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Car reviews - SsangYong - Korando - 5-dr wagon range

Our Opinion

We like
Italian styling, creamy diesel torque, super-clean Euro 5 emissions, pleasant ride, front and rear legroom, high equipment levels
Room for improvement
Cramped clutch pedal foot room, steering could use more bite, diesel engine noise lottery

SsangYong logo14 Feb 2011

HERE’S something new: the words ‘SsangYong’ and ‘stylish’ in the same sentence, without the word ‘not’ in between.

Usually, adjectives describing the SsangYong brand have included ‘quirky’, ‘rugged’ and ‘affordable’ – if motoring writers were feeling generous.

But now the South Korean niche brand has gone all mainstream with a – yes – stylish new compact SUV that not only breaks new ground on design for SsangYong but engineering as well.

Let’s face it, it had to. Like Sweden’s Saab, niche manufacturer SsangYong has been on and off death row for years, resuscitated from time to time by white knights with bright ideas and open wallets.

In SsangYong’s case, China’s giant Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC) tried to wrestle the wild child into some sort of order in the 2000s, only to have the Korean workers vent their displeasure by trashing the factory to put both themselves and SsangYong out of business and into court-controlled receivership, with SAIC walking away.

It was just another brilliant chapter in the hit-and-miss history of a company that started out assembling Jeeps for the United States Army during the Korean War.

Back then, it took that rugged, go-anywhere ethos and made a career out of it with its own versions of the American off-roaders, later branching out into SUVs and utes.

It had the sense to go to Mercedes-Benz to buy engines for vehicles such as the Musso, Korando and Actyon Sports ute, all of which were built on utilitarian ladder-chassis frames.

While the SsangYong range offered Mercedes power, it fell way short of Mercedes style, finesse and build quality, putting the little company on a one-way drive up Struggle Street.

A few years ago, even while SsangYong’s corporate collapse was looming in the global financial crisis, someone in charge had a lucid moment and decided to tear up SsangYong’s one-of-a-kind design policy and get Giorgetto Giugiaro and his Italdesign studio in Italy to design a new-age Korando, codenamed C200.

As well, they decided to get rid of the heavy body-on-frame platform and replace it with a modern car-like monocoque design that would afford numerous advantages in refinement, fuel economy and safety.

Welcome to the 21st century, SsangYong.

The result is a vehicle that is not only palatable but surprisingly competent. In fact, we could go further and suggest elements of the first new SsangYong model in three years is, in some aspects, cutting edge.

No other diesel compact SUV can offer Euro 5 emissions cleanliness, with the promise of Euro 6 whenever it is called for. Nor can any offer a choice of six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission with a diesel engine.

The top-selling Subaru Forester offers only a four-speed auto with its petrol engine – and no auto at all with diesel.

As well, Korando offers a choice of two- or all-wheel drive – something no manufacturer can match with a diesel power train.

And then there is that $26,311 starting price for the front-wheel-drive entry-level Korando S – the lowest-priced diesel SUV in town by some margin.

Of course, the Korando does not offer a petrol alternative, but that shortcoming is to be addressed in early 2012.

So, on paper, its credentials seem to be in order. We are pleased to say that, after a couple of hours behind the wheel of S and mid-range SX in manual form – automatic stocks do not arrive until late March – the all-new Korando deserves respect.

However, we have to make a couple of qualifications. As the automatic is not yet available, we did not get to sample the auto-only SPR flagship with its fatter tyres and fatter equipment list.

Also, although the three vehicles we drove were all equipped with the 129kW 2.0-litre turbo-diesel engine that is, for now, standard fare across all three specifications, we discovered an anomaly: a considerable variation in engine noise levels.

On the first vehicle we drove, an all-wheel-drive SX, the engine emitted a noticeable although not unusual diesel clatter at idle but smoothed out at higher revs.

The second vehicle, a base two-wheel-drive S, was noticeably noisier at highway speeds, when the throttle was depressed.

Just when we decided these otherwise sophisticated engines were a tad rowdy for our taste, we slipped into another SX and could hardly hear the engine at all.

