The SsangYong Rexton is a big, budget off-roader which feels cheap and crude by modern standards

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The Ssangyong Rexton is a big, old-fashioned four-wheel-drive SUV that will appeal to those who would not or could not consider the more refined alternative of a modern ‘soft-roader’, whether through a dogged determination not to follow the herd or because of enforced financial limitations.

SsangYong’s relaunch in the UK, with the appointment of a new importer, means the Rexton has also received a specification makeover and is now presented in a clear, two-tier trim hierarchy – S, available with a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic gearbox, and EX, driven here, which is take-it-or-leave-it auto only. 

Equipment is generous and compensates for crudeness elsewhere

Power still comes from a version of Mercedes-Benz’ previous-generation 2696cc five-cylinder CDI diesel engine producing 163bhp and 250lb ft of torque while consuming a claimed 30.1mpg on the combined cycle (32.8mpg for the manual S version) and emitting 250g/km of CO2 (dropping to 229g/km for the manual).

The Rexton is a crude device by modern standards — not least those set by its domestic rivals Kia and Hyundai – but it is still up to serving as an effective workhorse for those able to accept its compromises. It remains a proper off-roader, complete with a pukka four-wheel drive system, decent ground clearance and reasonably effective traction control.

That Merc-derived engine remains the highlight of the dynamic experience, delivering decent urge and driving smoothly via the standard five-speed autobox and accompanied by a gravelly resonance in the cabin. 

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Refinement levels are where the Rexton feels furthest off the pace, both in terms of the road and wind noise that gets into the cabin, but also the constant heaving motions bequeathed by its old-fashioned underpinnings. And while the ride never settles down, the feel-free steering acts to discourage any attempt at enthusiastic progress, which perhaps isn’t such a bad thing.

This isn’t a trendy, modern SUV, then, but a simple, traditional off-roader. Most disappointing is the low-speed ride that thumps around town. Up the pace though and things improve, the Rexton lolloping along in a relaxed manner. The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is very light and offers little communication, but points the Rexton faithfully. Nevertheless, it’s a reminder of just how talented modern SUVs are at replicating a car-like experience.

Standard kit is generous in both S and EX trims, with the EX model only bettering the S with the addition of full leather trim and an electric sunroof, but a fully-specced Rexton also seems to miss the point of such a value-orientated car: electrically adjustable seats and automatic windscreen wipers feel slightly out of place in a vehicle like this.

The Rexton undercuts established rivals but it’s hard not to conclude its kitchen-sink specification is missing the point of such a value brand and as such the Rexton doesn’t quite deliver either as a bargain-basement workhorse or faux-luxury SUV. It has a certain charm and appeal, but it’s unlikely that it will be enough to snare too many buyers given the competitiveness of the SUV segment.

Ssangyong Rexton 2003-2013 First drives