Ssangyong's small SUV surprise

The Ssangyong Tivoli (seen among the ruins of Villa Adriana in the ancient city of Tivoli) boasts a six-speed automatic transmission and HID headlamps with LED daytime-running lights.
The Ssangyong Tivoli (seen among the ruins of Villa Adriana in the ancient city of Tivoli) boasts a six-speed automatic transmission and HID headlamps with LED daytime-running lights.PHOTOS: SSANGYONG MOTOR COMPANY
The Ssangyong Tivoli (seen among the ruins of Villa Adriana in the ancient city of Tivoli) boasts a six-speed automatic transmission and HID headlamps with LED daytime-running lights.
The Ssangyong Tivoli (seen among the ruins of Villa Adriana in the ancient city of Tivoli) boasts a six-speed automatic transmission and HID headlamps with LED daytime-running lights.PHOTOS: SSANGYONG MOTOR COMPANY
The Ssangyong Tivoli (seen among the ruins of Villa Adriana in the ancient city of Tivoli) boasts a six-speed automatic transmission and HID headlamps with LED daytime-running lights.
The Ssangyong Tivoli (seen among the ruins of Villa Adriana in the ancient city of Tivoli) boasts a six-speed automatic transmission and HID headlamps with LED daytime-running lights.PHOTOS: SSANGYONG MOTOR COMPANY

Attractive Tivoli may well change fortunes of Korean carmaker

In Korean TV dramas, the protagonist always appears in the nick of time to save the day. For storied Korean carmaker Ssangyong Motor Company, its hero may well be the new Tivoli SUV.

The firm is the oldest carmaker in South Korea but it does not have the success of its rivals Hyundai and Kia. It faced the prospect of bankruptcy until Indian carmaker Mahindra acquired a controlling stake in it in 2011.

The Tivoli is the first new product after the acquisition. Named after the mediaeval Italian town about 40km from Rome, the SUV carries on its shoulders the fate and future of the company.

But there is more to the name than the Italian town. Ssangyong's official marketing materials says the name of the car spelt backwards is "I lov(e) it".

Ssangyong Motor's chief executive Choi Johng-sik said at the Tivoli's international press launch last week that the car is a "landmark product which promises to bring the brand to new heights".

He may well be right. The Tivoli looks nothing like previous Ssangyong cars. Unlike them, it is compact.

Compared to the Mini Countryman, it is just a little longer (4,195mm vs 4,097mm), wider (1,795mm vs 1,789mm) and taller (1,590 vs 1,561mm). But it looks larger because of its sharp design, which has shades of the Volkswagen Tiguan (headlights) and Range Rover Evoque (sloping roof). There is no hint of the awkward-looking Ssangyong Actyon or plain Jane Rexton.

The car is clearly targeted at younger drivers, who will be doubly impressed by features found in the test fleet.

The equipment list includes HID headlamps with LED daytime-running lights, keyless entry and ignition, and a 7-inch touchscreen multimedia entertainment system with Bluetooth pairing of mobile phones.

Inside, the car feels uncharacteristically upmarket for Ssangyong cars, with its digital instrument cluster and dual-zone air-conditioning. The steering wheel also comes with buttons for cruise control and stereo switches.

The build quality of the Tivoli rivals that of Hyundai and Kia cars. The shutlines of the doors, tailgate and glove compartment are uniformly consistent.

The Tivoli's naturally aspirated 1,597cc petrol engine developed in-house by Ssangyong churns out an acceptable output of 126bhp and 160Nm of torque, which qualifies it for Cat A COE.

The engine is mated with a six-speed autobox sourced from Japanese transmission specialist Aisin. The same gearbox also sees service in newer Mini and Citroen cars.

The test route around Rome and Tivoli covered nearly 140km of highways, local roads and countryside lanes.

The way the front-wheel-drive car performs surprises on several fronts. Gear changes are crisp and the driver's seat is cossetting. And the damping of the car is just right - soft enough to reduce the discomfort of portholes of the local roads, yet firm enough to provide some measure of road feel when driving through twisting narrow lanes lined with farms and vineyards.

The ace in the car's sleeve is the option of picking three different steering wheel settings: light, normal and heavy. This feature is found in Infiniti as well as Kia cars.

My favourite setting is "heavy", which provides the most feedback to drivers.

And given that the power plant is not a scorcher, there is a "power" mode - activated by a button on the dashboard - which provides a surge of torque for overtaking. It allows me to merge confidently with 130kmh traffic on Italian highways.

Overall, the car is predictable and easy to drive, while the "power" mode and variable steering weight allow for occasional spirited motoring.

Passengers will appreciate the car too. Rear legroom and headroom are more than ample for two adults, thanks to its nearly flat floor at the rear. Even so, three will be a bit of a squeeze.

Still, the car is not without quirks. There is a manual override function for the gearbox, but shifts are not executed through paddle shifters or flicking a lever. Instead, changes are made through a small button on the gear knob. It is unusual, although you can also find a similar device in Ford models.

Overall, the Tivoli checks all the right boxes. The car is fresh and appealing, and it fits into a booming segment of urban crossovers that people cannot seem to get enough of. It is also designed for the demanding European market.

The Tivoli is expected to be launched in Singapore by the third quarter of this year. When the time comes, it could well mark a new chapter for Ssangyong here.

tohyc@sph.com.sg