By Jonathan Crouch
Want a large SUV that can walk the walk as well as talking the talk? What about one you probably aren't familiar with, SsangYong's Rexton W? If you're secure enough in yourself not to care too much about badge equity and want a large, capable, well equipped seven-seat 4x4 from the 2013 to 2015 era for sensible money, it makes a lot of sense.
Increasingly, large luxury SUVs are all about image, all about badge-equity, all about fashion. Or at least most of them are. Here's one that's more practically grounded - SsangYong's Rexton W.
Of all this South Korean brand's products, the Rexton is probably the one provoking most familiarity amongst UK buyers. That's because it's been around so long - since 2001 in fact, sold in first generation form until 2006 when a second generation version offered much the same kind of solid, practical proposition. And much the same aging 2.7-litre Mercedes diesel engine, which remained thirsty and smoky even after the Koreans tried to clean it up in 2010, meaning that the car couldn't even be sold here for most of 2013 because the powerplant wasn't Euro 5-compliant.
Late in 2013 though, the Rexton returned, this time badged as the 'Rexton W', the end letter a designation for its 'Worldwide' remit, a sales challenge that was certainly helped by the fact that this much improved car was now equipped with the key thing it had always needed - a properly modern efficient diesel engine. This 2.0-litre Euro 5-compatible e-XDi unit was all SsangYong's own, a powerplant that kept the torque and pulling power of its predecessor while adding lower running costs and greater refinement. At the same time, the brand updated this car's interior, smartened the looks and added extra equipment, all part of a package of changes that in the Rexton W, brought us a far more modern, up-to-date product.
Of course, the Rexton model line's core values didn't change. So this car still towed better than most of its competitors. It was still better suited than many of them to really rough off roading. And it was still built to out-last you. On paper, it all added up to one of the best value, the most capable and the most practical 7-seat large SUVs on the market. In the 2013 to 2015 period though, SsangYong remained an unfamiliar brand in the UK and buyers were wary, so this Rexton W remains a relatively rare sight on our roads. In early 2016, this car's 2.0-litre e-XDi diesel engine was replaced by a more efficient, more powerful 2.2-litre unit and the car continued on sale badged simply as the 'Rexton'.
What You Pay
What You Get
This car certainly smartened up its act in Rexton W form. A neater chromed grille framed by projector headlamps gives this SsangYong a much more contemporary look. It certainly isn't one immediately suggestive of a budget brand.
Moving down the chunky flanks, there are smart alloy wheels - 18-inchers on plusher versions - and a prominent 'Rexton W' badge before you get to a tail section where the changes over the old model are less obvious. As before, the chunky rear lights, wrap-around glasswork and neat roof spoiler remain. Underneath it all though, is the thing that counts. The kind of tough ladder-framed chassis that all big SUVs used to have before they because all city-slick, bling and ineffectual off road. Yes, it sets this car back behind car-like monocoque-based rivals on-tarmac, but for heavy duty use, there's not much to beat it.
And at the wheel? Well a proper off roader should have a properly commanding driving position - as this one does. There's a big, imposing leather-trimmed steering wheel too: this is certainly old-school SUV motoring. But then in some ways that's rather refreshing. SsangYong wasn't trying for the last word in design elegance here, though having said that, efforts were made to smarten up the cabin of this Rexton W, notably with an aluminium-look finish, applied liberally across the centre console featuring LCD read-outs that can be hard to read in direct sunlight. There are a few more soft-touch materials too than previous models featured too, though not enough to detract from the 'built to last' feel. And storage for the paraphernalia of everyday life? Well it's true that the door pockets and the glovebox could be a little bigger but overall, there's plenty of room for your odds and ends - and even a special compartment for your sunglasses.
And in the second row? Well for the kind of budget asking figures you'll be paying here, you'd expect something pretty cramped. Instead, what you get is a car that, thanks to a wheelbase some 30mm longer than a Toyota Land Cruiser costing nearly twice as much, offers decent space for two or three folk, even though the seats themselves don't slide or recline. A nice touch that many rival products overlook is the provision of reading lights here that'll be welcome on longer motorway trips.
That long wheelbase means there's room for third row seating too, though some original buyers chose to delete the extra chairs from the specification of their cars so as to increase boot space. As with most large SUVs, these rearmost chairs are really only meant for children thanks to the tiny footwell you get. That's due to the high floor necessitated by the four wheel drive underpinnings.
And boot space? Well, with all seven seats upright, you'll not be surprised to hear that there isn't that much of it - just 104-litres. Still, that dramatically increases of course when you push these chairs neatly into the floor (though unfortunately, you have to remove the headrests first). With the second row folded too, a very reasonable 1,338-litres of space is opened up - around 35% more room than you'll get with a rival Toyota LandCruiser.
What to Look For
The Rexton W offers a decent blend between rugged engines and no-nonsense componentry. Even after being subjected to quite arduous off-roading, this SsangYong can come through unscathed. That said, do check the wheelarch liners for rust-inducing punctures make sure the alloy wheels haven't been mangled. Get under the car and take a look at the suspension and exhaust for signs of damage. The car should not pull to one side or the other as this can be a sign of steering damage and groaning sounds while cornering can spell a damaged differential.
The Rexton W has proven reliable and the 155PS e-XDi200 2.0-litre diesel engine is a tough unit; just keep an eye on oil levels once a month. As with all 7-seat SUVs, look for signs of child damage in the interior: as ever, stains and scratches are a good negotiating point. The interiors are also fairly indestructible but the metallic plastic finishes can quickly lose their lustre.
