4,850mm long Rexton looks like a larger version of the B segment Tivoli

4,850mm long Rexton looks like a larger version of the B segment Tivoli

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Easily the smallest of the three Korean vehicle brands available in Europe, SsangYong doesn't intend to remain a minor player in the region forever. As was the case with Kia a decade ago, every new vehicle is a major improvement over the outgoing model. The latest Rexton, which sees the importer going after the horsebox-towing set, is proof in point. 

Big in Korea. But where else?

Astonishingly, Britain is SsangYong's third largest market worldwide.

Astonishingly, Britain is SsangYong's third largest market worldwide, according to Steve Gray, who heads up Marketing for the UK importer. Number two? Even though I knew Russia was a continuing disaster and that the big numbers coming out of Spain a few years back had now fallen away, I was flummoxed by his question. Germany? France? Neither.

The answer is Chile. Checking the figures, SsangYong delivered 3,939 vehicles to customers in there between 1 January and 30 August (sorry, I couldn't find numbers for September) out of 226,109 in all. That's a higher percentage than in the UK, where the brand commands only 0.18 per cent. Several Chinese brands are doing very well in Chile so the name, affordable pricing and its Dragon's Wings logo probably lead many customers to assume this one hails from there too.

Here, total registrations were 3,005 units (1 Jan-30 Sep, 2017) compared to 3,837 for the nine months to the end of September 2016. So a new model is clearly going to be very well received by the dealer network: the Rexton will be in showrooms by the end of this month. If you need a refresher, this is a large-ish SUV which in its home market competes with the Hyundai Maxcruz (seven-seat Santa Fe), Kia Sorento and Samsung QM6. RSM exports the last of these to Europe where it is sold as the Renault Koleos. As noted in this news story, SsangYong is now number three in its home market, having overtaken both Renault Samsung Motors and GM Korea.

RWD-4WD body-on-frame, not FWD-AWD monocoque

The big difference with SsangYong's largest 4x4 compared to its rivals is a separate chassis construction, formed from 1.5Gpa ultra-strength steel supplied by Posco. This is what makes the UK operation believe that it has a great opportunity with those who need to pull heavy loads. The new Rexton is rated at up to 3.5 tonnes, which is enough to tow a large horsebox including two gee-gees in residence. Mitsubishi Motors keeps delaying a new generation Shogun and another body-on-frame model, the Pajero Sport, isn't offered in Britain so who can blame SsangYong for cantering in to offer horse owners a fresh alternative?

The Rexton looks to be a similar size to an XC90 (4,950) or Discovery (4,970) but it's 100 or 120mm shorter.

Just how big is SsangYong's largest SUV?

At a casual glance, the Rexton looks to be a similar size to an XC90 (4,950) or Discovery (4,970) but it's respectively 100 and 120mm shorter. In Britain, five seater format is standard and seven optional. While the second and third rows lack the electric flipping of some higher priced SUVs, there isn't the weight issue which their motors also bring. Boot space is excellent, being 820-1,977 litres for the two-row variants and 649-1,806 if you want seven seats.

The Daimler legacy

In some countries, there is a 2.0-litre petrol engine and a six-speed Aisin auto transmission but in the UK, it's a standard 2,157cc diesel. A six-speed manual is available but there isn't expected to be much take up for that. Instead, most Rextons should have a seven-speed torque converter automatic which is sourced, as certain SsangYong engines once were too, from Mercedes-Benz. Maximum power is 181PS and torque is 400 (manual) or 420Nm (E-Tronic). Reaching 62mph takes 11.9 seconds and top speed is 119mph. The CO2 average is between 204 and 218g/km, and the Combined consumption is 34.0-36.2mpg.

Steel frame is always heavier than aluminium, right? Wrong.

Most of us think of a ladder frame chassis as having an inherent weight penalty. Not so in the case of the Rexton. Even the top-spec variant is lighter than most Range Rover Sports, and the base version, which weighs 2,095kg, compares to 2,135kg for the least lardy RRS and its aluminium architecture. Length is identical, although wheelbases differ, the Rexton's greater overhangs accounting for its 2,865mm between the wheelarches compared to the Range Rover Sport's 2,922.

Pricing: £27,500-£37,500

With pricing starting at GBP27,500, the Rexton is something of a bargain compared to others in the D/E segment. You can pay as much as GBP37,500 and for that, it's the 'Ultimate' model grade with standard automatic transmission. The base EX and mid-range ELX have the manual as standard, with E-Tronic a steep GBP2,000 option.

