A quick trip to the beautiful jungles of the Corbett National Park gives us the perfect opportunity to get our hands dirty with the all new Ssangyong Rexton by Mahindra. What we found was quite surprising.
The world we live in today is constantly changing. If you buy any electronic consumer item – a camera, laptop, or smart phone for example – within a couple of months, if not weeks, a newer model comes out. When I was a kid, I didn’t have a cell phone – and I didn’t need one either. Now, you see little toddlers running around with iPad’s and portable Playstations – technology is everywhere. And change is not just subject to one area either – it applies to the entire world. Not too long ago, Korean carmakers bore the brunt of some cruel (but mostly funny) jokes from European car enthusiasts and journalists. And today, the company that was perhaps ridiculed the most is now one of the most prolific carmakers globally – care to take a guess as to which one that might be?
Flashback closer to home in the early 90’s, and the automotive industry in India was nothing to write home about. But, today, the Indian automotive industry is one of the most important markets in the world. The point that I’m getting to is that change is the only constant. Mahindra & Mahindra first started out as Mahindra and Mohammed, and Ssangyong, which is the 5th largest carmaker in Korea, was called Hadonghwan Motor Company. In their formative years, both these automotive biggies were doing the exact same thing – building Jeeps for the US Army. So, here we are in 2013, 2 years after Mahindra took over Ssangyong, and they’ve launched their best selling SUV in a market that has a growing demand for SUVs and luxury cars. Both companies have a significant amount of experience building SUVs, but to call the Rexton a luxury SUV is taking it a little too far. Market positioning wise, the Ssangyong Rexton will compete directly with the likes of the Toyota Fortuner and Mitsubishi Pajero Sport – and those are some tough rivals.
The redesigned Rexton is a breath of fresh air when compared to its previous model, which lacked the design, performance, and features to take on the big boys. Ssangyong has had a long association with Daimler, and the Ssangyong Rexton is based on the Mercedes-Benz M-Class platform, and uses engines manufactured under license from Mercedes. The fresh, new design of the Ssangyong Rexton has subtle hints of Mercedes design – especially the imposing front grille. It’s got good on-road presence, and the overall exterior design is appealing. The long bonnet swoops down towards large projector headlights, which give it a broad face that help it stand out in a crowd. To add further muscle, the Rexton has flared wheel arches, and large wheels and tyres – which also give it an impressive ground clearance of 252mm. It’s a good looking SUV, with a perfect blend of classic and modern – although the rear end seems at odds with the front.
On the inside, too, the Ssangyong Rexton can be quite pleasing. We had the RX7 variant, which meant that the interiors were decked out with plush leather seats, and the dual-tone beige and black colour scheme made it look up-market, while the metal grain accents added a bit of sporty feel. The dashboard is clean and cabin quite good ergonomically. There’s a touchscreen interface that looks a bit like an afterthought, but it houses a stereo, DVD player, Bluetooth connectivity, and satellite navigation. In terms of features, though, the Rexton really does rise above the competition – it’s also got full climate control with rear air conditioning vents, rear parking sensors, automatic headlamps, an 8-way adjustable driver’s seat, cruise control, rain sensing wipers, steering mounted controls with E-tronic shift buttons that allow you to change gears with the press of a button (which actually work) – and the list just goes on-and-on. In terms of space and comfort, however, the Rexton is generous only for the driver and front passenger. The rear seats can be a little tight – in terms of limited legroom and a low seating position – for anyone above 6-feet tall. Meanwhile, the last row of seats is fit only for a child. What you do get, however, is a massive loading area in the back.
The engine of the Ssangyong Rexton is, naturally, well engineered because it’s made under license from Mercedes – and so is the transmission. The Ssangyong Rexton sports a 2.7 litre, in-line 5-cylinder turbo diesel engine that pumps out 184bhp, and a very healthy torque output of 402Nm. The automatic transmission is a 5-speed affair, but the addition of a 6th ratio would have made cruising even more effortless. The power is impressive, and there’s little-to-no turbo lag at all regardless of where the rev needle points. In the lower rev range, it takes about a second to respond, but once it gets past 2,000rpm there’s plenty of grunt. And while the gearbox does respond in manual mode, the buttons just don’t provide the tactile and positive feel of physically changing gear – so, I found it better to leave it in full automatic mode.
The Rexton performed pretty well on the highway, but the steering is too light and unresponsive to really inspire confidence. In fact, at low speeds, you can even apply up to 45-degrees of lock in either direction and the car won’t budge from a steady state until you apply further steering input. Dynamically, the suspension setup doesn’t help either. While you feel bumps at low speeds, that’s not to say it’s uncomfortable. As a highway tourer, on the other hand, it’s a little too soft for comfort. My biggest complaint, however, were the brakes. Well, not the brakes themselves because they did the job of bringing the car to a halt when applied, but the brake pedal in fact – which provided not an ounce of feel. All of this gives you a sense that the Ssangyong Rexton could do with a little more cohesion in its engineering. That being said, it is very comfortable out on the road. And the seamless power from the engine goes a long way in making up for other drawbacks.
Plus, it is very refined out on the open road – with very little noise permeating the cabin. But what surprised me the most was when we took the car off-road. There are all sorts of jungle trails and riverbeds for you to have fun with an SUV in Corbett. Although you’re no longer allowed to take your car inside the park anymore – for good reason – luckily for me, I had the perfect person to show me around. My father is a huge Jeep fanatic, and he used to hunt all over the area many years ago, so he guided us to some spectacular locations. That catch is that there’s only one way to get there – you need a proper off-roader. And the Ssangyong Rexton proved to be one. It really can take on anything. We went through every possible off-road situation, and even my father who’s driven all kinds of SUVs through these jungles was very impressed with the car. The compliant suspension, wide footprint, high ground clearance, and four-wheel drive system, all come into their own off-road.
So, for about 22 lakhs you get a great looking car that’s comfortable, performs reasonably on road, and admirably off it. And for the Mahindra stable to offer a vehicle this refined means that times really are changing. I do feel, however, it’ll take the all-new Korando – which will be launched later this year – to make Ssangyong a real household name in India.