Anyone of a certain age will remember SsangYong. Apart from a name that read like a typo, it was infamous for slapping on a German three-pointed star on its vehicles in the late 1990’s to early 2000’s. It died a natural death, whimpering out of existence as extinct as the animal namesake of one of their nameplates. That is, until now.
Hoping that lightning will strike twice, Berjaya Automotive Philippines has taken on the distributorship of the maligned Korean brand, aiming to turn it into a left-field choice for Filipino motorists. “Why drive the same [expletive] cars? It’s about time Filipinos drive something different,” quipped a straight-talking Mr. Dave Macasadia, SsangYong Berjaya Motor Philippines (SBMP) Managing Director. And while Mr. Macasadia channeled his inner Rody Duterte, his products were walking the talk as they made their way from Manila to Bataan and back. And you know what? They’re as straight talking as he is.
First up is the Korando, SsangYong’s compact crossover offering. Finished in the plainest color possible, the aptly named Silent Silver, it passes the aesthetics test with its clean and timeless design. The curvy crossover is penned by Giogetto Giugiario and as such, relies on silent confidence rather than aggressive lines and gashes to win approval. That said, with the exception of the “Sswan Logo”, it does look like a standard crossover—no complaints here.
The step-in height is on the high side, but once aboard, the interior echoes the exterior: clean, curvaceous, and somewhat plain. The single best thing in here is the execution of the wood grain accents. Not only does the hue work well with the Korando’s all-black interior, but the matte finish does wonders to avoid looking cheap. The rest of the interior is well finished with some soft-touch materials present. Ergonomically, it’s solid with a driving position that’s upright but comfortable. The controls are easy to master. The only exception is the touch screen infotainment which washes out in any lighting condition. Still, you have to hand it to them for providing things like video playback and even smartphone mirroring.
Driving the P 1,390,000 2.0 AWD ELX, this Korando comes packing heat courtesy of a 2.0-liter CRDi motor with 175 horsepower and 360 Nm of torque. These figures already look great on paper and on the road, they are even more so. Cruising on long stretches of road is what the Korando does best. It’s comfortable, stable, and quiet. It scores high on refinement with a hint of wind noise the only indicator that you’re breaking the speed limit. The softly sprung suspension gives a well-mannered ride, at the expense of noticeable body roll during cornering. Nonetheless, it remains pointable and secure with its single Kryptonite being the non-linear brake feel.
Things get more adventurous with the first car swap of the day: the Rodius. Supposed to combine the ruggedness of an SUV with the spaciousness of an MPV, it can seat up to 11 people in certain configurations (the more luxurious ones have just 9 or 7 seats). You won’t mistake it for a UV Express though as it keeps its traditional rear swing, albeit large, doors as opposed to sliding ones. Named as a portmanteau of “Road” and “Zeus”, it rules the road with its massive size. Thankfully, the exterior has been designed in such a way that it hides all that girth while still keeping some of that SUV-ness.
Once you step inside though, there’s no mistaking the roominess of the Rodius. The expansive dashboard with its large center-mounted instrument panel reiterates that further. It takes a minute or two to adjust to the oddly placed gauges, but after a while you get used to it. The rest of the driving controls, from the steering wheel to the switches, stalks, and even the gear lever are all pretty much standard SsangYong fare. The generous front legroom is supplement by an equally roomy second row. The mid-grade EX model (P 1,490,000) features independently sliding and reclining Captain’s Seats making it possible to cross your legs in it, although the knees are slightly in a bent up position.
As a driving machine, the Rodius is surprisingly fast and agile than its size suggests. The 2.0-liter CRDi motor seems underpowered, but in truth, it’s well-suited to the task. The accompanying 5-speed automatic up- and downshifts quickly, keeping the 155 horsepower, 360 Nm of torque engine singing a happy tune. It’s perfectly suited for long, relaxed drives with its plush ride. With its all-around independent suspension (front Double Wishbones and rear Multi-links), it takes on any obstacle with aplomb. As expected, it needs more steering input to get it chucked into corners, but does accomplish its task of driving more like an SUV than a traditional MPV.
Easily, the biggest surprise is the entry-level Tivoli. Designed as an urban crossover, it’s equally at home tackling the highway back to Manila. Angular and expressive as the Korando is curvy and plain, it gives the biggest indication of what SsangYong can do. It’s the extrovert of the family, especially the decked out Sport R (P 1,080,000) with its two-tone black and red (you can opt for a white and black combination as well) paint job with high-gloss black 18-inch rims.
Inside, it carries the same two-tone mix with huge swathes of red leather accentuating the black plastics. It’s borderline bordello, but it works. The gauges reside in twin binnacles and the steering wheel has a flatted bottom. Ergonomics is solid too with all except the infotainment display getting top marks. Actually, the entire setup passes for a sports car, only the Tivoli offers something a sports car doesn’t: space.
Apart from its practical qualities, it’s also quite good on the road. The Tivoli is the athlete of the family, showing off its responsive steering and lithe reflexes at every curve and corner. It tends to understeer when you push it, but there’s no denying that there’s added fun behind the wheel. It does trade some plushness, but it’s only felt when going over the rough stuff. Powered by a 1.6-liter gasoline motor across the line-up, it takes more pedal pressure to coax the 128 horsepower, 160 Nm of torque engine to get going, but once it does, the pace is there. The 6-speed automatic provides enough ratios to maximize the engine, but in case you find it lacking it comes with switchable driving modes and a shifter-mounted manual override toggle switch.
Previewed during the drive is an extended version of the Tivoli called the XLV (pricing expected to be around ~P 1,300,000). It ups the practicality aspect by having a larger cargo hold at the expense of less interior flair. It’s also much more adept at long distance driving thanks to its 1.6-liter CRDi engine with 113 horsepower and 300 Nm of torque coupled to an all-wheel drive layout.
The road to mainstream success for SsangYong Philippines is a long and challenging one. The management knows that; after all, it’s the same sort of challenges the brand faced throughout its history, both locally and internationally. “SsangYong has been known for its resiliency over the years,” says Mr. Macasadia. “With over sixty years of manufacturing vehicles, SsangYong has evolved into a brand that dares to be different.”
And in this case, “different” need not stand for the oddball styling or poorly executed brand image. SsangYong Philippines knows they finally have world-class products in its arsenal. It’s still not in the same league as the Japanese just yet, but it’s getting there. There’s no denying the amount of continuous polish and refinement that goes into each new generation vehicle. Combine that with a new team, it’s easy to see that the curfew of mainstream brands looms near. It’s not going to happen overnight, but change is indeed coming. The question is: are you ready to drive different?