Ugliness is not just skin deep

China has made a hardy debut in the West with the reliable SsangYong. And this is just the start, writes Sean O'Grady
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Gaze if you will, on the first product of the Chinese car industry to be sold in this country. Not that it is made in China, of course.

Gaze if you will, on the first product of the Chinese car industry to be sold in this country. Not that it is made in China, of course.

SsangYong is a Korean concern, or at least it was until it was purchased by the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation, a company that has also shown an interest in our own dear MG Rover Group. And although the Rexton and the other SsangYongs will presumably continue to be manufactured in South Korea, the company will be ultimately controlled from Shanghai.

The Rexton may not have created more than a ripple on the surface of the UK car market, but it presages a much bigger wave. With an MG Rover deal in prospect before the end of the year, the Chinese penetration of Europe should begin in earnest. After all those articles and seminars and idle talk about the threat posed by the low-cost Chinese to Western makers, the future may be arriving faster than we thought.

So should anyone be frightened by the SsangYong Rexton? You might get a bit of a shock when you encounter one for the first time. In truth, it isn't much more hideous than most other four-wheel drives. The SsangYong is, for example, a beauty when parked next to the hideous Porsche Cayenne.

Its looks are in fact quite reminiscent of an overgrown Toyota Avensis Verso, if your interest in cars is unhealthy enough for you to be able to place that mental image in your mind. If not, then let's just say the Rexton is big but fairly bland, and not as pig ugly as some. No one will laugh at it, but the name doesn't help. The Hyundai Terracan, another big Korean 4x4, takes its name from a combination of "terra" - meaning land, and the "can" part derives form "khan" , meaning king. So I suppose Rexton might be something to do with "rex" meaning king, again, and "ton" meaning "it weighs one", although actually it weighs about two tons, but it just reminded me of Rex Harrison for some reason.

What you also get with a SsangYong is a little bit of a brand that is much more readily understood; Mercedes Benz. You see, you can have a 2.7-litre Rexton fitted with a Merc engine that is built under licence by the Koreans, and all for under £20,000. Why buy a Mercedes M-class when that wonderful motor can be yours for about £10,000 less?

The answer, as we all know, is that most people don't buy these wagons for their off-roading abilities, rugged designs or even their macho looks but simply for their ability to say to the world this: "Yes, I know there is more engineering in this car than I could possibly ever need. I know it's wasteful and handles poorly, and I know it will inflict much more damage in a collision with a pedestrian, especially a child, than a conventional car. But I don't care, because I want you to know that I'm rich and I like sitting high above you proles. Now, get out of my way."

Ugliness in cars, as in humans, is often to do with what lies beneath the skin, and in the case of what these 4x4 monstrosities represent they are generally very ugly indeed.

I have driven enough of these sorts of car to vouch that, even for someone of my egalitarian instincts, you can succumb to that psychological effect of literally "looking down" on others. Yet it really only works with a "prestige" badge, such as a Range Rover, BMW or Porsche. Nissan, Ford, even Lexus barely hack it, while US behemoths such as the Hummer, Lincoln Navigator and Cadillac Escalade reek too much of "footballer" and vulgarity. As for Hyundai and SsangYong, you might think, they may as well not bother.

Except for one thing. SsangYong use cattle in their ads, in the same way that other makers use cheetahs or supermodels or breathtaking scenery.

Once upon a time Land Rover, in the good old days when they made workhorses rather than fashion statements, featured Friesians in their promotional material. Like the Landie (and, come to think of it, the Isuzu Trooper) before it, the Rexton is an unpretentious product.

It is shunned by urban trendies but appeals to people who really need a value-for-money 4x4. It will even seat seven. It's for farmers and country vets, muddy folk, just like the Landie used to be. Which is just as well because it isn't at all happy at motorway speeds and, to use a well-worn phrase, handles like an ocean liner in a gale. No matter. Of such an appeal can a legend be built. Yours from £17,499.

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