km.
So, where does all of that leave the Tivoli in the grand scheme of things? It has a place in the Australian market, no doubt, though it may only be a niche one for the moment.
Not everyone needs or wants a diesel engine in a car of this size (base models are available with a petrol engine), but there’s still a place for compact diesels, particularly in more far-reaching areas. All-wheel-drive grip and a little extra ride height make the Tivoli a shoo-in for rural road use.
It’s a distinctive-looking little unit, too. There are shades of Mini in its design – a little like what a modern Countryman could look like if it weren’t constrained by the Mini brand's self-imposed heritage design legacy.
There are a few patchy areas, too. Refinement needs a boost, the suspension could stand to be more settled (there are future plans for Australian-tuned suspension, though not for some time yet), and there are some ergonomic quirks – like the tiny climate-control buttons that need an upsize to improve ease of use.
The Tivoli won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is an earnest attempt at a small SUV. It has the right rollcall of safety tech, enough premium features to feel a little bit fancy, and pricing sharper than most competitors.
Ssangyong has done the right thing by bringing a strong warranty package to Australia from the get-go, too. It’s unlikely to challenge more successful Koreans like Hyundai and Kia just yet, but the Tivoli shows Ssangyong isn’t so far off the pace.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle the 2019 Tivoli faces is the imminent arrival of a heavily updated 2020 model. While it’s yet to be revealed, expect significant changes to styling, engines, interiors and technology – suggesting it might be worth waiting for the update, or at the very least driving a hard bargain on this model as it enters runout.