SsangYong Rexton SPR, Toyota Prado GX: Toughness at the top

SsangYong and Toyota are still serving up big sized helpings of old-school robustness and build in their SUVs.

BECOMING cars was the best thing ever for sports utilities, right?

The transition to softer shapes and sizes has undoubtedly been core to their sales having lifted to record level and their social acceptability restored. I cannot recall how long it has been since I heard or read a rant about how monster rigs much better suited to roam country roads and muddy tracks were smogging out and clogging up our cities.

Because all the old monster trucks have gone? Well, here’s the thing. You haven’t seen the last of those 'Ponsonby Tractors'.

Some are still here and, guess what, they’re starting to make a comeback; not on the school run (a good thing) but certainly with those users who have learned the new-age fare, for all the driveability advantages, just isn’t as good when asked to engage in core SUV activity: You know, towing truly big things and driving through utter ickiness.

The re-emergent market for tough, no-nonsense body-on-frame (aka separate chassis) four-cylinder turbodiesel workhorses is one Toyota has played for years with its Prado, below, and also a sector where SsangYong now sees potential with its similar-sized Rexton (above).

With the first having been refreshed and latter having arrived in a new generation, a comparison drive seemed in order.

Gotta admit that, right from the start, for those whose judgement about value centres totally on price and in-cabin kit content, then the game is pretty much over before it even starts. With the model that sets the historic pace having been kicked ignominiously into touch.

That’s right, on those grounds alone, the Prado is severely embarrassed.

You can quite rightly ask how it is that Toyota can charge $79,490 for the cloth-seated GX driven here when SsangYong seeks but $67,990 for its highest-configured SPR also under consideration, a model that outwardly provides just as many fineries and fripperies that Toyota puts into its flagship $99,990 VX Limited?

The sound you should now hear is that of shuffling feet and nervous coughing. But Toyota ain’t that easily rattled. It will argue, with confidence and no shortage of convection, that’s there’s a lot more to this kind of vehicle that a schmanzty quilted leather-looked door and dashboard panels which, quirky as they sound, look quite good in the Korean contender.

Even so, while the 2018 Prado evidences a refreshed exterior and interior and an instrumentation upgrade, plus the across-the-range implementation of a comprehensive suite of advanced safety measures that are increasingly being demanded by the world’s safety guardians, you have to hand it to SsangYong. They’ve gone all out to tick boxes that are not even options at Prado’s highest level, let alone with the entry edition.

SsangYong’s comment that it has done enough here to be considered a member of the premium party holds credence; it is pretty alluring for any buyer hoping to aim high and spend low.

The SPR has a pretty decent stab at touchscreen infotainment on an 9.2-inch display in the dash, real leather and wood trim on the dash and a suite of safety features including lane departure warning, lane change assist, blind spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert, automatic high beam, advanced emergency braking with pedestrian assist and nine airbags. The only obvious lapse against the broader opposition is the absence of a trailer sway control.

Toyota’s determination to give Prado a better chance of avoiding accidents or, at least, mitigating their consequences means all 2018 models get autonomous emergency braking and pedestrian detection, active cruise control (ACC), lane departure alert, auto high beam and pre-collision safety system.

That’s all awesome, but it doesn’t keep you from thinking it’s a bit sparse, nonetheless. Manual air con rather than a fancy climate controlled type, basic electric seat adjusts – on the driver’s chair only – and a sound system that, while good enough, is nothing particularly upmarket, and lacking the Apple CarPlay that SsangYong thoughtfully implements. And with Toyota all the trim is grey, on grey, with some grey … to break up all that grey. 

The quality of interior fitout does go Toyota’s way. Everything is less smart in presentation, but gosh that Prado is built beautifully. SsangYong’s execution is also pretty nice, too, but just not as exacting.

Unlike Kia and Hyundai, SsangYong hasn’t had the ability to hire a legion of ex-Volkswagen designers to sort out their architecture, so there’s still some Korean chintz and it also has a touch of button weirdness. The steering wheel switches look and feel a bit fragile and the gearbox rocker switches are like those found in decades old Benz car. The purpose of the button, sited just above the driver’s right knee, with an icon on an uncoiled electric plug befuddled;  PHEV functionality is doubtless in this brand’s future, but it ain’t here yet. Turns out I should have paid more attention at the press briefing back at this model's launch. It's the power on/off switch for the 240 volt plug in the rear. (And, no, the Prado doesn't have one of those, either).

These rigs are cavernous within. Even with all the seats in place you’re looking at very decent luggage capacity. Rexton’s is 649 litres’ rising to 820-ish when it’s in five-chair configuration and more than 1800 litres’ with the second and third rows folded. Rexton’s top-hinged tailgate is powered and can be configured to open automatically should the keyholder stand near it for more than three seconds. This is for people with armloads of grocery and preference, the brand suggests, than those systems that have sensors under the car and require a foot waggle to activate. No such luxuries for the Prado, which also is lumbered with a side-hinged rear port.

Both models are seven seaters, with the third rows able to be folded away when not in use. The latter are realistically for sub-adult shapes and accessing requires their litheness, too. The second and front rows are configured for larger shapes and there’s no problem with head, shoulder and legroom in either, with Prado millimetrically ahead at best. But when it comes to driver comfort, the Korean chairs are found wanting. It’s not just that the leather is slippery, but the base and back are not as well shaped. In saying that, there were no aches after big long drives in either model. The command driving positions are much of a muchness; you can sit a bit lower in the Rexton, but the view is no less grand.

