Ok, hands up who would miss SsangYong if they gave up making cars? Hmmm. Direct democracy isn’t going to work here. So I’ll just talk trash about this ageing Eurasian and if there is a SsangYong enthusiast out there, let’s hear the other side of the story. Fairly unbalanced, as the tagline should say. You have been warned.
So this is a twenty-ish year old SsangYong Musso. Not too uncommon in these parts, but perhaps some of you may not be familiar with this version. This car was the result of SsangYong Motors’ joint-venture with Daimler, as we can literally see everywhere. I can’t blame them for flaunting that three-pointed star logo, but that does rob the car of any sense of its own identity.
The front end is not that bad, considering the era. Not sure if that Mercedes logo was always there, of whether it was put there by the Thai importer / distributor, Mercedes-Benz Thailand, to boost sales, or to make the Musso fit in better with the rest of their range. This probably lasted until the 1998 restyle. The tailgate’s M-B star with “Powered by Mercedes-Benz” might have lasted even longer. I’m pretty sure the Vietnamese and Malaysian Mussos I’ve seen have three-pointed stars here and there, too.
You would think they never would have tried pulling this stunt in the European market, and you’d be correct. But the sales literature always mentions the M-B technology, because that was the car’s biggest redeeming feature. For this was the first “all-new” SsangYong – and certainly the first SsangYong to be exported worldwide, but it wasn’t the first Ssangyong… let’s be charitable and say: “vehicle.”
The marque was formed out of two Korean automotive businesses, Keohwa, Ltd. and Dong-A Motor, that merged in 1983 and were then taken over by the SsangYong (“Double Dragons”) conglomerate in 1986. SsangYong soon buying out Panther Westfields and had a go at re-badging those for a bit. But the Korean factory’s bloodline was pure Jeep (with AMC or Isuzu engines), so a cut-price Cherokee was designed. In 1988, the first SsangYong for genuine civilian use was born. The Berlin Wall collapsed in embarrassment very soon after this flimsy, half-baked imitation SUV was foisted upon the world. At least, that’s one theory I’m willing to entertain.
In 1991, SsangYong hooked up with Daimler. It was a pact, not a takeover: Benz provided engines and transmissions, plus M-B dealerships in certain countries, SsangYong would design the shell and build the cars, as well as the engines (under license). Other than the 2.3 litre 4-cyl. petrol engine gracing our CC’s engine bay, the German partner’s OM601 and 602 (4- and 5-cyl.) Diesels, as well as 3.2 litre M104 straight-6 could power the Musso, though not all engines were available when the car hit the streets of Seoul, in the spring of 1993. Incidentally, Musso means “Rhinoceros” in Korean. Another instance where the acronym ‘WTF’ is most appropriate. They should just have called it “SsUV,” really.
Three years later, SsangYong followed that up with the all-new 2nd generation Korando, a small two-door 4×4 that looked like the love child of a Suzuki and a series 1 Morris Minor, which sound nicer than what it actually looked like. Compared to the old Jeep-based Korando, this was cheap and (thanks to M-B) reliable enough to increase SsangYong’s market penetration. But where were they selling these things, anyway?
In a word: anywhere. The Benz tie-up allowed SsangYong to use many of M-B’s in-country dealer networks, opening doors and wallets throughout the developing world, but also a number of European markets, such as Spain, Iceland, the UK and most of Eastern Europe. SsangYong was a latecomer, but the world was hungry for cheap 4x4s, especially one with Mercedes mechanicals. I picked 1997 for our feature car, but it could be a couple years off either way.
It’s an important year: the ’97 Asian Financial Crisis hit the Korean chaebols very hard and it killed vehicle sales. The SsangYong mothership broke up and sank in a matter of months. SsangYong Motor, one of the conglomerate’s most promising and valuable industrial assets, fell into the lap of Daewoo, who promptly rebadged the SsangYong range and put their trademark waterfall grille on the Musso.
This was only an eclipse: SsangYong regained their independence in 2000 — as the Daewoo conglomerate also tanked — and continued to grow. Ssangyong had raided Daimler’s parts bin, helping themselves to the W124 unibody, several transmissions and other stuff to create a more complete range, often with highly questionable results in an attempt at creating a brand identity. But in Africa (where I was Chairmaned around, in a car like the one above, about a decade ago – my only first-hand SsangYong moment), the Middle-East or East Asia, SsangYong’s low price and high bling content was proving to be a winner. Even in Europe, SUV sales were healthy. In 2004, Shanghai’s SAIC bought a controlling share and steered the company into receivership within five years. (The 2008 Financial Crisis did help a bit…) By 2011, SsangYong was bought by Indian automaker Mahindra.
Through it all, the Musso went on, but the design was starting to look pretty old by the early years of the new century – and not in a gets-better-with-age, Mercedes G-Wagen sort of way. With an admirable sense of continuity, the Musso ended as badly as it started. Korean production was halted in 2005, but the Musso had gone native: they were built in China, Iran, Indonesia, Vietnam… and finally, where Korean designs go to die, in Russia. The TagAZ RoadPartner, built on the shores of the Sea of Azov, went through the obligatory facelift, making it look a bit like a contemporary GAZ product. But that hunched beltline and those fender bulges still give it away. Production ceased in 2011.
So the 3rd or 4th largest Korean automaker (sounds like something out of Flight of the Concords) that is SsangYong is still with us today, a quarter century and quite a lot of bankruptcies since the Musso debuted. Their global image is still abysmal – near the Proton category, though I don’t know how they’re perceived domestically. European sales hit a peak in 2006-07, then collapsed. The current trend is going upward again, but with only 0.1% share of the EU market, SsangYong still has a very small footprint. Asian sales remain strong, especially now that the marque is established in China. A North American assault is not unlikely in the near future, according to rumour.
And as regards the interior, judging by this car, it was just as nasty (yet durable) as the rest of the car. And that is the issue: SsangYong has proven incredibly resilient. By any logic, a marque with such a muddled identity peddling garish cut-price Benz leftovers should have died out with the DaimlerChrysler era. Ssilly nameplates with overtones of Il Duce and Mao Ze Dong could have been reborn as the Mahindra Ceausescu, the Daewoo Generalissimo or the FAW-Roewe-Chery Thingamajig Deluxe by now. We’re missing out on potential belters here.
SsangYong’s current range seems to have gone a bit more mainstream, which is a risky strategy. The new Rodius is less odious, but the Actyon, the Kyron and the Chairman are, respectively, k-put, six feet under and receiving the last rites. The Chairman W series is still technically available, but with only 517 domestic sales in 2017, the old girl is not going to go on much longer. The Tivoli model is the current breadwinner – over 55,000 domestic sales last year, i.e. about half of all SsangYong sales. I have no interest in these cars whatsoever. Go ahead and google them, I’ll wait. Who would buy one?
So yes, delete you account, SsangYong. Bad name, ugly cars and zero charisma. Ditch the Mercedes heritage, get rid of that stubborn case of Rodius Atrocius (apply once three times a day for one week, come back and see me if it doesn’t go away), facelift the rest and just become one with your Indian savior. Mahindra sounds way better. Anything else would, too. Keep the SS-DoubleDragons badges for the domestic market if you must, but please, keep your horrid styling and hissing Ssurname off the rest of the world’s lawn.
Curbside Capsule: (Photo) Capturing My White Whale, the Ssangyong Chairman, by William Stopford
Wordless Outtake: SsangYong Korando – Not Your Soccer Mom’s SUV, by Johannes Dutch
Obscure Rebadges From Around The World: Part 2, by William Stopford