Our ‘Who or What’ series throws a bit of a curveball this time, because we are about to tell you about SsangYong – a badge that before long will be disappearing from forecourts.
SsangYong has been around for almost four decades as the least-known and – many might say – least successful Korean automotive brand, with the clumsiest name to pronounce. While Kia and Hyundai have mushroomed in size, profile and popularity with buyers, SsangYong has lurched from buy-out to virtual collapse, twice filing for receivership.
Yet the brand values of this maker, which is the oldest car manufacturer in Korea, make a lot of sense. It’s unashamedly a budget brand, specialising in utility vehicles with all-wheel-drive chassis. It makes SUVs and pick-ups for buyers who need real workhorses.
The latest almost collapse of SsangYong was as recently as December 2020 but the brand’s future could be much brighter, although maybe not under the same name. After a painful 18 months, Korean giant KG Group paid the equivalent of £620 million for SsangYong in mid-2022, and in March this year announced that the brand is to be relaunched at some point.
Exact details are yet to be publicly announced, but the name is likely to contain the KG brand. The SsangYong ‘double dragon’ logo, however, may remain.
So who or what is SsangYong?
Back in 1954, a company called Ha Dong-Hwan Motor Workshop was established in South Korea, making trucks, buses, and ‘special-purpose vehicles’ (basically 4x4s). Many were exported.
In 1974, the company co-founded a new outlet, called Shinjin Jeep, and as its name suggests producing versions of the famed American utility vehicle. Three years later, the Ha Dong-Hwan name was dropped in favour of Dong-A-Motor – this lasted until 1988 when the maker was acquired by industrial group SsangYong, whose name was applied to all its vehicles. The name means ‘double dragon’.
The next big move was in 1991 when a technical partnership was formed with Mercedes-Benz. New models were launched with proven Mercedes engines and other hardware under the bonnet, which helped raise the brand’s profile across Europe.
When did SsangYong launch in the UK?
The first new model with Mercedes input was the Musso SUV, with which SsangYong officially launched into the UK in 1994. The larger Rexton followed in 2001 but, during this period, SsangYong also went through several changes of ownership. It was first taken over by rival Korean brand Daewoo in 1997 and, for a while, all SsangYong vehicles were badged as Daewoos. SAIC Motor, the Chinese state-owned car company which now owns MG, took a 51% stake in 2004 but then ran into controversy, even accused of stealing SsangYong tech for its own vehicles.
Amid violent worker strikes, SsangYong went into receivership in 2009 and was then taken over by Indian giant Mahindra & Mahinda. One of the first new products in 2011 was the Rodius, a seven-seat MPV and for many observers one of the ugliest cars ever built. It proved popular with taxi operators, though.
SsangYong’s chequered history has continued and, as recently as December 2020, the company again filed for receivership. While seeking a buyer, a deal was signed with Chinese maker BYD Auto to develop the batteries for electric vehicles, with a view to SsangYong plotting a whole electric future.
A takeover bid by electric bus and truck maker Edison Motors followed but failed and, in June 2022, Korean giant the KG Group took the reins. It plans to relaunch SsangYong and drop its name – the company is now trading as KG Mobility but the next cars may simply wear ‘KGM’ badges.
What models does SsangYong have and what else is coming?
SsangYong currently offers a four-strong model range, the Tivoli, Korando and Rexton SUVs, and the Musso pick-up. Its target market of budget buyers shows in the reviews from the UK motoring media – the Korando scores highest in The Car Expert’s Expert Rating, but at only 54% as of September 2023. Reviewers generally praise the price, robustness and equipment levels of SsangYong vehicles but mark them down on comfort and quality.
The Tivoli is a small crossover, launched back in 2015 and updated in 2020. There’s also an extended body version called the Tivoli XLV – it offers more luggage space, but the styling looks awkward.
Next size up is the Korando. The latest generation of this mid-sized SUV appeared in 2019 and was widely praised as being a big step-up on its predecessor, earning the brand’s first five-star safety rating. But it’s also significantly more expensive than the previous generation.
The Korando is also the first SsangYong to go electric, with an EV version called the Korando e-Motion launched in 2022. However, availability has been patchy due to a lack of UK market supply.
The Rexton large SUV first appeared in 2001 and is today in its fourth generation. Launched in 2017 and lightly updated in 2021, it’s the biggest model in the line-up, with a 3.5-tonne towing capacity and space for seven occupants.
Finally the Musso, which today is a pick-up – the Musso SUV was last sold in the UK back in 2005. The current version was launched in 2018 and the model has remained popular with buyers who want a tough, powerful workhorse, but don’t have much to pay for one.
What’s coming next is open to question as the new owners get their feet under the table. The first new model will be the Torres, a mid-sized electric SUV designed to rival the likes of the Skoda Enyaq. It will be SsangYong’s second EV and its first designed with electric propulsion in mind, though in Korea the Torres is already on sale with combustion engines. We won’t be getting those versions – KG has already stated that the future is all about new technologies including EV platforms.
Where can I try a SsangYong car?
There are plenty of places to get in a SsangYong as the brand has a dealer network throughout the UK. However, beware of change – especially after the recent uncertainties and years of bouncing from one crisis to another, some dealers have certainly been tempted by the new options coming onto the market, especially the expanding Chinese brands.
Having said that, SsangYong is continuing to open new outlets, with four appointed so far in 2023 and an ambition to reach 80 outlets across the country by the end of the year.
Where makes SsangYong different to the rest?
It may not have anything like the reputation, or the size of other makes from Korea, but SsangYong beats them all in one respect – with a history stretching back to 1954, this is Korea’s oldest automotive manufacturer.
SsangYong today still firmly embraces a market that the bigger Korean names, Hyundai and Kia, have left behind – basic budget motoring. While the latest models are definitely much improved on predecessors, the SsangYong target buyer is still one with not a lot of money to spend. However Hyundai and Kia have benefited massively from moving upmarket – it will be interesting to see if SsangYong decides to go the same route under whatever its new name turns out to be.
SsangYong’s chequered history and history of crises might dissuade some buyers from considering its vehicles but the brand still has lots to offer those on a budget. True, these SUVs don’t have the refinement and quality of fit and finish that is typical of the majority of today’s market, but you do get a lot for your money in terms of equipment.
SsangYong vehicles are built to withstand all you can throw at them – true, go-anywhere off-roaders that particularly rural buyers will appreciate.
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