So let’s get moving. In either case, don’t read too much into the ‘sport’ part of SUV. These are large, heavy and relatively softly-sprung machines. They take up a lot of road space, width-wide, and ask for plenty of room when being brought to a halt.

This generation of Prado was already rather less wobbly on its pins than its predecessors and even though as the latest refresh has not prioritised the dynamic elements, it does seem to be a bit more assured, neater on the turn-in and imbued with improved steering and braking feel.

Work to improve Rexton’s dynamics has been fruitful; so too the update to a multilink rear suspension. It’s not car-like, for sure, and actually delivers more body roll than the Toyota, but it also demonstrates good grip beyond the point where the horizon begins to tilt and there’s no nastiness about how it actions and transmits its abilities.

But let’s be clear. The only chuckability you’re going to experience when throwing them around is the kind that’ll require a big clean-up with towels, warm water and disinfectant. Lumbering is their forte; as ships of the seal, they’re in the Nimitz carrier class. They’ll cover the ground adequately, but you’d be a fool for thinking about throwing down a gauntlet to a BMW X5, Mercedes GL or Audi Q7.

Pushing, in each case, more than two tonne’s of square-cut substance requires muscle. Both have it. Prado’s drivetrain is unaltered in its latest refresh. So, a 2.8-litre four-cylinder offering a handy 130kW and 450Nm, tuned mainly for low-down heft – with muscularity maxing from 1600 to 2400rpm - rather than high-rev pull (power peaks at 3400rpm). The gearbox remains a six-speed auto.

Rexton is in the hunt because, even though the engine capacity is 600cc smaller, it rocks up with decent power and torque, 133kW and 420Nm. Plus, it has a seven-speed auto, so conceivably provides not just a superior cog spread but also quieter running and good economy.

Well, that’s partly right. At an even 100kmh, the refinement edge is certainly the case: There’s purr to Toyota’s more resonant roar. Under throttle, they both like to be heard, and any difference in vocal strength and timbre is more challenging to pick.

In terms of gearbox quality, though, the Toyota unit is more useful, a result the brand suggests, of the power train ECU calibration having been revised. Whatever. It now seems much smoother and better at selecting the appropriate gear.

The Toyota unit has been around for a while, yes, but then, so too has the Rexton’s. While the gear count might suggest it’s a latest thing, in actual fact you’re using an hand-down; this is a box that has already had a first life with Mercedes; hence the cut of the gate and those mode buttons. The shift quality in Auto can be a bit abrupt and, at times, indecisive. You can hand shift, but it’s weird as manual control is handled by a little toggle switch on the side of the gear knob itself.

The torque from each engine is impressive; you get clear impression they have the heft to momentarily set the Earth in opposite rotation if given it all from a standing start. Okay, from thereon sprint ability is measured - assuredly, neither is set to upset Ursan Bolt.

On the other hand, let’s set how quick old ‘lightning’ still is with a pack full of bricks on his back.

Having to heft large loads is a big rig forte and neither feels burdened when hauling. Which is the whole point of purchase. On that note, though, you once again get more mettle from the Korean quarter. Rexton is impressively rated to haul 3500kg now. You’d think Prado already had the gold medal in this pursuit, but actually the latest upgrade’s delivery of a 500kg boost in braked towing capacity takes it to 3000kg.

Gotta say, you’d never think the Toyota as a lightweight in this, or any other respect. All credit to SsangYong: The Rexton has a tough-as ambience, too, and it matches the Toyota by also provisioning a proper locking differential.

Perhaps there’s just a bit less ‘maybe’ about the Toyota’s ability to put in a honest day's toil in the worst conditions any country can throw at it - I mean, there’s a reason why every piece of footage from a natural disaster or war zone seems to have a Cruiser in the background. If the drive has the correct level of competence, this machine will very likely go anywhere off road.

Yet, frankly, if you were going to undertake a two-car trek into deepest wilderness, the Rexton could well be a worthy accomplice to the Prado, though perhaps for prudence sake you might lose those seal-tuned 225/50 R20 tyres for something chunkier. It also has a impressively robust demeanour.

The Prado has been around for quite some time now – it launched here in 2009 – and even with latest revisions, it is patently looking dated inside and out compared with its Toyota contemporaries.

It’s interesting the Rexton also takes the same styling road. Yes, it clearly has more modern touches; you can see that with the nose styling and window profiles. It is also definitely more glammed, with lots of chromed-up bits, eventhe wheel rims. Yet even though it is ‘newer’, would you’d pick it only revealed to the world for the very first time a year ago?

The funny thing is, neither looks wrong for this. Indeed, it almost seems a strength that they look as they do. There’s a sense of reassuring familiarity that comes with these shapes.

Okay, so this appraisal is clearly doing no more than scratching the surface. But even after just a week with each, it’s no difficult to pick which would make the more sensible choice.

The Prado, as tested, is the model I’d recommend to those set to go to extremes. A good example are relatives about to go and live at a remote coastal settlement. There’s just the one road in and it’s in dodgy condition. If/when that route is cut off, they’ll need to head across extremely rough terrain to get out. The Prado would be perfect for that journey.

But, for the rest of us, the Rexton is the better choice. It gives more for less for everyday driving (has a superior warranty too) and is tough enough to answer the call for those occasional special duty excursions.