First drive: SsangYong Rexton
The SsangYong Rexton is a no-nonsense off-roader which fills the steadily growing gap at the lower end of the market. As cars like the Kia Sorento become steadily more premium – and expensive – those in need of an off-roader are becoming limited to smaller, crossover-style vehicles or searching for alternatives on the used market.
A massive improvement on the old model, the latest Rexton offers genuine off-road ability and space for seven, at a price lower than just about anything else in this sector. It's not as accomplished on road as some rivals, and nor does it have the badge appeal – but we suspect many buyers simply won't care, as they'll be more interested in its practicality and towing capacity for things like caravans and horse boxes.
The new Rexton doesn't share a lot with the outgoing model. The engine, formerly a Mercedes unit, is now a SsangYong-developed 2.2-litre unit, while the bodywork is all-new as well and has been penned by Italdesign.
The biggest changes take place on the inside, as the new Rexton is a world away from the old car. Where you'd previously find scratchy plastic, there's now quilted leather, real wood and soft-touch materials. There's also a new infotainment system to operate the car's generous interior equipment.
What's under the bonnet?
The Rexton only comes with one engine option, a 2.2-litre four-cylinder diesel. It only offers up 178bhp, which seems low for a car of this size, but 420Nm of torque means it's easily quick enough and it will cope with a full complement of passengers. It will also tow up to 3,500kg, making it great for those with hefty items to tow.
Though a six-speed manual gearbox is standard equipment, SsangYong expects barely any of its customers to go for this, and so the seven-speed Mercedes-sourced automatic will take most of the sales. It's relatively smooth and unobtrusive, though taking manual control isn't as easy as it should be – rather than steering-wheel mounted paddles, there's a switch mounted on the side of the gear selector.
What's it like to drive?
Drive the Rexton hard and the handling soon starts to show its weak points. The Rexton is prone to understeer, and leans heavily in spirited cornering – something that more modern SUVs have managed to avoid.
The steering doesn't help either – it's over-assisted and doesn't inspire much confidence on faster roads. Keep the pace relaxed though and the Rexton gives a comfortable ride – as long as you avoid the 20-inch alloy wheels.
How does it look?
SsangYong's drafted in the famed Italdesign to style the Rexton, and the end result is a much more slick and cohesive effort than the previous car. Though it's not what you'd call good-looking, the bold chrome grill is a good addition, while the rear looks a bit like the Porsche Cayenne.
The sides are less successful, with overly glitzy polished wheels on top-spec models and an awkward styling line over the rear arches.
What's it like inside?
The interior is far better than any SsangYong that's gone before. Rather than an awkward, third-party infotainment system, the brand's own infotainment screen is fully integrated into the centre console. It works well, as does the high-res display in between the dials, which controls driving functions on the move.
Base models get cloth upholstery, but mid and top-spec cars have leather, and all cars have a classy wood finish on the dash, centre console and doors.
Apart from some scratchy plastic around the air vents, material quality is easily on a par with offerings from Kia and Hyundai, though it's nowhere near up to the standards of a Land Rover
What's the spec like?
Even the lowest-trim cars come with a wealth of equipment for their price. As standard you'll find cruise control, climate control, automatic headlights and wipers, electric mirrors, and all-round parking sensors.
The safety equipment is even better, with autonomous braking, front collision warning, lane departure warning, traffic sign recognition and a whole suite of off-road aids all thrown in as standard.
The options list is limited to just paint and a tow bar, so you'll have to stick to the three generously equipped trim levels if there's a certain bit of kit you're after.
The upper-middle classes will not be tempted out of their Range Rovers and into the SsangYong Rexton, but for those who aren't so badge-conscious the Rexton's mixture of go-anywhere ability, a spacious interior and plenty of equipment for the budget price tag is pretty compelling. Considering the soft crossovers you'd otherwise get for the money, the Rexton's flaws seem easier to overlook.
Model as tested: SsangYong Rexton ELX auto – 7 seat
Price as tested: £34,000
Engine: 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel
Max speed: 115mph
CO2 emissions: 218g/km