Curbside Capsule: (Photo) Capturing My White Whale, the Ssangyong Chairman

ssangyong chairman 1

“The who what?” you may ask. And even those of you who know that Ssangyong is a South Korean manufacturer of pickups and SUVs might not have even heard of the Chairman, a large executive sedan based on the Mercedes-Benz W124 and first launched in 1997. I can’t blame you: it doesn’t get much more obscure than this. Sold in only a handful of markets outside South Korea, the Chairman was launched in Australia in 2005 and disappeared quietly in 2008. I can confirm at least one was sold in my city, and I’m almost certain that this is the very same Chairman that taunted me a few years back, always getting too far away before I could get a photo. It didn’t get away this time, although it did park in some light that was terrible for photographs!

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Ssangyong has peddled its wares in Australia for well over a decade now, and has enjoyed some niche success. Its first offerings were the Musso and Korando SUVs, powered by diesel engines sourced from Mercedes-Benz. They briefly became Daewoos before the Ssangyong nameplate reappeared, affixed to challengingly-styled SUVs like the Actyon, Kyron and Rexton. The troubled company later had a majority share bought by the Chinese SAIC, before being purchased by Indian Mahindra.

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Better Aussie photos courtesy of Jeremy G

So: niche automaker; not much of a brand image; making headway in SUV markets; no passenger cars offered. What does Ssangyong do next? They import their first passenger car, an AUD$56,990 luxury sedan! Sensible idea!

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1997-2004 Chairman

Powered by a 3.2 six-cylinder with 217hp and 228 ft-lbs, with a five-speed automatic, the Chairman actually launched with a higher list price than the base Ford Fairlane and Holden Statesman! Yes, it was fully-loaded with leather and power heated seats, among other luxury goodies, but at almost $60k who were they kidding?

ssangyong chairman interior

Photo courtesy of City Toyota

The interior was luxurious, roomy and utterly dated. The exterior styling looked vaguely reminiscent of its Mercedes ancestor, but also looked like it could have been one of the Mercedes’ contemporaries. And dynamically, the ride/handling compromise was what you would expect from a luxury sedan used to shuttle around executives in South Korea. Still, there was some basic Mercedes goodness still there, even if it was now a bit old.

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This generation of Chairman was sold all the way up until 2014 as the Chairman H, even though a new Chairman W (pictured) was launched in 2008. Riding atop an all-new, Ssangyong-designed platform, the Chairman W features a 3.6 V6 or a grunty 5.0 V8 with Mercedes’ 7G-TRONIC automatic transmission and optional all-wheel-drive. It is also sold in China as the Roewe 850, alongside an old Rover 75 (Roewe 750) and a redesigned Buick LaCrosse (Roewe 950).

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As for the old Chairman H, I have absolutely no clue who they were aiming at when they launched it in Australia. Whoever they targeted, they didn’t succeed: around 100 were sold over four years of sale. Those people who wanted maximum bang for their buck probably would have saved around $10k and bought a Hyundai Grandeur (Azera). But the Chairman is fascinating purely as a conversation piece. It’s a zombie Mercedes brought back to life, and if you’re prepared to deal with the potential drama of parts and maintenance, you can probably find a Chairman for dirt cheap.

Would you buy a used Chairman?