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Ssangyong sees diesel as its future


SsangYong New Zealand managing director Russell Burling has bet a dollar each way.

The Korean brand is 51 percent owned by the Chinese giant, SAIC, and Burling's well aware of the power that relationship brings.

But, he says: "thank God for Mao Tse-Tung - we'd be sinking under the load of Chinese cars by now if it weren't for communism."

That sentiment seems odd from a man whose company needs the Chinese - but it also needs the Germans.

"What everyone forgets is SsangYong has a fantastic relationship with Mercedes-Benz," he says. "Merc makes money every time a SsangYong is sold. It makes the (engine) blocks, it makes pistons, it makes the transmissions. SsangYong suits Mercedes - we're volume, but not high volume, and can take any surplus production. We're going to get the seven-speed auto, for example."

Mercedes still has a share in the brand, but how much of one? Burling won't say, but he's happy to trade on the reflected glory. Some of his fours are Mercedes five-cylinder engines with a cylinder chopped off; the diesels use recent Mercedes tech.

It's the diesels he sees as the strength in SsangYong's mainly SUV line-up in NZ. "I doubt we'll sell much petrol here," he says. "The Chinese and Koreans don't like diesel. The Japanese don't have diesel in Tokyo and they think it'll kill them - they won't climb in the seat. The Australians don't like diesel, but we're finding 30 percent better fuel economy."

So the recently released Kyron adds a 3.2-litre six-cylinder engine to the line-up to please the petrolheads. But it also adds the 2.7-litre common rail diesel already powering Rexton to the 2.0 diesel that opens the range. After a couple of hundred open road kilometres and an afternoon spent four-wheel driving on the steep slopes of Taupo's moto cross track, the 2.0 revealed a nine litres/100km thirst; the $54,995 2.7-litre Kyron that tops the range returned a 10.09 figure, and the petrol 3.2 auto a wallet-squeezing 15.1 litres/100km.

The Kyron is an impressive vehicle, but its looks are an acquired taste. It's thoughtfully styled inside, with five spacious seats all with three-point seatbelts, a roomy boot with rear seats that fold flat, and underfloor boot cubbies. There's also a pleasant dash design.

Though fit and finish are good, some materials are a tad plasticky to the touch. Specification is useful too, with an easy-to-use dial to switch from two-wheel drive to four high or low, dual airbags, and ABS standard along with a limited slip diff and 16-inch alloys. That's for the $39,990 base model that Burling hopes will prove attractive to fleets.

Spend a little more and you'll get heated leather seats, front side curtain airbags, stability and traction control, hill descent control and 18-inch alloy wheels as well as the bigger engines.

Either way you'll have to get over the quirky looks that always brought embarrassed silences when the plummy English designer was introduced. After all, one can hardly admit the first question to pop to mind is, why?

That's not a question that applies with the Actyon (pronounced Action) which is due to be launched in NZ shortly. Burling says older buyers are happy to overlook the Kyron's looks because it does the job so well. Younger buyers aren't. They're happy to overlook the Actyon's Achilles heel - a tiny boot courtesy of the high boot floor and swooping roof line - for the car's funky face.

But the Actyon isn't just an eye-catching beast. It's impressively capable too. We got to drive all the cars - facelift Rexton included - round Taupo's moto cross track, where the Actyon was expected to flounder. After all, it has no low range. What it does have, though, is that competent 2.0-litre common rail diesel engine. The car's 104kW power is enough to cruise at open road speeds, though it'd be better matched to the five-speed Mercedes-sourced auto fitted to the likes of Kyron.

Still, the 310Nm of torque delivered anywhere from 1800-2750rpm offers a strong enough kick in the pants - and helped the thing plug around the rutted moto cross track. Better yet, it crawled up the face of jumps steep enough to normally need a run-up, and a run-up wouldn't be a good move with crests so sharp you have to ease over them. Indeed, you could do a u-turn to head back down, then stop it on those slopes and reverse up - or leave hill descent control to keep the thing in check.

It was impressive stuff, and yes it looks the part, though I expect the frankly derisory boot space if all seats are in use would soon become annoying. Price? Burling's still negotiating. Expect $38,000 to $47,000, for these cars are no longer cheap as chips thanks to a range of factors - including much improved build quality, if first impressions are anything to go by.

What else for SsangYong. Will we see a chip-fat-fuelled SsangYong as driven in Australia? Burling laughs. "We had it fuelling a Rexton and it swallowed a calamari and blocked up the system - so we've had a couple of hiccups along the way. Ethanol is going to come, but no-one with type three common rail diesels will say they'll run on it, and the quality of biodiesel varies, at least in Australia.

"There are guys in the Outback making it themselves for their fuel stations - it's frightening."

No, forget alternative fuels. First we'll see the Actyon SUV, followed by the Actyon ute in October - a double-cab with a 2.1 square metre tray that'll hold two enduro bikes or a jetski. And Burling's considering the brand's performance arm, SPR, the equivalent to Holden's HSV or Chrysler's SRT.

He's on a roll. "It's a street fight for me, to be in this business. To get from where I was with Daewoo to here, it's a street fight. But I've always believed in what we're doing and where we're going."

By the looks of it the only way SsangYong is going is up. Sales hit just 215 in 2004, but that figure climbed to 516 last year - ahead of Land Rover and hard on Jeep's heels. The brand's year-to-date numbers are up a further 10 percent. And that's before the new models arrive.

Burling expects 750 sales this year, and with a broader Kyron range, the funky Aktyon and the all-action Actyon ute due by year's end, he should get them.

Auto Trader New Zealand