(approx based on a 2014 Rexton W SX 2.0) SsangYong parts aren't too expensive, given that it's a low volume importer. You'll need to set aside around £180 for a starter motor and £140 for an alternator with tyres costing around £90 per corner. A battery should cost just over the £100 mark. Front brake pads should be no more than around £20 a set and brake discs can be had for around £70 a pair.
On the Road
Modern SUVs are usually marketed as being very 'car-like'. This one isn't. Climb up into the commanding driving position and, rather refreshingly, it feels like exactly what it is, a tough, solidly-built go-anywhere 4x4 that isn't frightened of a bit of hard work. The Rextons we've driven in the past have always been like that, but this one also added a layer of sophistication to its driving manners that was missing before. And SsangYong's own 2.0-litre e-XDi diesel engine is a lot more refined than the rattly old 1990s-vintage Mercedes lumps used in previous models.
We wouldn't want you to assume from this that the South Korean brand turned this car into some kind of BMW X5 or Mercedes M-Class rival. It didn't - nor did it ever wish to. Those models have passenger car-like monocoque chassis and air suspension set-ups that would compromise this one in extremis. The point we're trying to make though, is that with this Rexton W, SsangYong narrowed the gap to big SUVs of the modern era whilst retaining the kind of go-anywhere practicality that most of them could only dream of - and did so at value pricing. Pitch a Rexton W into a corner and you'll notice the rather over-assisted steering and yes, there'll be plenty of lean and understeer. Not significantly more though than you'd expect to get in, say, a Mitsubishi Shogun or even a pricey Land Rover Discovery from this era.
Though the e-XDi engine puts out a relatively modest 155PS, the performance isn't that far off a Disco either, mostly thanks to the useful 360Nm of torque you get from this one, the grunt delivered low down in the rev range just where you need it from as little as 1,500rpm. It's perfectly adequate to shift this car's hefty 2.1-tonne kerb weight and is the main reason why this car can offer such a useful 3-tonne towing capability. True, that's a touch less than a Discovery or a Shogun, but then those cars are much pricier than this one. More relevant is the fact that a closer rival like Kia's Sorento or Hyundai's Santa Fe will only tow 2,500kgs. It all means that this SangYong will make light work of hauling large caravans, horse boxes, boats or work trailers.
It's not precious about getting up to its axles in mud either. You'd hesitate to take an X5, an Audi Q7 or an M-Class seriously off road and even if you did, you'd constantly be worrying about damaging the thing. There's none of that here. The tougher the terrain, the better the Rexton likes it thanks to its solid ladder-framed chassis and heavy duty low ratio 4WD set-up that splits the torque equally between front and rear axles to provide all round traction and ensure optimum grip even in the most challenging conditions. Steeply undulating terrain is no problem either thanks to an approach angle of 28-degrees, a departure angle of 25.5-degrees and a ramp break-over angle of 22.5-degrees.
But of course, most of the time, you're going to be attacking the school run rather than the Rubicon Trail and the paved road, as we've already suggested, is an environment that did prove to be a little alien to earlier Rexton models. Providing you don't try and throw it about too much, this one's much more comfortable travelling on tarmac, certainly more so than you'd expect a hefty 4.7m long, 1.9m wide SUV to be. The decently sized 11.7m turning circle helps here. For this kind of motoring, we'd really recommend that you try and ignore the 6-speed manual gearbox of the standard version and try for a car fitted with the Mercedes-sourced T-Tronic automatic gearbox. This unit slurs its way comfortably through the rev range, though does show its age in delivering only five-speeds at a time when some auto SUVs boasted eight or nine ratios. Still, you don't notice that in the way you would with a more dynamically-inclined car-like 4x4. What was more immediately obvious to us on first acquaintance with this car was the e-XDi engine's refinement - a huge improvement on the previous tractor-like 2.7-litre Mercedes unit and every bit as good as far more expensive rivals.
Let's get down to the facts here. There is no other properly capable large SUV in the same price bracket as this one. If you want something really comparable with seven seats that can tow as much or go as far off the beaten track, then you'll need to pay around 30% more for a Mitsubishi Shogun - or nearly twice as much for a Land Rover Discovery or Toyota LandCruiser. This basic point appears to have been ignored by most reviewers who seem to insist on comparing this SsangYong to rivals not capable of even thinking about tackling the tough tasks this Rexton will take in its stride.
Yes of course the proper tough ladder-framed underpinnings necessary to achieve this mean that this car won't tackle the tarmac twisties like a BMW X5 - but then no SUV that's this big and practical can do that. Approach a drive in a Rexton remembering this, with expectations based around the things this car has been designed to do, and you're likely to be very satisfied with what it delivers.
And what it delivers is sheer family-sized mud-plugging capability for the kind of money that otherwise would buy you nothing more than what? Something like a diesel automatic Volkswagen Golf. But of course, that's not the kind of comparison that most potential buyers will have in mind. Having been sensible enough to seek out and consider this car in the first place, they'll be looking at it as an alternative to a used Discovery or LandCruiser. SsangYong says it actively encourages potential Rexton W customers to do that, confidently expecting this car's more refined and efficient e-XDi engine to swing things in their favour.
It's a no-nonsense approach - but in the pretentious age we live in, also in many ways rather a refreshing one. Old school virtues then, from Korea's oldest and most experienced brand. Just the way loyal SsangYong buyers want it.