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First drive: Stavic proves looks aren't everything

Up and over: The Stavic shows off its SUV heritage on the motocross track.

The Ssangyong Stavic people-mover proves ugliness is only skin-deep

23 Dec 2004

YES, you’re eyes aren’t lying to you. That is indeed a rather large and ungainly looking people-mover vaulting its way up the sandy hill of a New Zealand motocross track.

The vehicle is the Ssangyong Stavic which goes on sale in Australia next March. The purpose of the exercise was to demonstrate just how capable it is at assaulting the odd bit of odd terrain.

Courtesy of standard turbo-diesel power and optional four-wheel drive the Stavic performed the task almost flawlessly. Only its lack of off-roader ground clearance prevented it from getting over the top of the hill without grinding its belly a tad.

But that’s Stavic, just one surprise after another, the first of which is the sheer ugliness of its exterior.

From the over-sized grille to the weird extension of the rear roofline, the Stavic seems to have fallen victim to gigantism. Everything is bloated.

It’s a relief to climb inside just so you don’t have to look at it anymore. That’s when the good news starts filtering through. And that is for all its exterior weirdness, Stavic is a well thought out and well executed piece of kit.

But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves here, best to go back in and fill in a few of the details before hitting the road.

Primarily an SUV manufacturer, Ssangyong is the number four car manufacturer in Korea, building about the same number of cars per year as Holden. But it has significant growth ambitions fuelled by the Chinese company, Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp (SAIC), which recently acquired a controlling interest.

Ssangyong’s vehicles – primarily the Musso 4WD wagon – have been seen in Australia under three different banners, first with Mercedes-Benz support in 1996, then as part of the departed Daewoo empire and now under its own name.

Ssangyongs are imported into Australia by an independent company called Rapson Holdings, which also has the New Zealand rights to the brand and its primary headquarters there – which helps explain why we were driving Stavics on a Kiwi MX track, as opposed to an Australian one.

Rapson returned Ssangyong to Australian sale mid-2003, first with the handsome Rexton off-roader, then the Musso Sports – a crew cab based on the aforementioned wagon.

Most recently the Korando short wheelbase off-roader in hard and soft-top form has gone back on-sale, a vehicle which has been bashed with the ugly stick almost as hard as Stavic.

Rapson also has plans to sell the Chairman luxury sedan here from the second half of 2005, a model that looks eerily like an old S-class Benz but is actually based on an old E-class.

And that’s not the only Mercedes-Benz connection. The German giant bought into Ssangyong in the early 1990s and still has a technical relationship, supplying petrol and diesel engines and transmissions.

Down Under, it’s been an intentionally quiet return, the company claiming it will chalk up 1400 sales here in 2004. That’s impossible to verify because Rapson doesn’t subscribe to the independent sales record, VFACTS. At a cost of $60,000 we can understand why… Stavic was launched in Korea early in 2004, and in that market where people-movers are a pretty good seller it takes on such established players as the Kia Carnival and the Hyundai Trajet. Up there you can get your Stavic with 11 seats, down here it will be a choice of seven or nine.

The vehicle will be pitched at the value end of the people-mover market, with pricing spreading between $35,000 and $45,000 depending on specification. And there’s no doubt it offers terrific value for money.

The lineup starts with rear-wheel drive configuration mated to a Benz-sourced drivetrain including 121kW/342Nm 2.7-litre turbo-diesel engine and five-speed manual gearbox. Five-speed automatic transmission with tip-shift is optional. And as already noted you can add torque on demand all-wheel drive to that complete with low range gearing and centre diff lock.

The system runs primarily in rear-wheel drive in normal conditions but can split torque up to 50:50 when the going gets slippery.

Underpinning it all is a monocoque chassis incorporating a two-piece built-in frame melded out of the Rexton’s front-end and the Chairman’s rear that Ssangyong has christened Fusion Utility Vehicle (or FUV for short).

Front suspension is via double wishbones, the rear independent by multi-links. Steering by rack and pinion and braking by discs all-round with standard ABS.

The platform is a massive 3.0 metres, the overall length 5.125 metres, height 1.82 metres, width 1.915 metres and the kerb weight varies between about 2000kg and 2200kg.

The baseline equipment level for the Stavic will include dual front airbags, ABS, ducted air-conditioning, power windows, central locking, 16-inch alloy wheels, electrically folding exterior mirrors and rear parking sensors. Cruise control will initially only be available with automatics. Leather trim will be around $2000 extra, a sunroof about $1750, while auto transmission will add about $3000 and all-wheel drive around $4000.

Sometime next year, there should be a 3.2 litre inline six-cylinder petrol V6 model added, again with the choice of either two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive. Rapson forecasts fundamentally identical specification and pricing to the turbo-diesel.

