Alvin Thomas finds that the SsangYong Tivoli is an SUV with verve, versatility and a veritable handle on how to do things well for less money.
First things first: let’s answer the big questions. Is it an SUV? Is it a hatchback? Or is it a super-mini? Well, folks, guess what: unlike one would expect our test car – the SsangYong Tivoli – is a blend of all three. And you know what? It is pretty darn good and then some.
Introduced to the world as a vehicle manufacturer in 1954, SsangYong first gained traction around the world with its SUV, the Musso, in 1993. The SUV was the offspring of a technology deal between the brand and Daimler-Benz.
The brand went on to become the fourth best-selling car manufacturer in South Korea, a position it still holds.
I still remember when SsangYong began importing its vehicles to the Middle East: I believe it was the early 2000s, when its cars first started rolling across the roads of Oman. I recall telling my friends: “What hideous looking cars these Mussos and Rodiuses are.”
Styling seemed to be the last word on the plate for SsangYong, then.
Many moons have passed since then, though, as is evident with this Tivoli I’m driving this week. Setting aside the cleverly inspired name (from the town with the same name in Italy) and rather fitting face value, what you actually have at hand is a very handsome and youthful-looking urban cruiser.
Mind you, the design-language isn’t particularly groundbreaking but its inoffensive styling, coupled with the solid red paintjob – the one my tester came in – gives it ample character.
The body shell is boxy but the sweeping headlamps with built-in LEDs, the flared arches, and chiselled front bumper give the car an aggressive front profile. The rear, however, is a tad subtle. You get transparent tail lamps and even the silencer is buried under the rear bumper.
I wouldn’t be wrong in saying that the Tivoli looks a tad more European than Asian.
Inside, you get a very functional and neatly laid-out dashboard, which is a doddle to use. All the buttons on the dashboard are neatly labelled, aside from the button that alters the steering feel, which was oddly placed away from the driver.
The seats are covered in two-tone cloth upholstery that is quite comfortable. The seats don’t have much bolstering, though, and can be a handful while cornering hard. But the seating position is excellent and is almost like that of a tall sedan.
The arm-rests on the doors and the top of the dashboard are wrapped in soft-touch materials but the rest of the interior is pretty much all plastic. Mind you: it still is a very nice place to be in, and at no point did I feel as if I was in a budget car.
The features list in my test car included a responsive 20cm LCD multimedia display, cruise control, dual-zone auto air-conditioning, steering firmness modes, driving modes and even a multi-information display screen, which shows the steering angle of the car on the instrument cluster.
What caught me by surprise; however, were the safety features that have been added on as standard. You get seven airbags (!), stability and traction control, ABS, seat-belt pre-tensioners and a tyre-pressure monitoring system (TPMS).
Practicality is the Tivoli’s strong suit: there’s ample space in the rear for three healthy adults, even with the exhaust tunnel hump in the middle. The headroom is exceptional, thanks to the tall stance, and there’s no chance of rear-seat passengers experiencing claustrophobia. Getting in and out of the Tivoli is easy, thanks to its wide opening doors.
Meanwhile, the front seats offer plenty of movement fore and aft, allowing adults of various sizes to make themselves comfortable.
The boot space in the Tivoli is excellent. The boot is in a square shape and has a wide aperture to give you easy access. However, the load lip is quite high, meaning; you will find yourself having to lift goods higher up than usual.
Underneath the hood lies a tiny 1.6-litre naturally-aspirated in-line four cylinder engine, pumping out 126hp and 160Nm of torque. The engine is furthermore coupled to a six-speed automatic gearbox, driving the front wheels. The Tivoli will reportedly hit 100kph from naught in 12.5 seconds but because it was a hot 42-degree-Celsius day, I thought it wasn’t fair to push the car to test its limits.
The engine is refined at low revs but comes alive past the 3000rpm mark before finally loudly screaming its way (as is characteristic with four cylinder cars) past 4000rpm. This can get a tad annoying as most of the power is delivered in the upper rev range. It still is charismatic and lively, unlike most cars of today.
The traditional automatic gearbox is pretty nifty to respond to the corresponding speeds and revs, and sits comfortably in the right gears for the most part. Despite this, you could throw the gearbox into “S” and push the “Power” button to eke out a bit more juice out of the gearbox.
The Tivoli’s steering is well-weighted and precise but like most cars of today doesn’t provide much feedback. It still is a joy to use, when compared to those completely dead electric steering racks of today that rivals use. As an added treat, in “Sport” setting, the steering also gains weight and seems to alter its steering response ratios.
The ride in the Tivoli is pretty smooth, despite riding on large 44-cm alloy wheels. But, as with most rival sub-compact SUVs, the ride on the Tivoli can be bumpy and unsettled on rough roads. I found myself fidgeting with the steering more than I should have had to on the older roads in Ruwi.
But that is only a small niggle, as the SUV handles corners rather well and is sure-footed even at high speeds. There is a substantial amount of body roll but nothing that you should be worried about. The tyres are quite grippy but understeer will kick in and wash you wide, if you take corners past 70kph.
The SsangYong Tivoli is the Korean carmaker’s first product under Indian Mahindra ownership. And while it does have its flaws, it still takes on its competitors from Asia with much flare and gusto. And you know what? It succeeds as one of the better propositions in the market, with its good looks, long list of features and a price to match.