The interior is nicer than what you'll find inside a Jeep Grand Cherokee.

For well under thirty five grand, a middle-spec Rexton offers excellent value and there is no doubt about it - this brand is now a proper contemporary of Korean, Japanese, American and European ones.

Rough-surface plastics and shiny timber no more

The interior is nicer than what you'll find inside a Jeep Grand Cherokee and while for me, Kia offers some of the best laid out and attractive dashboards, the Rexton's is as good as those in the next tier down. We saw this with the Korando and then with the smaller Tivoli and it's no wonder both have been strong sellers in their home market and elsewhere. The newest SsangYong is even better.

Pretty much every bit of safety and convenience tech that you could want or expect to find in its rivals is present in the Rexton. Even the woodgrain trim on the centre fascia, console and door trims is nicely done: not shiny, not chintzy. The EX manual and automatic have to make do without side airbags for rear seat passengers, however. Another one for the driver's knees, which is standard for ELX and Ultimate variants, is missing from the base model grade too. You must also make do without lane change assist, blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert as well as a Tom Tom navigation system.

Big wheel wells need big tyres

The Ultimate has some very good looking chrome-look 20-inch wheels on 50-profile tyres which fill the big wheelarches. EX trim, on the other hand, means 17-inchers on 235/70 tyres, while ELX gives you 255/60 rubber on 18-inch diamond-cut rims. Diamond-cut alloys on a SsangYong? Told you things are changing with this brand.

Manufacturing

Like all other SsangYongs, the Rexton is built in South Korea at the firm's Pyongtaek factory.

Like all other SsangYongs, the Rexton is built in South Korea at the firm's Pyongtaek factory. This plant, which is slowly slowly reaching the levels of capacity which the firm has always wished for, has three lines. Bankruptcy seems a long time ago, but yes, this was the place where two sacked workers famously returned to five years later, staging a sit-in on the roof beside a chimney to stay warm.

The Tivoli is easily the most-made model at Pyongtaek and is still selling very well in South Korea as well as in a handful of export markets. There is no news on the proposed plan to make vehicles in China but as Renault and others have found, the wheels of decision making within the relevant government departments can take years.

Profits first, then expansion

Rather than making as many vehicles as it can, SsangYong Motor's plan is instead to be as profitable as possible and thus show its parent Mahindra & Mahindra that ever greater investment is deserved. M&M hasn't been lavish with its spending but what it has put in seems to show a philosophy of providing support for a strong core of platforms, powertrains and models.

There is talk of the Rexton being assembled in India and marketed as a Mahindra. Q200, a Rexton-based pick-up, is under development and would in theory work equally well there. The Q200 will also be assembled in partnership with Saudi National Automobiles Mfg (SNAM). CKD assembly will take place in KSA by 2020, according to the terms of a signed agreement.

So far, things appear to be working, and SsangYong was able to survive relatively unscathed for example, from the collapse of the Russian market. There has been a bounce there, as we know (September was the seventh month in a row for a YoY gain) but SsangYong has not felt the benefit, its sales having collapsed to just 90 vehicles in the year to the end of September. Which explains how the likes of Chile and the UK can now be such important export destinations in the SsangYong world.

Overview

Is the Rexton then good enough to challenge the best in its class? I would say it's much closer than the old model was. The steering gives you too much juddery feedback on the typically poorly-maintained roads which are standard equipment in Austerity Britain. The ride is good though. There's no air suspension of course, but for a RWD SUV with selectable four-wheel drive - supposedly a recipe for a built-to-last but unsophisticated 4x4 - it's really very good.

Which other vehicle offers five preferences for the noise made by the indicators? One of which is the chirp of crickets.

What of the endearing eccentricities which we used to know and love SsangYongs for, though? Are they all gone now, eliminated by people who think this has to be a no-nonsense make. Happily not. Which other new vehicle on sale today offers you the choice of five preferences for the noise made by the indicators? And one of them is the sound of crickets chirping. Long may SsangYong remain its individual self.

CEO says next Rexton due in 2021 or 2022

SsangYong's CEO Jong Sik Choi spoke at an event in Italy in August and announced that the D200 project is due to become a production model in 2021 or 2022. This will be the next generation Rexton. Given how long the life cycles of SsangYong models have always been, it is unclear why the company plans to replace the Y400 Rexton after just four or five years of production.