WHAT'S a car company to do when it has endured court-controlled receivership, worker strikes and a reputation for producing some of the ugliest automobiles ever to make it to the showroom?
If you're SsangYong, the answer seems to be to belatedly launch the all-new Korando compact SUV and give yourself every chance of success.
But how? For starters, ask car designer of the century, Giorgetto Giugiaro, to style the body.
Secondly, offer Australians a tempting entry-level drive-away price tag of $27,990 to seriously undercut its turbo diesel-engined compact SUV rivals by $5690 on list price.
The Korando's launch is the dawning of a new age for South Korean SsangYong – now under Indian Mahindra & Mahindra ownership – and it could prove the start of a revival in Australia after somewhat of a horror story these past few years.
But will it work? There's no doubt there's some brand image repair work to do by SsangYong, but the Korando has appealing good looks, an impressive specification list and it offers a huge step forward in driving dynamics over previous efforts.
Then there's a five-year, 100,000km warranty, which goes some way to convincing Australian buyers that SsangYong backs itself to have built a reliable machine capable of taking on its more-established competition.
I sampled the Korando S model ($27,990) with front-wheel drive, and the Korando SX ($31,990) all-wheel drive at a launch along Sydney's city streets and in the Blue Mountains. A third variant – the SPR AWD – is the range topping auto-only Korando, but it wasn't available to test as the Aussie-made six-speed autos won't be available until late March.
Step into the Korando for the first time and the general cabin feel is pretty good. You sit high as in most SUVs, with the seats best described as acceptable in their comfort level. You certainly don't sink into them and look forward to a long journey, but I have felt a lot worse.
For those wanting to move up from a small car and into a compact SUV such as this, the cabin feels pleasantly spacious, and two adults or three kids can comfortably occupy the rear bench.
Yes, you can expect the usual shiny hard plastics for the dashboard, but these are combined with some softer and more attractive finishes that certainly make the Korando the measure of its rivals.
Out on the road the 2.0-litre diesel engine clatter is rather obtrusive in the cabin: not in the manner of the old truck-sounding diesels, but these days we all expect almost silent running from our oil-burners, such is the current high standard.
Having spent a few days in the diesel-powered Mitsubishi ASX SUV straight after driving the Korando, the little Mitsi rival proved itself to have a more refined motor, but this is naturally reflected in its higher price.
On the road
After about four hours' driving on a variety of surfaces, the Korando revealed both strengths and weaknesses. Peak torque arrives between 2000-3000rpm when the turbo kicks in, and shoves along impressively when on-boost.
Below 2000rpm it's somewhat sluggish, but after getting used to the manual six-speed gearbox, keeping the revs in the sweet spot means it's a spritely little performer. Ideal, I'd say, as a city car for transporting the kids around in a zippy manner.
On the highway the Korando is well-mannered. I was able to sit on 100kmh at about the 2000rpm mark, and it always felt stable and perfectly able to absorb minor road imperfections. Body roll is okay but noticeable, and I never felt entirely connected with the car due to its sterile steering.
While it didn't cover itself in glory on such roads, when it hit the dirt tracks I was pleasantly surprised. The underside was well protected so the noise of stones hitting from below was minimal, and felt rather at home on the rough stuff. The AWD variant won't climb mountains, but handles dirt tracks far more comfortably than the vast majority of normal cars.
What do you get?
If you want to keep up with your rivals you have to offer plenty of goodies, and the Korando meets the challenge. As standard you get air conditioning, CD/MP3 with Bluetooth, USB and AUX ports, cruise control, leather steering wheel with controls and a trip computer.
All Korandos feature six airbags, ESP, hill start assist and a front and rear crash box. It also comes with intelligent electronic active head restraints and an emergency stop signal.
It's a busy sector, but the Korando should hope to pull away buyers of the Kia Sportage ($26,490), Hyundai ix35 ($26,990), Nissan Dualis ($24,990) or Mitsubishi ASX ($25,990).
As a compact SUV you shouldn't expect a huge amount of cargo space, and the Korando's short rear overhang doesn't help matters. That said, the boot space is rated at 486-litres making it greater than some of its rivals – Mitsubishi ASX and Subaru Forester included. The rear seats fold flat if required for a spacious and smooth storage area.
SsangYong quote a combined economy figure of 6.1 litres per 100km. As usual, manufacturer figures are a tad optimistic: I returned 8.2 litres/100km on my test drive, but that included a long stretch on dirt roads.
All ages should expect reasonable insurance costs, and it's hard to argue with SsangYong's excellent warranty on the Korando.
A SsangYong badge is hardly a cool one in Australia after its previous offerings, but the Korando is a big step towards improving this. An advertising campaign centred on the teen vampire craze actually works well.
While I won't pretend to have fallen in love with the Korando, or that it is a genuine match for its principal higher-priced rivals, the new SsangYong deserves to do well thanks to its tempting price tag.
You get plenty for your dollar here, and for that reason alone it should not be discounted, whatever your preconceptions of the SsangYong brand.
It seems well built, the ride is good in most situations and it is certainly a viable option.
Model: SsangYong Korando S / Korando SX.
Details: Five-door front-wheel drive (S) or all-wheel drive (SX) compact sports utility vehicle.
Engine: 2.0-litre inline four-cylinder turbo-diesel generating maximum power of 129kW @ 4000rpm and peak torque of 360Nm @ 2000-3000rpm.
Transmission: Six-speed manual (as tested) or six-speed automatic (available from late March 2011).
Consumption: 6.1 l/100km (S) or 6.4 l/100km (SX) with manual gearbox.
Emissions: 159g/km (S) or 169g/km (SX) with manual gearbox.
Bottom line: $27,990 (S); $31,990 (SX) drive-away with manual gearbox (add $2500 for automatic).
For more motoring check out Drive.com.au.
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