Whether this mystifying variation has something to do with the run-in kilometres on each vehicle or another factor, we can’t be sure after that short test drive. But if it is due to production variables, then SsangYong needs to leap on it, pronto.

In terms of performance, the new engine is sprightly and torquey in the 2000-3000rpm peak-torque band – once the turbo kicks in – just as SsangYong promised. It revs out better than some rival 2.0-litre diesels, too, although some might say it needs the extra revs to match the extra punch of the similar units fitted to the Hyundai ix35i and Kia Sportage.

SsangYong importer Sime Darby quotes a combined fuel economy figure of 6.1 litres per 100km, although we averaged about 8.2L/100km in a fairly solid hit-out of urban, bush and freeway driving.

Gear changes are easy without being super-slick, and the Korando had no problems keeping up with the traffic in urban Sydney, where our drive started.

However, we soon discovered what was to become our biggest beef: a lack of space between the clutch pedal and the footrest. This requires lifting your foot from the pedal and slipping it under the clutch pedal to the footrest and vice versa – not a great situation, especially in an emergency.

On the highway, the Korando strides along in relaxed style, with the engine ticking over comfortably at 2000rpm at 100km/h.

Winding roads reveal a competent handler, although steering turn-in is not as sharp and flat as that of the class-leading Kia Sportage. A little wallowing in mid-corner turns into some understeer and, while that is not unusual in this class, it is not the best in 2011, either.

The front seat’s lateral and under-leg support could be described as adequate, in the Korean style. For Australia, we would like a little more cushion.

The suspension – including a sophisticated multi-link set up on the rear – rides the bumps without fuss, and road noise is suitably insulated from the cabin.

Best of all, the new monocoque body exudes a high level of rigidity – a great first effort in an SUV from SsangYong.

On dirt, SsangYong has obviously loaded the underside with noise-deadening material, as there is none of that annoying ding-dong racket from stones thrown against the steel body.

Again, the sharp ruts and potholes of the Aussie bush are dispatched with relative ease, although cornering on slippery dirt tracks is short of Forester levels of reassurance.

The drive route over dirt roads held few challenges for any vehicle, so we can’t be sure of the off-road competency of the Korando, but a lockable all-wheel drive system, 180mm ground clearance and aids such as automatic hill launch control all help to put minds at rest.

At first glance, the Korando’s svelte styling makes it look smaller than rivals such as the Hyundai ix35, but a tape measure proves otherwise.

Inside, the Sportage-size Korando is surprisingly spacious, with plenty of headroom and leg room for five tallish adults, although rear-seat shoulder room might be at a premium.

The cabin has a mish-mash of four different finishes – seemingly obligatory in most vehicles these days – ranging from pleasantly textured dash material to shiny hard Korean plastics. Inoffensive rather than classy, we would say.

Cargo space is only average in the Korando with its short rear overhang, especially compared with the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, but the Korando is dotted with little cubbies for storage. A cargo blind is standard on the top two models and an option on the S.

One of the Korando’s strong points is its long list of standard features on the base model that includes alloy wheels, all sorts of audio connectivity – including Bluetooth streaming for iPhone music – auto-dimming mirror, cruise control, leather-wrapped steering wheel and alarm. It goes up from there.

One shortcoming is the lack of sat-nav availability, and nor does the vehicle have a console LCD screen or in-dash recess that could quickly accommodate one.

Build quality of the test cars at the launch appeared right up to speed, with tight finishes and few squeaks and rattles on even rough roads.

The jury is still out on safety until one of the vehicles is tested independently, but, on paper, it has all the bells and whistles that are deemed necessary for a four-star crash performance, if not five.

We await with interest the arrival of the Aussie-made six-speed automatic transmission from the good folk at Drive Systems International in Albury, even if only so we don’t have to put up with the cramped clutch pedal of the manual.

But all things said and done, the SsangYong Korando is a surprisingly distinguished effort from a tiny car-maker (it made just 81,000 vehicles in 2010), and one that deserves to be added to the shopping list of compact SUV buyers.

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