Review: SsangYong Rexton

SsangYong will need all the heft of its great value Rexton 4x4 to reverse a slide in sales
SsangYong will need all the heft of its great value Rexton 4x4 to reverse a slide in sales
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Driving through Crackleybank, with the Rexton’s indicators chirping like a field of crickets, reminded me of the disparity between British and South Korean living.

We’d never dream of making a car’s indicators sound like a cricket, or for that matter any creature. The Koreans like some fun in the cabin – though more mundane indicator clicks can be chosen.

It is a bit of a squeeze in the back compared with the Rexton's pricier competitors

It is a bit of a squeeze in the back compared with the Rexton's pricier competitors

The crickets chimed with this place called Crackleybank on Watling Street in Shropshire, source of the River Worfe, rubbing feudal shoulders with Weston-under-Lizard, seat of the Earls of Bradford.

We are billeted at their very grand Weston Park, surrounded by works of art so precious that our upper floor is alarmed at night. Down below hang Van Dyke, Lely, Stubbs. Upstairs the wind makes the shutters rattle behind open windows.

SsangYong is picking up the bill, anxious to present its all-new Rexton in an appropriate showcase. Two of them had been driven 8,000 miles from the Pyeongtaek factory to the SsangYong Blenheim horse trials. It’s pitching at that milieu. All its models have 4x4 as standard or optional and fit with the horsey, towing set who may not have the funds to stretch to a big Land Rover. The Rexton, for instance, has a 3.5-ton tow rating – which means a two-horse trailer plus seats for five plus a couple of small jocks in the back pop-up chairs. However, it doesn’t have an integrated anti-sway system.

SsangYong’s forte is tough 4x4. Its origins date from 1954 – making it Korea’s oldest vehicle maker. First came what we know as WW2 jeeps and today it could be seen as the Korean answer to Land Rover or Jeep. It tied up with Mercedes-Benz in the 1990s to produce the seminally gawky Musso, and then Daewoo, and went through bankruptcy before rescue by the Indian titan Mahindra and Mahindra in 2011. This alliance produced the Tivoli, a light, pleasantly styled small SUV which moves away from the blunt force of cars like the Korando and Turismo.

Tivoli is touted as a “game-changer” and it’s certainly given the company a brighter image. Britain is its second-best buyer and best overall in Europe for SsangYong sales.

The record this year is not happy. Registrations for the first nine months (source: SMMT) are down 21.6 per cent to 3,005 units, with September going further into the red with a 53.8 per cent decline from September 2016. Only the brands Lotus and Jeep fared worse in September. It has 62 UK dealers reaching to Montrose, with another in the Aberdeen area coming, but rural blank spots include all of Cornwall.

Hebrideans and Penzance pirates may well like the heft of the Rexton. It uses a seven-speed Mercedes automatic gearbox but all the rest, apart from a Japanese manual gearbox, comes from South Korea. This includes the 16-valve 2.2-litre four-cylinder diesel, which is rated at Euro 6. It delivers a gutsy 178.5bhp and 309.5lb ft of torque but its sturdy body on chassis adds weight and leaves it thirstier and dirtier than, say, the Land Rover Discovery or Kia Sorento.

The seven-seat automatic is rated at 34mpg and 218g of CO2. These are old-school figures but with prices from £27,500 to £37,500 the Rexton has a hopeful future. Sales in Korea increased 10-fold with the new model. There will be a pick-up version next year.

While it doesn’t have the ride quality nor the clever off-road systems of a Discovery, a Rexton is much cheaper. Its traction is sufficient for all but the hardest terrain. On dry roads it runs with rear-wheel-drive. You transfer to 4x4 by twisting a selector but must stop and engage neutral gear to get the low ratio gears you’ll need for scrabbling up scree or through mud and snow.

Both inside and out there is a new quality evident – though you may like more than one USB port in a car made for seven people. The doors wrap under the sills, keeping legs reasonably clean if you’ve been in the mire.

However, you’ll probably have to duck your head to avoid contact with the roof on entry and exit. The rear pair of seats are proper chairs but life there is cramped, and the centre seats do not slide to assist entry/exit or share out the floor space.

The three-model range is EX, ELX and Ultimate – the latter a poor man’s (or clever man’s) alternative to a Discovery or Volvo XC90. As well as quilted soft leather seating, the Ultimate has all-round camera guidance – useful for serious off-roading. For example, it shows the wheel direction – and gives a peek when the track drops steeply out of sight.

Although the EX model is well-equipped, most buyers will choose the ELX or the Ultimate which add plusher leather interiors with power seats and variable power steering, larger wheels (the EX is on comfy 17-inch rubber), navigation on a larger screen, dual zone climate control and so on.

However, all Rextons have a decent set of safety kit and a five-year open mileage warranty.

Well worth a look, then, but marketing director Steve Gray notes that one of its main competitors will be the old Land Rover Discovery – which is a popular secondhand buy.

Verdict: Another game changer for SsangYong?