In a country where consumers tend to buy what they know, the Ssangyong’s interesting bloodline, which mixes Mercedes engine influence with global and local Mahindra ownership, doesn’t bode well for sales. And since Mahindra South Africa doesn’t release sales figures, the latter is a mystery in itself.
The company offers a meagre two-model line-up locally, the Korando and the so-called Sports Utility Truck, or Actyon Sports.
The Actyon Sports, succeeding the popular Musso, has – at 830kg – a similar payload (that is, the carrying capacity of both luggage and passengers) to the beloved Nissan NP200 bakkie, only in double cab form. Still, there aren’t a lot of them on the road, and this handsome 2012 version of the lesser-known bakkie seems to be a neglected option for buyers. Is it just the name?
It won’t carry more than 400kg in the load bay and it’s not made for hardcore 4×4 trails, but this Korean vehicle is not to be discounted. The spec list is impressive for the price, and the vehicle is refined and capable on dirt and sand. The suspension refinement far surpasses that of our GWM contender, thanks to a double wishbone front and five-link rear configuration. The ESP system is undoubtedly the reason for the great handling off-road (only on this Deluxe 4×4 model) and its stability and grip, even at high speeds, is akin to that of double cabs held in much higher esteem than a lowly SsangYong might be.
But it’s the engine that will win over the sceptics. The newly developed two-litre turbodiesel CRD, taken most recently from the newest Korando, develops an impressive 114kW and 360Nm of torque at a low 1500 to 2800 r/min. That sounds like 4×4 material, and is a great improvement on the slightly disappointing Mercedes-based engine that preceded it.
This, however, is not a workhorse. It is more of a “weekend warrior”, and the load bay will accommodate luggage and the most menial of adventure equipment – scuba gear, perhaps. With a canopy, it would make a great holiday “car”, as the space inside the cabin is impressive. Rear leg room and head room all round are better than in leading bakkie competitors. The interior is basic but well finished and seemingly durable.
The problem for the Actyon Sports, however, is the presence on the market of bakkies like the Ford Ranger. Around R65 000 more gets you the American equivalent of the diesel 4×4 powertrain with almost the same power figures – not to mention the popular Japanese competitor, the Hilux, at only around R30 000 more, with a slightly bigger engine, albeit lower power figures. These numbers, and scepticism about a brand still not wholly accepted in the tough local market, pose a difficult challenge for the Actyon Sports.
Chinese for the week
If a daily workhorse is what you’re after, then this outsider is the one you should be looking at. At R242 900, it’s around R77 000 cheaper than the Actyon Sports and a totally different vehicle.
GWM recently began revealing sales data, and Naamsa figures show the company sold an average of 669 units per month across their two-model offering in the first nine months of the year. That’s not a number to be taken lightly in the competitive local market, but it shows nevertheless that people are cautious about buying into the peripheral brands not yet established in the country. GWM has been in this dog fight for only five years now, and the H5 (or “Hover”) that we tested in the Richtersveld earlier this year showed impressive advances in refinement.
It was disappointing, then, to find that the same improvements in quality had not been made in the Steed 5. While there are many factors for GWM to consider, such as distribution priorities in the 60 countries in its global market, it is disheartening that the Chinese automaker is not putting the best of its good engines, transmission and suspension systems into the local product.
That said, the price tag of the Steed 5 duly reflects its value as a budgetary workhorse. With all the equipment boxes ticked, this is the answer for many a business or farm owner who is feeling the credit crunch.
The unrefined drivetrain does not mean the vehicle should simply be dismissed. At low speeds, the Steed 5 does everything it needs to do, albeit rather noisily. The transmission is notchy but gear ratios are well spread and power is readily available in the lower gears, though there’s a bit of a lag.
In higher gears the 110Kw of power seems hard to harness, but it’s a driving style you can quickly adapt to, considering the low fuel consumption.
All in all, it’s a great compromise vehicle in tough times, and fills a hole in the market that many of the high-profile companies tend to overlook.
Hitting stereotypes out the park
The challenges of stigma and stereotype can be put into perspective with a simple test drive. When you get behind the wheel of either of these vehicles, it’s difficult to deny that the marques have made a lot of progress on the mechanical and refinement front. And it’s here that the SsangYong stands out. The strong two-litre engine, which produces more power and torque than its 2,5-litre Chinese competitor, is refined, responsive and smooth. Don’t expect much lag, or noise akin to a John Deere display yard. This is a proper, torque-heavy diesel engine.
