IT is more than a little ironic to think of a carmaker that can trace its roots back more than half a century as “the new kid on the block,” but that is the overriding impression when one slips behind the wheel of one of the latest offerings of South Korea’s SsangYong Motors.
When Fast Times was offered an extended test drive of SsangYong’s newest compact SUV, the Tivoli, I have to admit I was a little skeptical. Having spent the best years of my life with BMW, taking the helm of a vehicle from a company which is best known in the West for the somewhat unfortunate Musso, the result of a partnership with Mercedes-Benz, I was mentally prepared for some disappointment.
Although I was pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong in the end, based on the company’s history my skepticism really wasn’t unwarranted at the outset. Founded in 1963 as the Ha Dong-hwan Motor Co. – the result of a merger of two older Korean companies – the company didn’t get into the passenger car business until the mid-1970s, when it changed its name to Dong-A Motor, eventually being taken over by the SsangYong Group (the name means “double dragons” in Korean) in 1986.
A technical partnership with Mercedes in 1991 resulted in the aforementioned Musso — a boxy, uncomfortable mess in which the differences between the German-engineered mechanicals and the Korean-built body were stark — and a license-built version of the MB100 van. Daewoo briefly took a controlling stake in the company in the late 1990s only to sell it almost as quickly when the tie-up became a financial disaster, and for a period of time after 2004, the company was controlled by China’s SAIC, an unhappy marriage that ended in a case in Korean courts in which SAIC (Shanghai Automotive Industry Company) was accused of stealing intellectual property back to Shanghai. In 2009, the failing company was put into court receivership, finally recovering in early 2011, when it was acquired by Indian giant Mahindra.
Although SsangYong is South Korea’s fourth-largest automaker and has an extensive history of producing not only cars but trucks and buses as well, it has been up until now virtually unknown outside East Asia. That is something the takeover by the large and rapidly growing Mahindra concern should help to solve, but SsangYong’s best introduction comes from its vehicle models.
Coming from my admittedly charmed career in the high-end European market, I realize that not every car is a BMW (or an Audi, or Mercedes or Jaguar or any of the other marques with which I have more than a passing familiarity), but there are certain standards that are non-negotiable. The first is safety, which is reflected partly in passive equipment — seatbelts, airbags, and other features like proximity sensors — and partly in drivability — handling that puts the car where you want it to go when you want it to. The second is comfort; driving is a surprisingly physical endeavor, just sitting in the car or manipulating the controls should not wear one out, nor should one’s passengers — especially if they are a couple of active, chattering pre-teens — find the ride unpleasant. The third is attention to detail, or what we call fit and finish; the car need not be a work of art, but should be put together in a way that reflects some pride in the product — doors that close easily and firmly, well-fit trim, muted noise from the engine, ventilation equipment, and the outside world.
On all counts, SsangYong hit the mark with its well-behaved Tivoli crossover.
Equipped with a 1.6-liter gas engine married to a 6-speed automatic transmission developing 126 horsepower and 160 Newton-meters of torque, the stylish, well-built five-seater excels in Manila’s nerve-racking stop-and-go traffic. The Tivoli provides quick steering and acceleration response, as well as an all-disc braking system that reacts instantly to the pedal. The sensitive brakes, which are enhanced by SsangYong’s Electronic Brake Distribution (EBD) system and a potent booster, actually take a little getting used to for a heavy-footed driver like myself, but are reassuringly comfortable once one understands the car.
In terms of highway performance, while the Tivoli will never be mistaken for a sports car and has a bit of an acceleration lag in the higher gears — something that seems to go away when using the optional manual Sport Mode for the transmission — it easily holds a steady speed once it’s run to the top of its gear range, and has a credibly firm feel to it at expressway speeds. One minor complaint offered by other reviewers that the somewhat boxy Tivoli is a little aerodynamically unsteady at higher speeds was not a serious issue, even in a stiff crosswind on the Cavitex’s long causeway. The three-option steering setting option — Comfort, Normal, and Sport, each offering progressively tighter response — helps the driver tune handling to some degree on the fly, virtually eliminating any instability.
Thoughtfully designed interior
In terms of interior comfort and safety, the Tivoli is thoughtfully designed, offering good vision all around, with generous exterior mirrors (which automatically fold when the electronic lock switch on the key is pressed) more than compensating for a bit of restricted view on the rear corners. Controls are easily accessed on the steering wheel, and the gated shifter allows klutz-proof no-look shifting in sport mode. The easy-to-use vehicle information and entertainment center is a little distracting for a solo driver, but a snap to use if one has a co-pilot; my nine-year-old son recognized it as a modified Android tablet, and was an expert in its functions before one leg of the daily commute was done.
The Tivoli also offers driver and passenger airbags, and in an indication of SsangYong’s attention to detail, a steering wheel with a squared-off bottom, an extra little comfort someone of my larger-than-average size is sure to appreciate. Interior space is expansive for four adults, and acceptably comfortable for five, thanks to the absence of a transmission tunnel; the rear compartment is likewise spacious, more than enough for the cargo from a trip to the grocery store or for a weekend getaway. Numerous smaller compartments are tucked away in the passenger compartment as well.
The gas-powered Tivoli is available in five versions, one of which is equipped with a manual transmission, and two 1.6-liter CRDi (common rail direct injection) diesel versions, of which the all-wheel drive ELX XLV model represents the top-of-the-line.
Whether SsangYong is able to secure itself a strong place in the increasingly competitive Philippine market remains to be seen. But having proved itself no longer a novelty with the product it has created, it certainly deserves it.