SSANGYONG may still seem like one of the new motor distributors in South Africa but, in fact, the brand has been active in the local market for eight years. The first model was the Musso 602, followed by the Korando. More recent arrivals are the double-cab Musso Sports, and the flagship model of the current line-up, the Rexton 4x4 SUV. Released on the market in November 2002, the Rexton has recently been aesthetically and mechanically rejuvenated. And one of the interesting offerings is the top-of-the-range 2,7-litre turbocharged diesel version with automatic transmission, the subject of this test.

Although the petrol-engined E320 EL Exec boasts more power, it costs less than this oil burner. But the 270 turbodiesel is still a powerful engine, developing peaks of 121 kW and 340 N.m, a full 33 kW and 90 N.m more than the cheaper TD290 EL model.

The styling is unusual to say the least. The frontal aspect is futuristic looking, with a somewhat menacing Mad Max appearance. The headlight lenses shroud all the light units except the foglamps, which are mounted lower down below the one really overdone frontal feature, a front bumper/wing that seems to have been designed to appeal to American tastes. It does duty instead of a bullbar, which would impede airbag deployment in the event of an accident.

Side-on, there is a small change that does much to improve the overall styling flow, namely the omission of the vertical ribs previously moulded into the plastic side cladding, as well as the radial ones that embellished the wheelarches. Instead, the cladding is now adorned with chrome strip inserts. Again, an unnecessary feature, but some may feel that this complements the chrome-slatted grille and the large, chromed “Rexton” logos emblazoned front and rear.

By contrast, an aluminium-coloured strip features on the tailgate. Whereas the rear end is more conventional than the front, an oversized spoiler at the top of the tailgate is another incongruous touch. This is so large that it may even create some downforce at speed – not that downforce is needed on a vehicle tipping the scales at just over 2,1 tons. A high-level brake light is integrated into this spoiler.

The imposing size of the Rexton indicates lots of interior space, and there is ample, high-mounted, seating for up to seven people. The seats are well designed and look sporty in their black leather trim, with attractive “R” logos embroidered into the backrests. Seat adjustment is electric for the driver and includes squab tilt, with manual adjusters doing duty on the other seats. Front headrests, too, are angle adjustable. Legroom is good in the front and centre, with headroom to match. Whereas the centre row of seats is split 60:40, the rearmost seat is of the bench type, folding into the floor when not required. Entry to the rear necessitates collapsing and folding either of the centre seats forwards. While the rear bench is wide, it is positioned close to the floor, so that there is minimal leg support. This is uncomfortable for adults, less so for children.Thirsty passengers are very well catered for by a plethora of drinkholders.

The load area is set higher than expected, due to the full-sized alloy spare wheel mounted underneath, and the need to accommodate the rear seats when folded away. Luggage space with all seats in use is only 96 dm3, barely enough for grocery shopping, but with the rearmost seats folded flat, a sizable 440 dm3 is available, expanding to 1 360 dm3 of full utility area. The tailgate window can be opened independently for loading small parcels. A hidden-from-view storage tray is situated in the floor behind the two rearmost seats. This contains moveable partitions for securing small objects such as cameras.

Quality, fit and finish of the facia and controls are good, though a few of the imitation walnut inserts did not perfectly match those of adjoining panels. A facia-top display offers a number of distractions. One feature, no more than a gimmick, is a series of bars that flash at differing frequencies according to the speed of the vehicle. Much better to simply keep an eye on the large, clear speedometer. More useful are the compass (which needed calibrating) and altimeter (operating on barometric pressure).

The sound system is clearly laid out, with large, easily identified buttons. A cassette player is included with the radio and CD, and the centre console storage bin is large enough to hold a number of CDs and tapes. The steering wheel has tidily integrated sound system control buttons for hands-on-the-wheel tuning.

Other features are electrically foldable side mirrors, seat memory settings for the driver, and adjustable headlights. Strangely for an automatic vehicle with so many standard features, no cruise control is fitted. The doors will lock automatically, but only once 50 km/h has been exceeded.

Performance, considering the mass, is quite satisfactory. Zero to 100 km/h in 13,39 seconds is sufficient to cope with day-to-day rushing around, and a top speed of 183 km/h is more than is required. Sound levels are well muted at speed, but the engine does make the usual clattery sounds at low speeds, particularly when cold.

The gearbox, like the engine, comes courtesy of Mercedes-Benz and is a “T Tronic” design, with manual changes effected by nudging the lever to the left to downshift, or to the right for upshifts. Once the maximum allowable revs have been reached, the 'box will make the decision on your behalf to change up to the next gear. Shifts are smooth, but from standstill there is too great a delay between flooring the accelerator pedal and getting under way. This can cause nervous moments when taking a gap in fast moving traffic, and also added some time to our standing start acceleration sprints. Once the turbo has built up pressure, the SsangYong changes its tune and one feels the full 340 N.m of torque rapidly making up the lost ground.

A winter setting, selected with a console-mounted switch, eliminates first gear on take-off to reduce the chance of wheelspin in very slippery conditions. The other position is marked “S”. This does not stand for “sport”, but “standard”. Yet another unusual extra is two reverse gears. The higher ratio is selected by using the “winter” setting, and will result in lower revs and, again, reduced wheelspin.

Braking was not impressive. There was a fair amount of nose-dive, and the average stopping time from 100 km/h to zero in our 10-stop emergency braking test was 3,4 seconds.

The fuel gauge spent some time stuck at the full mark, giving an impression of outstanding fuel consumption, but once below threequarters, the rate of fall accelerated, with overall consumption working out to a still-respectable 10,95 litres/100 km. The ride is excellent on smooth roads, but some chassis shake is evident over rough surfaces, and bumps are transmitted through to the cabin. Handling, on the other hand, is merely acceptable. Although some body roll would occur on entering a corner, once settled, the Rexton would sail through with reasonable confidence.

Off-road work showed that the four-wheel drive system with low range is up to the task and, with the automatic gearbox, high range will cope in most situations, though for more strenuous stuff one has to select low range. Switching from two- to four-wheel drive is achieved by pressing a button on the facia, and this can be done at speeds of up to 70 km/h. When engaging low range, the vehicle should be stationary.

Minimum ground clearance is 200 mm, with the neatly integrated running boards being the first items to touch ground on traversing steep mounds. Safety is enhanced by the provision of four dual-stage airbags, pre-tensioning seatbelts, side impact beams, ABS with EBD, and traction control.

Test summary

A large and spacious vehicle with seating for seven, the Rexton has an imposing appearance and impressive performance, sluggish take-off notwithstanding. It also has its fair share of comfort features plus a few gimmicks. It should suit larger families who like to explore 4x4 territory. As with most vehicles filled with a predominance of seats, if all are in use, a trailer may be required for handling the luggage. Although the looks are controversial, heads often turned for a second glance. Included in the price is a three-year/60 000 km maintenance plan that will add motoring peace of mind.

Original article from Car