The 2000 Daewoo-Ssangyong Musso – a 'rhino' not worth saving.
Why did I buy a Musso you might ask?
I wanted to try something different and was on the hunt for a good buy. My criteria for this SUV was that it needed to be well-priced, have a low range gearbox, some decent space and the ability to tow a small caravan with ease. I loved scouring the classifieds for bargains and spotted the Musso in the paper. The car was navy blue, had around 20,000km, it was a full time 4WD sporting a 3.2-litre Mercedes Benz derived petrol straight six coupled to a 4-speed auto. This baby had one year of warranty left on it, combined with free servicing and road side assist.
How could I go wrong?
Musso's were originally built by Ssangyong and sold through Mercedes Benz dealers in the 90's. As it played out, the Ssangyong Musso died a natural death, only to be re-imagined later by Daewoo. The car itself was very angular and unique amongst the medium-sized SUV brigade. The original Ssangyong was the full Dolly Parton – lots of plastic and excess in places where less could have been more…
When Daewoo took over, they missed an opportunity to improve the car. Instead they opted to remove all the fake wood trim and gaudy excess and replace these stylised trinkets with cheap plastics that would not be out of place in a worksite port-a-loo. Moving forward, the Ssangyong brand is back in Australia (proving there really is life after death) whilst Daewoo is gone - and not missed by me or anyone sane that I know of.
Back in the naughties, the Musso was Korean-German love child that simply failed to win Aussie hearts. It was a product that desperately tried to sell itself as a car with substance. Musso apparently means 'rhino' in Korean. Looking at my car I struggled to see any resemblance to that of a vegetarian beast that looked like a unicorn had mated with a hippo. After pondering the name and doing some research I learnt that owning ivory from a rhino horn is considered a status symbol used to display success and wealth in some Asian cultures. Interesting.
As a private purchase, I did my checks and was pleased my 'rhino' came from a family that looked like a safe bet. Nice home, affluent suburb, and no off-roading. I had test driven the car a few days earlier and no obvious issues were detected. On the day of pick up, I brought cash, signed off on the paper work, collected the keys and was happy to drive off. But once I entered the car that was strangely parked down the bottom of the long and steep driveway, it failed to start… hmm, not good.
Rather than react, I decided to mess around with the key in the ignition barrel, combined with some serious movement of the gear selector, park to neutral and back a few times. After a few tense moments, an electrical current managed its way to the starter motor and the beast awakened. For a moment, I had mentally planned a march back up to the front door of this residence to demand my money back. Thankfully the false start did not sour the day. The car was cheap, it drove well and I liked it because it had a great driveline and would serve as a blank canvas for me perform some basic modifications – I love a project.
Buying the Musso was my first experience with any Korean brand and despite our awkward start, the car drove well and had plenty of enthusiasm when the loud pedal was mashed to the floor. The engine had good torque and felt strong throughout the entire rev range. It was a permanent all-wheel drive vehicle that came with a viscous coupled centre differential that would proportion a 35/65 split under light loads, changing to a 50-50 split when things got interesting. Low range gearing was activated by turning a little knob inside the cabin that electronically switched the car from low to high range and back.
Being a car enthusiast, I felt the need to lift the belly of the 'rhino' a couple of inches and fit some larger wheels and tyres. Adding Koni shocks and some different springs improved the ride dramatically over the standard units. Fresh all-terrain rubber plus an alignment helped to keep the car tracking straight. Something it actually struggled with when I first picked it up, and was common to many of its breed.
Space inside the cabin was generous, and the dash layout was simple but functional. Hard and grey plastics were the order of the day. The seats were good for a long drive but the fabric was not pleasant at all if you were wearing shorts. I experienced a multitude of tiny fibres that continuously poked my thighs. It almost had me reaching for some aeroguard as it felt like there was a mosquito on a rampage beneath me. Very annoying to say the least.
The cup holders in the front console region were simply a laugh, in that they had a diameter and depth that must have reflected a difference in size between Korean and Western drink containers. They were not practical in this country and every time you foolishly tried to use them, drinks would just tip over, despite my best efforts to drive smoothly.
