First drive: SsangYong Rhino, a rival for the ute establishment?
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The further one strays from the beaten path, the more likely they are to discover surprise.
Taupo's Kitenui Deer Farm isn't far from civilisation, but it sure feels that way. Acres of beautiful rolling hills, enough wild life to humble Noah's Arc, and a cabin in the centre of it all lined with old guns, paintings, and pairs of antlers as far as the eye could see. It was here that we'd meet two of the most interesting people in New Zealand.
The first was property owner Murray Matuschka; farmer, artist, avid hunter, and someone brimming with fascinating tales — like when Burt Reynolds stopped by for a visit.
“Old Burt. I know he's dead now, but he was quite funny.”
The second was conservation advocate Jamie Joseph who chases justice for rhino poachers in Africa with her Saving the Wild organisation. This involves crossing the enormous continent, exposing rhino horn trading syndicates and corrupt officials. An incredible pursuit, worlds away from the regulation lives most of us lead.
With all the enthralling stories, it was easy to forget that we had a vehicle to drive; the new SsangYong Rhino double-cab ute.
It's fair to say that while SsangYong has come a long way, the brand's standing in the Kiwi marketplace still sits well behind its Korean brethren. But, led by the recently replaced Rexton and now the new Rhino, it's hoped a resurgence is on the cards.
That resurgence starts in the name, Rhino. SsangYong had the choice of naming its steed the Actyon or the Musso (Korean for rhino), as it's termed in other markets. But instead it went with Rhino after consultation from former speedo cop, current sausage/alcohol connoisseur, and Radio Hauraki host Leigh Hart.
An unorthadox process, sure, but that's how SsangYong rolls these days, and it's something illustrated through the ute itself.
Like most of its competition, the Rhino shares DNA with an SUV, the Rexton. But unlike those from Ford, Toyota, Holden, and more who base the SUV off the ute underpinnings, SsangYong has done it in reverse — basing the ute off the SUV.
That might sound like semantics, but it's undoubtedly the biggest point of difference with the Rhino. Because of its SUV bones, it has an enormous second row of seats. Leg and knee-room is commodious and the bench seat is comfortable, making this arguably one of the most passenger-friendly utes on the market.
An odd point to open with perhaps, but more and more people are buying these kinds of vehicles as stand-in family cars (as evidenced by the utes that sit seemingly permanently atop New Zealand's sales charts).
The trade-off for all this luxury is a short rear bed — the shortest in class in fact, at 1275mm. SsangYong says that the Rhino's predecessor's compact dimensions were part of its allure to customers, and that this will trickle down to the new model.
With the thirst for refinement and usability from those using utes as family vehicles, SsangYong probably has a point there. And, for those who disagree, the Korean manufacturer has an ace up its sleeve in the form of an upcoming long-wheelbase variant with a 1610mm tray — making it the only car-maker in the segment to offer a SWB and a LWB.
I think it's a pretty sharp looker, too. There was a day once where such a line would rarely be paired to a SsangYong product, but together with the Tivoli and Rexton, the Rhino comes across as quite handsome.
The stubby rear end on the SWB model takes a bit of getting used to visually, but it grows on you. As do the chunky Tonka-like character-lines and the tall belt-line. It's a design with smarts too — like doors that extend all the way down to the floor-pan to conceal the sills. This means that when you're hopping in or out, you're less likely to get dust and dirt on the backs of your legs.
The cabin has its nice touches, too. Knurled knobs for the infotainment system, air-condition controls, and off-road modes are a rare and appreciated touch in a double-cab ute. They're complemented by soft-touch and chrome surfaces, as well as Nappa leather, dual-zone air conditioning and an 8.0-inch infotainment screen on the snazzy models (the screen in the range-topping SPR model comes with an above average 360-degree reverse-camera, too). Admittedly some of this is ported over from the Rexton. But, I'm not complaining.
Pricing starts at $25,990 plus GST ($29,880) for the two-wheel drive manual petrol, with the SPR four-wheel drive turbo-diesel priced at $43,490 plus GST ($50,000). A 2WD petrol automatic and a diesel-powered Sport 4WD available with manual and automatic transmissions fill the gap, with price-tags ranging from $34,480 to $40,420. Each model has a five year/100,000km warranty.
SsangYong has yet to issue pricing for the LWB model, and it's not scheduled to land here until mid-2019. But it says that it will come with a premium of less than $3000 over the stubbier models driven at launch.
Having a petrol-powered base model is another element that appears to defy the rest of the double-cab segment. But, given that 45 per cent of the outgoing Actyon ute's sales were entry-level petrols, it seems to be a formula that works.
The petrol is a turbocharged 2-litre unit, developing 166kW and 350Nm. The turbo-diesel is 2.2-litres, and produces 133kW and 400Nm. Towing capacity is 2.8-tonnes (petrol) and 3.5-tonnes (diesel). Both options are built in-house by SsangYong, while both available transmissions are six-speed examples sourced through Aisin and Dymos respectively.
Sampling both drivetrains while circumnavigating Taupo, I found them refined and quiet. The petrol requires a fair bit of revving to get the most out of it and the manual transmission is somewhat vague — standard fare in the ute world.
Power from both engines feels adequate for the segment (more so the diesel, thanks to its torque on tap). Neither will set the world on fire, but it's worth remembering that these are workhorses, not prancing horses.
The longer the day went, the harder it was to find big fault in the Rhino. Driving on and off-road, its damping and suspension (wishbone up front, five-link with coil springs in the rear) was comfortable and compliant compared to most of the competition. The SPR was perhaps a bit brittle thanks to those 20-inch wheels and low-profile tyres, but the rest of the range felt very smooth. Even on gravel.
Steering was soft, but precise enough to place the ute accurately on twisty roads. Paired with the SsangYong's confident brake pedal and diminutive dimensions, it made for a very car-like experience behind the wheel.
There are downsides to the Rhino. Along with the SWB's small bed, a shallow approach angle (22.8) saw us nose into the ground a couple of times during the off-roading portion of the launch. And while its departure angle is better than average thanks in part to the short rear overhang (23.4), we still noticed that most utes scraped their bums in the same course — evidenced by the number that had tufts of grass wrapped around their tow-bars.
Not that this is a particularly big deal of course, given that few new double-cab utes see a four-wheel drive track. A bigger issue perhaps is that passengers sitting in the central second-row seat have to make do with a lap seat belt. And, disappointingly, 2WD models come with just two airbags (as opposed to the six in the SPR).
But, even considering that, the Rhino makes a strong first impression. It's somewhat handsome, and — at $50k for its top trim-level form — a compelling alternative to the more established players in the segment with pricier, less feature-laden products.
SsangYong aims to sell 1000 of the things here in 2019, and there's no reason why it shouldn't. What it's going to come down to is just how many people are willing to skip past the established names, stray from that very well-beaten path, and test one for themselves.