It is more than a little ironic to think of a carmaker that traces 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 Motor.
When I was offered a test drive of SsangYong’s newest compact SUV, the Tivoli, a couple of weeks ago, I have to admit I was a little skeptical. Having spent the best years of my life dealing with BMW, taking the helm of a vehicle from a company that 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.
I was pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong in the end, but based on the company’s history, my skepticism wasn’t entirely unwarranted from the outset. Founded in 1963 as the Ha Dong-hwan Motor Co.—the result of a merger of two older Korean companies—the firm 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 (Shanghai Automotive Industry Company), an unhappy marriage that ended in a case in Korean courts in which SAIC 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 car market, I realize that not every car is a BMW (or an Audi or a Mercedes or a 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, and muted noise from the engine and the outside world.
On all counts, SsangYong hit the mark with its well-behaved Tivoli crossover. The stylish, well-built five-seater excels in Manila’s nerve-racking stop-and-go traffic. And while it will never be mistaken for a sports car, it has credible performance on the highway. With attractive niceties such as a manual sport mode for the automatic transmission, self-folding rear-view mirrors, electronic locks, and easy-to-use vehicle information and entertainment center, which my nine-year-old son correctly identified as a version of an Android tablet (the care put into the design of which indicates an admirable focus on quality and practicality).
Whether SsangYong is able to secure itself a strong place in the increasingly competitive Philippine market remains to be seen. But having proven itself no longer a novelty with the product it has created, it certainly deserves it.