R O A D T E S T; Through the jungle, by rhino

The Musso is a keenly priced Korean rival to the Land Rover Discovery, says Phil Llewellin
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Twin Dragons Rhinoceros would not spring instantly to mind if you were invited to name a new rival for the Land Rover Discovery. That is what SsangYong Musso means in English. Proof includes the tiny rhino horn motif that forms part of the Musso badge.

This is not a marginal operation. SsangYong Motor belongs to a Korean conglomerate that employs 25,000 people and expects to be producing 300,000 vehicles a year by the end of the century.

"Affordable adventure" is part of the sales pitch, but parking with two wheels on the verge is the nearest that most vehicles in this class ever get to off-road motoring. The official line is that the Musso will "appeal to owners of prestige estate cars". It was designed by Ken Greenley, a Tynesider whose previous credits include the Aston Martin Virage and Bentley Continental.

Mitsubishi, Nissan and other contenders currently favour a soft, rounded look. Mr Greenley's alternative gives the Musso's top half "a sharper- edged appearance that suggests a technical image" and has car-like details in certain key areas. The lower part of the body looks tougher, in line with the four-wheel-drive image.

Feeling safe is one reason why people buy these vehicles. While riding high works wonders for confidence and visibility, the actual vehicle is regarded as a stronghold on wheels. This is why the Musso's equipment includes a device that automatically locks the doors at 35mph. Dropping this to 5mph would make sense, because "traffic light muggings" happen in urban areas.

Keen pricing reflects low production costs, at pounds 15,999 for the basic. The mid-range SE, tested here, costs pounds 17,499, with selectable four-wheel drive, power steering, alloy wheels and engine immobiliser.

Mercedes-Benz provides the five-cylinder, 2.9-litre diesel that is the only motor available until next year, when petrol engines producing 134bhp and 217bhp join the range.

What the Musso really needs is a more muscular diesel. Mercedes could supply a 3.0-litre engine with 113bhp on tap instead of 94bhp.

No one expects blistering performance from this type of vehicle, but 20 per cent more power would make overtaking easier. Top gear could be pitched higher, to make motorway cruising more relaxed. Driving with just two passengers on board made me wonder how the Musso would perform with a full load of bodies and 40 cubic feet of baggage.

If four-wheel drive is needed, there is a neat little turn-button instead of the usual lever. The interior creates a good impression, but the back seat is too bench-like for long-distance comfort, and for splitfolding 50:50 should extra luggage space be needed. The 60:40 alternative is more versatile.

This is an easy vehicle to drive, being narrower than a Discovery or Maverick. Also, SsangYong opted for car-like steering and front suspension systems. Ride comfort is good - for this type of vehicle. That qualifier should be central to the thought process when considering the move from a conventional car to a Musso or any of its rivals. Do you really want something like this?

I live out in the sticks, but my answer went from "Yes" to "No" during a 33,000-mile year with a Ford Maverick. It was a paragon of reliability, but the reality was much less appealing than the prospect.

SsangYong Musso 2.9D SE, pounds 17,499

Engine: 2.9-litre, five-cylinder, 94bhp at 4100rpm.

Transmission: Five-speed manual, selectable four-wheel drive with high and low ratios.

Performance: 0-60mph in 19.8 seconds, top speed 91mph.

Average fuel economy: 24.l mpg.

Land Rover Discovery Tdi, pounds 20,550

Relatively expensive, but tops for prestige in this class. Proven components include excellent diesel. Feels less car-like than the Musso, but has few rivals as an off-roader. Three-door version gets pounds 1,685 closer

to SsangYong's price, but is less convenient.

Ford Maverick 2.7 TD, pounds 17,800

Ford invented "all-roader" to describe its version of the Nissan Terrano, but this attempt to create a new sub-species has not made the Maverick a success. Drawbacks include insipid styling and lacklustre performance, despite the diesel being commendably refined. A facelift is imminent.

Jeep Cherokee 2.5 TD Sport, pounds 18,195

Added to the range earlier this year, the 2.5-litre turbocharged diesel offers strong performance and reasonable economy at a keen price. A popular choice.

Vauxhall Prontera 2.8 TD Estate, pounds 19,325

Much improved by recent changes that included new suspension to reduce the risk of teeth being dislodged. The new, 2.8-litre turbo-diesel's lllbhp makes the stylish Frontera quite sporty.

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