This is Ssangyong’s freshly-revised seven-seat SUV. An SUV we first at the 2016 Paris Motor Show in disguised LIV-2 Concept form. It was a design to showcase the development Ssangyong has made from its LIV-1 concept first shown at the 2013 Seoul Motor Show.
But this Range Rover-rivalling SUV (on size anyway) has a greater remit than to better the cars that went before, which were most notably old fashioned, which is to help build sales for the Korean manufacturer across the globe, with the bosses hoping to shift 10,000 Ssangyong vehicles in the UK and increase global production to 500,000 vehicles a year. It is also the yardstick by which the Rexton-based pick-up aimed at taking on the Ford Rangers, Mitsubishi L200s and Nissan Navaras of the world and the third generation Korando will be measured against.
Can the Rexton shed its woeful past?
The signs are promising. As this latest Rexton puts to bed the previously crude styling of the previous versions, even the last generation still proved uneasy on the eye. But the 2017 Rexton showcases all the design cues that made its smaller siblings, the Tivoli and Tivoli ELX charming, without eroding the big SUV's selling points of being a capable off-roader, built to last and available for relatively little outlay.
However, its not all good news as its squared-off rear haunches still offend the eye as much as the previous generations did, but this is at least a facelift moving very much in the right direction. The interior gets a brush up too; with more standard equipment added, presumably intended to close the gap to the Kia Sorento. Trim levels have been kept simple, with three to choose from - EX, ELX and Ultimate.
Entry-level cars get touches of chrome, skid plates, auto lights and wipers, rear LED lights and 17in alloys as standard on the outside, while inside there is cruise control, rear parking sensors, air conditioning and a 8.0in touchscreen infotainment system complete with smartphone integration, DAB radio, a rear-view camera and Bluetooth and USB connectivity. Upgrade to ELX and the Rexton gains dual-zone climate control, 18in alloy wheels, a Nappa leather upholstery, electrically adjustable front seats, and heated seats all round, alongside a 9.2in touchscreen infotainment system with TomTom sat nav and a 7.0in information display.
The range-topping Ultimate models gives buyers touches of luxury you would only come to expect of more expensive rivals, and even once you have dug through the options list - all for a snip at £37,500. There is a quilted leather upholstery, 20in alloy wheels, ventilated seats, HID headlights, ambient LED interior lighting and a 360-degree camera system as part of the package.
When we first met the Rexton, it was powered by a hand-me-down Mercedes motor; while the last generation used a 176bhp 2.2-litre diesel, which remains the same but produces a tiny bit more power than before but its more importantly its efficiency has been improved. As was the case before the Rexton is available with a six-speed manual or a Mercedes-sourced seven-speed auto.
That’s about as far under the skin as the modifications go. The Rexton’s body still sits on ladder frame – the smaller Korando, Tivoli and Tivoli ELX are all monocoques – and, while it defaults to driving the rear wheels for better economy, can still power all four the old fashioned way via a dash mounted dial. Despite being ditched elsewhere in the segment, low-range gearing remains a standard feature.
Is the Ssangyong Rexton a family SUV in the making?
There's no denying that, on the road, the Ssangyong feels a little archaic. The last equivalent body-on-frame car we tested was a decade-old Jeep Grand Cherokee, and the Rexton barely feels a generation removed from it. The uncanny body shimmy, like a jelly fish haphazardly tacked to an oak tabletop, is unmistakable on any surface, at any speed.
The ride isn’t ruinously bad – given time, you adapt (regress?) into the Rexton’s gambol, and merrily loll about with it – but anyone switching from a monocoque-bodied SUV will wonder at the untidiness of it all.
The steering follows suit; over assisted into weightlessness, it needs be cranked almost to a half-turn before it will finally oblige. A quicker setup or better directness would hardly be appropriate given the Rexton’s structural reluctance to swiftly change direction, but the logic of it doesn’t prevent every junction becoming a necessary blur of palmed on and palmed off steering wheel input.
It’s probably for the best then that you never approach one carrying too much speed. The 2.2 diesel isn’t the cheapest to run, with the manual returning an official 36.2mpg, which is 2.0mpg better than the auto.
Around you the interior is large and chunky and also stranded in the plastic and appearance of yesteryear. It’s reminiscent of the kind of low-rent Korean effort that Kia and Hyundai used to crank out before they invested their way to acclaim. Seats six and seven are clumsily packaged beneath a raised boot floor too, but in comfort and capacity, they are strictly for temporary accommodation.
Does the Rexton appeal to the mainstream?
Should you buy one? For the road? For the family? No. Cheaper than the opposition it might be, but the seven-seat Kia Sorento is easily worth the premium you pay over the price of the Ssanger. However, it’s worth mentioning that Ssangyong has apparently earned a decent reputation in agricultural circles, and – in a mud-caked equation – it’s a different story. Pause for a second to let the transfer case do its bit, and the Rexton, even on buttery road tyres, devours unmade countryside.
Its low-range capability, along with a manual function on the gearbox, is the open secret here, helped along by burly enough ground clearance, hill descent control and, of course, the basic ruggedness of the ladder chassis. The heavy duty nature of the latter also assists in towing applications, allowing the Rexton to pull 3500kg behind it – a whole 1500kg more than an automatic Sorento.
Tough, cheap and backed by an unlimited five-year warranty, the appeal to those who couldn’t care less about ride comfort or performance or interior niceties isn’t hard to fathom. And thought of as an outward bound tool – gristly and abused – it’s rather easy to like the Rexton.
Subaru, for all its current warts, built a whole brand on similar foundations. Ssangyong has time yet to do a better job of convincing the rest of us, a process that probably needs to began with the Tivoli range and, as we said at the beginning, the new Rexton is taking strides in the right direction. Better but not perfect yet.