Moving forward, the infotainment system was a simple radio/CD player. Nothing fancy - the sound quality was average and its ability to remain functional was inconsistent at best. The CD player would often stop working unexpectedly whilst going on a long drive, leaving you with plenty of time for self-talk and reflection. Trying to get the dealer to fix the issue was like trying to find a chicken with lips – not easy. It never played up for them when it was in the workshop so what was there to fix? (*should have just bought another head unit…)
The handbrake on this car was another issue. It pulled up tight at the handle and seduced you into thinking it was holding the car. Then, on any incline and with the handbrake wrenched as far back as possible, the car would just start rolling. Korean build quality was rearing its head. After a few short weeks of ownership, the chinks in the amour were coming through.
As I had planned to use this beast to take me on long summer adventures, I am pleased to say that the air conditioning was good, as too were the electric windows. Thankfully some of the basics were consistent in their operation.
Off-road, the low range transfer case gearing was better than acceptable. This enabled Mr Musso to climb steep hills surprisingly well. Loads of grunt combined with a proportioned 4WD system made the rhino dance up hills like a goat. It did an admirable job of following my mates through many off road treks. Where the relationship soured was when you asked the car to shift out of low range. The electronic wizardry used to switch between high and low range became somewhat recalcitrant at times, often leaving you in 'low' when you had turned the knob to 'high'. This definitely made me nervous as I began pondering the thought of having to drive home in low range. After a few panic-filled attempts with the knob, the car eventually got its act together and got on with the job of returning back to high range.
All round visibility out of Mr. 'Woo was good. This car had a long bonnet, with my car coming with an alloy factory bullbar. As the car was not overtly tall, getting in an out was effortless as the seat base was just at the right height for me to just slide across and onto it. The window sills were at the right height to allow the famous Brock elbow to hang out.
For a car of its mass, size and performance, the fuel consumption was very good. I found the car could easily get around 10/11 litres per 100 kilometres on the open road, whilst around town it averaged around 15L/100km. The herbs under the bonnet were truly its best-selling point and I can understand why the execs at the time may have thought they were onto a winner. The Musso could absolutely thump past people on the highway when overtaking. Even with a small caravan attached to its butt, it still managed to scoot along with ease.
All this power did come at a price, and unbeknown to me, after a brief stint of powering through some sand whilst cresting dunes at Stockton beach, I surprisingly noticed that the temperature gauge had snuck into the red zone… Crap… Korean BBQ anyone? Fortunately I spotted the change in temperature fast and did not roast the motor. From there on I realised that I needed to lay off the heavy foot approach through the sand as this was one car that could get hot and bothered quickly when being asked to do some heavy lifting.
Over the next few months the car started to sending me 'smoke signals' from its various parts. 'Daewoo Assist' became a number I was getting all too familiar with calling. Despite these people coming and collecting the car and taking it to the nearest dealer for repairs, the car kept pooping itself. The straw that broke the camel's back for me was when it had dumped its transmission fluid for the third time within a period of a few months whilst tootling around the burbs. Despite the free servicing and warranty provided, I could see that this car was plagued with issues and I was surprised at how the Daewoo dealerships could never fully repair the car to an acceptable standard.
The main problem my car had was the transmission kept leaking fluid constantly. I can remember picking up the car from the dealer after a repair, getting it home and as I slowly exited the car, I could hear the oil dripping onto my driveway. I eventually got everything fixed and sold the car as I could no longer trust the brand or dealer network, who seemed happy to do the bare minimum in repairs and then see the car back within a week.
Reflecting back on the Musso I can understand why the Daewoo brand became extinct. Our experience with the 'rhino' had not ended well and it left us with a fair degree of uncertainty every time we got behind the wheel. I went into Korean ownership as a naïve buyer, thinking warranty equated to product confidence. After this car I promised myself to never allow a Korean car to grace my driveway. Case closed.