The Korandos platform was SsangYongs first SUV architecture not to be of body-on-frame construction

The Korando's platform was SsangYong's first SUV architecture not to be of body-on-frame construction

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Despite being overlooked by many, SsangYong continues to grow across Europe. Glenn Brooks has been driving four of the latest models, and now sees what was behind last month's 84% UK market sales surge.

The total number of passenger vehicles sold in Britain during February was 68,736. In that context, 134 SsangYongs is hardly worth reporting. But when you look back at last year's equivalent number, a mere 73, you understand why the brand's energetic UK chief executive Paul Williams is excited not just about the future, but the present too.

“Last year we appointed 19 new dealers, and now every car in our range has been refreshed for 2014: new Rexton W, face-lifted Korando, improved Korando Sports pick-up and the recently launched Turismo, the most competitively priced MPV on the market,” says Williams. "We now have a line-up of SUV and 4x4 vehicles that no other value-brand comes anywhere close to offering their customers,” he adds.

I recently got to try out all four models, three of which were new to me - I had already spent some time with the Turismo - and was genuinely surprised by how improved these SsangYongs were compared to the cars of old. Your first impression used to be hard plastics that stunk of some scary petrochemical and were finished in what could only be called John Major grey, while if there were leather seats, they'd be shiny and slippery. How things have changed. I would even go so far as to say the interior of the Korando is now not only better than that of another Korean-built rival, the Chevrolet Captiva, but on a par with the Suzuki S-Cross and Mitsubishi ASX.

Let's be clear: the inside of a Korando isn't in the same league as a Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4 but as the base SE variant costs just GBP14,995, what would you expect? And by the way, this C segment SUV is a proper 4x4 in that you can press a button and lock the axles, which is why this model is becoming the new favourite of budget conscious farmers. SsangYong is also recruiting dealers in towns and small cities - the kinds of places where Skoda showrooms used to be. Last year, 19 new franchises were added to a network which is still being actively expanded.

Value pricing is a major drawcard, even as the UK economy's expansion picks up speed. People punching in 'cheapest new car' is one of the main things driving web traffic to Dacia, though once on the brand's website, those who become buyers inevitably configure models which are far from bargain basement. SsangYong will likely soon start finding the same thing is happening - not all of its models start below the twenty thousand pounds mark, and that doesn't seem to be putting people off.

The Rexton W might not be as modern as the smaller Korando but as the GBP20,000+ model in question, it's still terrific value. Like its smaller brother, this five-door SUV is also powered by a 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel but instead of having a transverse engine, it's an old-school RWD/4WD. That also means a ladder frame chassis instead of the Korando's lighter monocoque design. There are seven seats and a decently-sized boot too. The downside is the Rexton W's age, which means that it's only about a year or two away from replacement by a model said to be codenamed D200, having started life back in 2001.

Considering it sits on the same platform as the Musso from the early 1990s, the Rexton W is a good showcase for the talent of SsangYong's chassis engineers. It leans a lot in the bends, but no more than a Mitsubishi Shogun does and off-road, you can be sure it would be just as capable. Everything inside is squeak- and rattle-free, the plastics are soft to the touch where you want them to be and harder in places where you don't notice that too much. Despite the addition of the firm's more modern 154bhp 2.0-litre diesel at the time of the last facelift (2012), there isn't as much power as there could be, but there again, this isn't a vehicle you'd be wanting to hustle in the bends. A three-tonne towing capacity will have particular appeal to horse box owners, and at 360Nm, there is more than enough torque, delivered at a low 1,500-3,000rpm.

The other new or revised model that the UK importer has launched in recent times is the Korando Sports. In South Korea and some other markets, this is the Actyon Sports and it also uses the old Musso body-on-frame platform. The current model was previewed by the SUT 1 concept which SsangYong displayed at the Geneva motor show in March 2011. The production vehicle, tentatively badged 'SUT-1', then had its global debut at the Frankfurt motor show in September 2011. Unlike the Rexton W, it's basically a pick-up but the UK importer adds a snug-fitting canopy. Lift a top-hinged glass section to put the supermarket shopping in, or for bigger items, just drop the tailgate. The towing capacity, at 2.7 tonnes, isn't quite as good as that of the Rexton W, but it's surely enough for most subscribers to Practical Caravan.

The launch or relaunch of these four models (including the Turismo that I reviewed in December) is just the start for SsangYong. The brand's first entry in the rapidly expanding B-SUV segment will reach Europe during the first quarter of 2015. This will be based on the XLV, a design study which premiered at the recent Geneva motor show. While there might be a seven-seat long wheelbase model for some markets, in Europe, just a standard wheelbase five-seater will be offered.

After what is likely to be called 'Korando B' is launched will come associated models for SsangYong's parent company Mahindra, such as the S101 and S102 projects. We should also see the replacements for SsangYong's larger RWD/4WD models such as the Kyron, Actyon and Rexton W, as well as a successor for the Actyon Sports.

Noting a 19% YoY global sales rise for February 2014, Lee Yoo-il, CEO of Ssangyong Motor, stated, “We keep posting the biggest sales growth in the domestic market and seeing sales uptrend in export markets thanks to the strong sales of our main models," adding, "We will meet the increasing global demand for SUVs by enhancing differentiated strengths as a specialized SUV maker, exploring new markets and diversifying our export market structure."

In 2013, SsangYong sold just 145,649 vehicles worldwide and has set a cautious sales target of 160,000 for 2014. The company's sole production plant, Pyongtaek, is presently operating with spare capacity of roughly 100,000 units per annum so it's clear that no expansion is needed, for now. Whatever 'Korando B' ends up being called could well push Pyongtaek towards its current limit by as soon as 2016, however. What happens then? I recently sat down with CEO Lee to press him on that and other questions, so keep an eye on for that interview.

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