Unpronounceable Ssangyong survives with revitalised Tivoli
South Korean Ssangyong (just ignore the first ‘S’) has been US supportive, Chinese owned and riven with controversy since it was formed in 1986, highlights Iain Robertson, yet it continues under Indian ownership, with a modest model range.
When reflecting on the Ssangyong brand, it is worth stating that as much of a South Korean mongrel as it is, even the ugliest of dogs can sparkle in some observers’ eyes. Its brief history actually commenced 66 years ago, in support of the US Forces based in what would become the largest garrison of its troops in the world. Producing Jeeps under licence, Ha Dong-hwan Motor Workshop and the later Dongbang Motor Co merged in 1963 and became a truck and bus manufacturer. The Ssangyong Business Group acquired the company in 1986, with Ssangyong Motor being formed two years later.
Listing the brands that have been connected to Ssangyong is a little like a ‘Who’s Who?’ of the motor industry: Jeep, AMC, Panther Westwinds (a UK firm it owned), Mercedes-Benz, Daewoo, GM, SAIC (Chinese) and Mahindra (Indian). Yet, it was its ownership by Shanghai Automotive (SAIC) from 2004 to 2009 that would prove to be most controversial. Typical of Chinese companies, SAIC took a 51% stake in the troubled Korean carmaker. In 2009, crippled by a $75m loss, it was placed in receivership. In the meantime, SAIC was accused by the South Korean government of intellectual property theft, notably of its hybrid technology. Finally, Indian conglomerate, Mahindra & Mahindra, acquired Ssangyong for $463m and placed the company on a stronger footing.
The Tivoli model was introduced in 2015, which means that you can regard the 2020 version as a Mark Two that has been dramatically improved. Invariably listed at affordable prices, this one leads with its EX trim from a fiver under £14,000, at which level it makes money for the company and provides tremendous value-for-money for its customers. While Dacia still holds the lowest crossover price tag for its Renault-tech Duster, the well-engineered Ssangyong represents significantly higher quality and a hint of dynamic style that is every bit as charming as, while being different to, its Gallic-Romanian rival.
Although Merc used to supply engines to Ssangyong, the most recent units are South Korean, starting with a 1.2-litre, 125bhp, three-cylinder turbo-petrol, then a 1.5-litre, 160bhp, four-pot and a punchy 1.6-litre, 133bhp, turbodiesel. All boast strong torque figures. Having already mentioned EX, next up the trim ladder is Ventura for £3k more. However, the top Ultimate trim level (from £19,995 to £22,995), while pricey, does include the choice of the two larger power units and the option of a 6-speed automatic gearbox.
Ssangyong has already developed a reputation for its generous equipment levels and the latest Tivoli benefits from a comprehensive range of electronic safety enhancements (driver aids) that includes the customary lane-change, emergency braking and traffic sign recognition features. With a brand new 10.25-inch LCD ‘smart’ main instrument cluster and an 8.0-inch touchscreen for the sound system, complete with the latest connectivity, topping the centre stack, Tivoli is not shy on the technology front. The main display ahead of the driver can be reprogrammed through several set-ups that also include the tailoring of some of the safety addenda and most typical driving data.
The restyling exercise has lifted expectations from ordinary to interesting. Fresh lamp designs and a new daytime running signature haul Tivoli by its bootstraps into the modern era but the revised front and rear bumper designs also look classier. The cabin has also benefited from a series of modest upgrades and, while the seats can look a little flat and shapeless, they do provide a modicum of comfort and support. Legroom in the rear of the Tivoli is more than adequate, however taller front seat occupants will request both head and legroom, which can be tight and will upset an otherwise good driving position. Storage slots are abundant around the cabin.
Although well assembled, the materials used for mouldings and seating give off an annoying new car odour that I can only hope would reduce as the esters wear off. The fit and finish is okay but the overall quality is still a peg, or two, down from Kia, or Hyundai. Yet, even in base EX trim, the Tivoli features cruise control, electric windows, remote central locking and manual air con. The cost-cutting is evident in the pressed steel wheels and plastic trims. It does not cost a lot to fit alloy alternatives. While the middle trim level features leather ‘effect’ seating, the top version incorporates heating into its real hide seat trim.
Exceedingly rigid unitary body construction results in a most satisfying suspension set-up, which is highly resilient and tolerates rough surfaces with aplomb, while resisting body roll and extraneous wheel movements, making smooth main road progress a surprisingly sophisticated exercise. Extensive work on sound deadening has resulted in much improved cabin refinement. Tivoli’s cornering agility is eager and responsive, displaying no questionable characteristics and a pleasing sense of neutrality. Yet, it is not without fun and even high-speed cornering can be adjusted playfully on the throttle. The brakes are keen and consistent in their ability to stabilise the car and bring it to a grinding halt safely.
The bottom line is that Ssangyong is actually one of the newer brands on sale. It still has a lot to learn but it is making rapid progress. The Tivoli model looks handsome but a little quirky, which is fine, and while pricing at the top end of the range is best described as ‘market competitive’, it can also be perceived as too steep for a brand with these roots. Dealer discounts will help, where the excellent seven years, 150,000 miles warranty might not. While 4WD is a feature of other Ssangyong models, 2WD Tivoli is aimed at the other, less demanding segment of the crossover scene, from where it can now build a sound reputation.
Conclusion: Ssangyong is a company that, through little fault of its own, has been shoved from pillar to post in its relatively short existence. However, the new Tivoli model gives a promising hint of much more to come in the future.