The new Rexton seven-seat SUV holds hope for Ssangyong's survival
Turning around The Ssangyong Rexton RX200 gets all the fundamentals of an SUV right, from its simple inoffensive design to torquey turbodiesel engine. -- ST PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER TAN

Ssangyong has long been a bit of a joke. Its cars were so off-beat that only taxi operators would buy them.

But having said that, it revealed a semblance of ingenuity when it unveiled the Actyon, a coupe-like SUV, in 2005, three years before BMW's equally outrageous X6 emerged.

The Actyon did little to lift Ssangyong's flagging fortunes, though. Even Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp, which bought into the company in the mid-2000s, failed to keep it afloat.

But now with India's Mahindra group at the helm, there seems to be a glimmer of hope for the South Korean brand. After all, Mahindra and Ssangyong both specialise in SUVs.

While it is too early to predict a revival like Jaguar-Land Rover's under the ownership of the Tata group, there are signs of Ssangyong turning the corner.

The new Korando launched here last year was the first. The latest Rexton is another.

What is a Rexton? In a nutshell, it is a 4x4 seven- seater about the size of a BMW X5, but costs less than half of the Bavarian multi-seat SUV.

It has all the fundamentals right too. These include a torquey Euro 5 turbodiesel engine mated to a Mercedes-inspired autobox (with steering- mounted shift tabs).

Its tall, sturdy chassis is supported by an independent suspension system. It has three drive modes: rear-wheel-drive, four-wheel-drive (high) and four-wheel-drive (low). The latter is supposedly reserved for the most challenging of terrains.

And like many modern off-roaders, it has Hill Descent Control, which manages the throttle and brakes to ensure a perspiration-free manoeuvre down steep slopes.

Its electronic stability program keeps things on an even keel on the tarmac.

The "utility" aspects of this sports-utility vehicle are pretty sound too. The second and third row of seats can be folded almost flat. In fact, collapsing the third row is an easy tug-and-push affair. Interior space is a little tighter than the X5's but not much.

Equally important is the car's design. Unlike past Ssangyongs, the Rexton has a simple, inoffensive styling. In many ways, it looks as innocuous as the Toyota Fortuner - a Thai-made seven- seat SUV that is its closest competitor. (The Toyota costs about $17,000 more.)

While it has all the main ingredients that make a decent multi-seat SUV, the Ssangyong Rexton lacks the crucial seasonings that make it a delectable offering.

Its side-steps are too recessed to be of help when you are getting down from the tallish vehicle. And the space between the doors and seats is so narrow that you cannot get things out of the door pockets easily.

It has an array of steering-mounted controls, including a user-friendly cruise-control stalk. But the audio buttons are so close to the rim and spokes that you cannot avoid pressing one every now and then.

And while the car is fitted with an impressive Kenwood infotainment set (which includes navigation), the test car's trip meter does not have a fuel consumption function (the agent says the next batch will).

On the go, it is hard to ignore the Rexton's jiggly ride. It almost feels like the tyres are filled with water instead of air. Surprisingly, there are no real complaints about its handling though. But the transmission is prone to shift shock in first.

Despite its unimpressive 0-100kmh timing, the car feels adequately torquey in most situations. It does not seem to be a very competent off-roader though. Even climbing a curb and going down a small verge proves to be quite a task.

The car seems a little more susceptible to cabin rattle than others. But it has one quality that stands it in good stead: a powerful air-conditioner, complete with strong blowers in the third row.

Having weighed all its pluses and minuses, it is still not easy to vote for the Rexton with your chequebook. Admittedly, though, it would have been much harder five years ago.

 

Background story

Specs

SSANGYONG REXTON RX200
 

Price: $175,888 with COE
 

Engine: 1,998cc 16-valve inline-4 turbodiesel
 

Transmission: Five-speed automatic with manual override
 

Power: 155bhp at 4,000rpm

Torque: 360Nm at 1,500rpm

0-100kmh: 13.3 seconds

Top speed: 175kmh

Fuel consumption: 7.8 litres/100km

Agent: Motorway Ssangyong

Click here to view all Ssangyong models.