It is stable on gravel, especially at higher speeds, and handles irregularities in the road as nimbly as you’d expect from a vehicle of its size. The engine and ride quality will win over drivers, but there are shortcomings. Even with a ground clearance of 188mm, it’s not much of a hardcore 4×4. If you want a workhorse, the Steed 5 is more your type.
Refinement is nowhere near that of the Actyon Sports, and this two-litre diesel VGT won’t give you much pleasure, but it’s 195mm off the ground, has a decent electronic 4×4 system, low range and a payload of 1000kg. This Chinese double cab is built to do the rough work, not to transport families in comfort across game farms and national parks. So, as always, the choice comes down to what the buyer is looking for, even if that sounds like a cliché.
The Sports is a weekender – a comfortable and refined, rather costly hobbyist vehicle. The GWM is a budget farmer’s vehicle, with a lot of bang for his buck in the capability department (save for the disappointing approach angle), and less focus on creature comforts that push up the price. Here, the major concern will be durability and after-sales service from such a new company.
SECOND OPINION… 42 CHALK AND CHEESE
At a glance, the GWM Steed and Ssangyong Actyon Sports look rather similar, but don’t be fooled. The Actyon has about as much in common with the Steed as an elephant has with an elephant seal.
Yes, they are both double cabs, but this is a superficial similarity. The design philosophies behind these two vehicles could not be more different.
The Steed, you see, is a bakkie – a proper workhorse bakkie that a small business owner can use to cart tools and supplies from one site to the next. It’s got an agricultural-sounding oilburner that won’t provide a blistering top speed but which has a healthy dose of low-down torque. It’s also got a lowrange transfer case and a good-sized load area.
Of course, this is a double cab, so the GWM Steed has a few more accoutrements than you’ll find in an entry-level single cab workhorse. For example, it has electric windows, leather seats, a good sound system and a radio that can play MP3s. It even has controls on the steering wheel.
But despite these modern flourishes, the Steed remains an old-school bakkie. Its ride can be a bit harsh at times, its gearbox is a bit notchy and its steering vague. Not that the Steed provides a bad ride – not at all. Considering its price, the Steed is very impressive. But it remains a utility vehicle in the true sense of the term. It’s not sporty, but it will get the job done. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
If you’re looking for an affordable workhorse that’s plush enough to be used as a family leisure vehicle as well, the Steed is worth looking at.
Now, what about the Ssangyong? Simply put, it is a soft-roader masquerading as a double cab. And it’s not doing a very good job of hiding this fact. Its load area is very small, and capable of carrying only 383kg. Right, then, a workhorse it is not.
So, if it’s not a workhorse, what is it? It is a lifestyle vehicle, plain and simple. This is not a tool for the blue-collar small-business owner. It is a vehicle for the weekend getaway. If you’re looking for a trendy 4×4 that can transport salty surfboards and muddy mountain bikes, this is the double cab for you. Its load area should not be seen as a traditional bak at all, but as an external luggage area that’s designed to keep the dirt on the outside.
The Actyon Sports, with its frankly minuscule load bay, can seem a tad ridiculous, but don’t dismiss it too quickly. Yes, it is less practical and versatile than a bakkie such as the Steed, but it does make the whole bakkie ownership experience more acceptable for those used to piloting city runabouts.
The Ssangyong offers a drive that is more refined than those of many well-known bakkies. Slide in behind the steering wheel and you’ll hardly notice that you’re in a bakkie. Everything about it is sleek and refined. The ride is comfortable (due in large part to a coil-spring, multi-link setup at the rear), the gearbox is smooth and car-like, and the cabin is plush.
Since the load area is small, there is plenty of rear legroom. The cabin boasts nice-to-have features such as an automatic air conditioner, cruise control, keyless entry and park distance control. Noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) levels are very low.
So, which is the better vehicle? On paper, the Ssangyong probably takes first prize – and I know that my colleague Anzet fell in love with it – but I’d probably take the GWM, especially at the price. When I buy a bakkie, I want a bakkie. Yes, it’s noisy and a bit unrefined, but it’s also versatile and practical. And that’s what bakkies are all about. – GG van Rooyen