DSC_2643_editedWhile the South Korean carmaker has been subjected to much pain in its history, states Iain Robertson, at least it possesses one and its latest Tivoli model manages to strike the compact-SUV spot almost head-on.


When Northern Ireland was experiencing its worst episodes of civil upset and local terrorism, we referred to the period as the ‘troubles’. The use of this word is closely akin to raising an excuse for issues that we often find difficult to comprehend and, as a result, we refer to airlines, financial institutions and manufacturing concerns as ‘troubled’, when either their services, or products, are not quite reaching the mark.


Ssangyong is one such manufacturer. It is like the student that has been given every chance to succeed but which never makes the grade. It has the best clothes. It has the best back story. It garners the best attention. Yet, despite the promise, it seldom fulfils the expectation. Emerging from a time, in the late-1990s, when all eyes were on South Korea and Daewoo (remember it?) was making all the automotive headlines, Ssangyong had an intuitive British designer, in Ken Greenley, Mercedes-Benz engineering and strong links with the US Military and the 4×4 utility sector. Yet, it remained ‘troubled’.


Two, long-established vehicle manufacturers, Ha Dong-hwan Motor Workshop and Dongbang Motor Company merged in 1963 to create Hadonghwan building Jeeps (under licence), trucks and buses for the largest US military base (in South Korea) outside of the States. Investment company Ssangyong arrived in 1986 (the double-S logo refers to the two good luck dragons of the name) and the company name was changed, a year later acquiring the assets of ‘troubled’ specialist British carmaker Panther-Westwinds. Like negatives, two ‘troubles’ do not make an ‘untroubled’.


Wanting an important toehold in South Korea, the Merc deal commenced in 1991, with the German brand selling Ssangyong SUVs through its network initially. Ssangyong also built a number of Mercedes-Benz products under licence, as part of the deal. Highly acquisitive (wrongly, as it happened) Daewoo snapped up a controlling stake in Ssangyong but was forced into selling it off, due its self-created and criminal financial crisis. By 2004, Chinese carmaking group, SAIC, snaffled up a 51% stake in Ssangyong but, five years later, placed the Korean firm into receivership, after it posted in excess of $75m losses.


Since then, rife with allegations of technology theft by the Chinese, the next few years of wrangling were concluded by the sale of a large amount of the company’s shares to an Indian-French conglomerate (which included Renault-Samsung and Mahindra Motors). Yet, in early-2011, a final deal was struck by Mahindra, which means that the South Korean carmaker is now Indian-owned. Although notionally over, the ‘troubles’ hang about like the nastiest of migraines.


Tivoli is Ssangyong’s latest entrant to the compact SUV scene. It uses its model name to good promotional effect by reversing it (ILOVIT), in a way that Subaru dare not, with its most recent 4×4 model, the Levorg. Name apart, the Tivoli, while not without competitors, plays in the least volatile segment of the SUV sector. It appears to be the size of a Skoda Fabia but has the benefit of an on-demand 4×4 transmission that works only when a loss of grip requires it.


Its styling, while subjectively ‘awkward’, is pretty much par for the course, with bolstered wheel arches, chunky underpinnings, 18-inch diameter alloy wheels and a moderate ground clearance. Tackling a fairly testing off-road route, which included a multitude of mixed surfaces, a 45-degree traverse and even a deep water trough, even though the car’s dynamic talents are limited, it made a good fist of despatching the obstacles to progress.


If anything, I would consider that Suzuki and its Vitara model, even though it is a lot bigger, is cut from a similar realistic mould. The Tivoli relies on ‘electrickery’ to make headway in difficult circumstances. That it does so in a singularly ‘untroubled’ manner is much to its credit. However, its competence is, as stated, limited. On the road, it rides firmly and corners confidently, without delving into the realms of sportiness. The fact that it possesses 4WD should make it a safer consideration in inclement, or seasonally affected, weather conditions.


Powered by a 1.6-litre turbo-diesel engine (112bhp; or a 125bhp petrol alternative) that is refined and drives through a slick six-speed manual transmission (or an Aisin six-speed automatic option), its 221lbs ft of torque, or pulling potency, is most welcome and usable, especially as it is developed from as low as 1,500rpm in the engine’s rev-range. A posted top speed of up to 109mph is matched by a 0-60mph benchmark sprint in around 11.6 seconds, while emitting 113g/km of CO2 (in 2WD form; the auto option is a heftier 156g/km, which suggests that Ssangyong needs to invest more time in raising the efficiency of its co-called ‘modern’ engines), which can equate to a most affordable £30 annual VED charge.


The driving experience is more than just acceptable, as the Tivoli has a lively character that is only limited by the ‘jounciness’ of its suspension, which can be excused by virtue of its off-road potential. There are plenty of other multi-surface cars in this class that provide significantly worse on-road manners than the Ssangyong. It is worth noting that the Tivoli is a tough little thing that can tow a braked trailer, or caravan, weighing up to 1.5-tonnes.


The company has been clever enough to recognise that personalisation is one of the keys to consumer success in this sector. As a result, it offers a multiplicity of paint options for Tivoli (with different top and alloy wheel colour options) and even interior trim upgrades.


While there are some ‘soft-touch’ elements to the cockpit detailing, again, as with class rivals, the overwhelming impression is one of ‘plastic-fantastic’, with several rough edges and cheaper aspects set to irritate. At least the various trays and trinket-holders have rubber bases to stop contained items from rattling. The grey hide-covered seats of the top-spec ELX model provide comfortable support for the lower back, although they lack under-thigh bolstering. There is a surprising amount of space in the cabin and it is only the flimsy recline lever (made from very cheap plastic) and the lack of reach adjustment to the steering column (it does tilt) that transmits a mixed message. The boot is accessed through a decent hatchback aperture and provides a practical amount of space, with out-of-sight storage below the carpet.


As the top model in the Tivoli line-up, its equipment level is good and, apart from the aforementioned alloy wheels, there is a seven-inch touch-screen, with RDS radio, iPod and Bluetooth connectivity, Tom-Tom sat-nav and even a reversing camera. The front seats are heated and dual-zone climate control maintains an even cabin environment. Privacy glass is installed for the rear compartment and a range of ‘automatic’ items, from self-dimming rear-view mirror, headlamps, wipers and folding door mirrors, as well as a full complement of airbags (inc. driver’s knee-bag) cater for both convenience and safety demands.


There is a lot to admire with the new Tivoli, once you get past the little budget car elements and its potential of 40+mpg is not to be sniffed at (47.9mpg Official Combined guide figure). Service intervals are set at 12,500 miles (or annual service) and its transferable five years, unlimited mileage warranty is also a useful selling point. However, the archetypal marketing spectre of vehicle pricing does hove into view. While you can own a perfectly acceptable 2WD Tivoli from as little as £12,950, this top-spec 4×4 version is a whopping £19,500, which might be perceived as too much for a ‘troubled’ Korean/Indian product.


Conclusion:   While most of Ssangyong’s ‘troubles’ are now in its colourful past and the company is moving ahead, with renewed vigour, on a world stage, although similarly domiciled Kia/Hyundai can be said to have caught up and even set fresh benchmarks against the best of Europe’s carmakers, Ssangyong still endures a shortfall. Predominantly in a perceived quality vein, the Tivoli is still not there. Although not far off its intended target, I hope that the next generation will be the one to reinforce the brand offering. In the meantime, the Ssangyong Tivoli is a far from charmless compact SUV and keener pricing will set it up for a stronger future.