Rapson’s expectation is that it can move a minimum of 25 Stavics per month in Australia, and perhaps as many as 75, with large families, tourist operators and hotels as the primary sales targets. Those sorts of figures would make an important contribution to Sangyong’s ambition of selling 3500 vehicles in Australia in 2005.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

As observed sometime earlier, the Stavic is a far nicer car to sit in and drive rather than stand outside and look at.

The first thing you notice once inside is a sense of weight and build quality, two facets that are simply not expected. The driver’s door thuds shut, the plastics quality matches up in terms of both colour and fit. It’s not Audi standard, but the other Koreans should take note.

The presentation of the centrally-mounted dash is not only legible but pleasantly modern, with two large circles for the speedo and tacho growing ears out either side for water temp and fuel gauge.

Below that is a cleanly laid out vertical centre console that makes the air-conditioning and audio easy to use. Move further down and there are two over-engineered spring-loaded cupholders, a sizeable storage bin and then the cylindrical gearlever, which is perhaps the fattest available in the automotive world today.

Behind that is a massive double lidded centre console which uses a gas strut to hold it up – more over-engineering. Then there’s the bottle holders in the front doors along with deep, dark pockets that would easily swallow a street directory.

In front of the driver is a secondary instrument pod that house emergency lights, blinker arrows and the gear indicators. In front of that is the rather large and hefty four-spoke steering wheel which adjusts for height only. Easily reached behind it is the simple cruise control stalk, which is one tap to operate.

Out of the drivers’ seat and accessing the rear via the wide-opening car-style doors and it's fair to report that the level of comfort diminishes the further back you go. The ride in the two individual buckets the second row is pretty good, there is plenty of vision because of the big windows and high seating position. The way the seats rotate and fold is pretty clever too.

But there isn’t quite enough rearward travel in the seat, leaving you a bit tight behind a tall driver and there is a slight rise in noise levels and in the jitteriness of the ride. The third row bench has a claustrophobic feel as the D-pillar sweeps down beside you head, and the noise level has risen another notch while the ride quality decreased a little further.

28 center image There was still ample space behind row three to accommodate a family’s holiday luggage or plenty of shopping in the seven-seater. But the nine-seater (judging by photography as there wasn’t a car to check out in the metal) looks like a tighter fit thanks to the fourth seat row.

So, having surveyed the scene it’s time to move off, and again the result is unexpected.

For a start, there is nowhere near the intrusion from the engine you would expect. There’s a hint of it at idle and then it starts to make its presence felt as you rev out over 4000rpm.

And those heady heights are somewhere you don’t need to go too often considering the torque peak kicks in between 1800-3250rpm, meaning plenty of low-down pulling power. Even when you do get up around 4000rpm it’s more a gruff engine note than actual harshness that you are noticing.

Ssangyong claims both rear and all-wheel drive version will achieve 174km/h top speed and a typically frugal turbo-diesel combined fuel consumption average of 9.9L/100km.

It certainly feels lively enough despite all that weight, our only proviso being that our drive was with only relatively light loads of two to three people and not much luggage.

The engine mates smoothly with the transmission – as it should considering its origins – and the tipshift function, which changes gear by moving the lever sideways, remains one of the very easiest around to use.

The only unsettling thing was an electronics glitch that meant the engine would die for a few seconds if you operated both brake and throttle at the same time (as in left-foot braking) when driving the auto. Not nice and something Ssangyong should address.

In some reasonably trying conditions, including heavy rain, and over a combination of winding, rough, open, suburban and city roads, the Stavic proved itself to be a predictable and competent handler in either rear or all-wheel drive configurations.

The ultra-long wheelbase and near 1.6m track width no doubt contributed to that, while the all-wheel drive version felt supremely secure in the wet. Having said that though, the rear-wheel drive felt almost as confident and didn’t lack aplomb.

Now we’re not talking Porsche standards here – or should that be Benz – of course. The steering is pretty lifeless, the amount of bodyroll is standard for a 2.0-tonne plus vehicle with a reasonably high centre of gravity.

But it’s a pleasant surprise to realise that you’re pushing along quite hard and even enjoying the drive, tapping the tipshift, working the brakes, using the throttle and getting a response.

In town, it’s not as scarey to move around as you might expect, thanks to steering that’s got plenty of assistance.

And then there’s the off-road side of the equation. Our test on a sandy, bumpy motocross track at Lake Taupo showed the 4WD Stavic quite capable of conquering some reasonable challenges. However, its limited ground clearance makes it an aid for getting to the beach or the snow, rather than a vehicle that will comfortably climb up and down Victorian high country tracks.

But the sheer fact we bounced around the track at all demonstrated how versatile and interesting this vehicle is. That’s Stavic, get over the look and you’ll find what’s under the skin is worth considering.

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