Sometimes, the most impactful cars are the ones you have the least expectations of. Sure, it's easy to get blown away by a European sports car, but to have a more-than-pleasant experience with a brand one had written off as a "WTF" because of its forebears? Well, that's interesting.
Forgive my cynicism, but if a car company once produced such abominations as the Musso and the Rexton, then I shouldn't really expect much from a crossover sharing its name with an '80s-era ice cream cookie, right? Without so much as a peek at Wikipedia or the SsangYong website (I love surprises!), I rolled into the parking lot, beheld this bright-red, black-roofed clone of a Mini Clubman/Kia Soul/Range Rover Evoque, and smiled. It's not exactly an original look, but imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And as far as making a statement goes, it's easier on the eyes than the doped-up Nissan Juke. Well, at least on mine.
The designers could have held back a bit on the interior though, as the bright-red accents of the "Sport R" variant begin to look a little too much after a few days. Just considering the ergonomics, however, the cabin is a nice place to be in. Good sightlines all around, lots of headroom, firm seats, and every surface having a nice tactile feel about it just like any recent Hyundai or Kia. I love the flat-bottom steering wheel and the aluminum trim. There's even an honest-to-goodness handbrake instead of the usual footbrake. You never know when you'll need to yank it to effect a J-turn.
The audio head unit gets an F though, with labyrinthine navigation and slow file/folder reading, making it dangerous to operate while driving. Honestly, though, SsangYong has done a better job giving this crossover an upmarket feel than more established players. See, for all of P1,080,000, a Tivoli buyer gets dual-zone climate control, heated seats, leather upholstery, and variable-effort power steering among others to go with the styling chutzpah. You can even customize the cabin settings--like the lighting scheme of the IP, and the welcome chime that sounds like the ending notes of a Korean telenovela--and fiddle around with the multi-info display in the instrument cluster.
The Philippine-spec Tivoli's 1.6-liter engine revs quickly and smoothly, and it gives a couple of larger-displacement engines a run for their money. It's matched to an Aisin six-speed automatic transmission, which is smooth and very responsive to a fault. In stop-and-go traffic, the torque converter interprets even the tiniest stab of the throttle to mean that you're in a hurry, sending the Tivoli lunging forward a little too eagerly at times. This is great when you're defending your space--not so great when you're transporting kids who easily get carsick. A little retraining of the right foot is required.
You can also choose between Power, Winter and Economy drivetrain algorithms, but for most situations Economy is just fine. A little rocker switch lets you manually switch gears, too. Never as satisfying as an honest-to-goodness "+/-" slot, but it probably helps keep the cost down. With a light load and under the speed limit, the drivetrain is up to the task of flitting you about. Beyond that threshold, though, the car's chunky aerodynamics spars with the little engine's modest power. You'll find that maintaining a discreet 120kph will have the car continuously hunting between fourth, fifth and sixth gears. By the way, cruise control is not available. No biggie if you spend your life in gridlock, but something that would be useful on occasional road trips.
Probably the best surprise--at least from a car guy's perspective--is how well the Tivoli handles. There's nothing exotic about the front strut-rear axle setup, but it's tuned for sporty driving. There's no floatiness about the suspension at speed, and rebound and compression are biased for firmness at a minor cost to comfort. The power-steering effort can also be adjusted, and set to "Sport" it has just enough heft to make weekend bouts in the hills a pleasure. The Tivoli rides on 18-inch 45-series Kumhos, which are fashionable and strike just the right balance between aesthetics and comfort.
SsangYong was acquired by Indian giant Mahindra & Mahindra Limited in 2011, giving the automaker a much-needed boost to help it catch up to Hyundai and Kia. Manned locally by SsangYong Berjaya Motor Philippines, with a little bit of an assist from the same crew that made Mazda a serious contender among the mainstream brands, the new face of SsangYong looks dead serious about capturing the hearts and minds of buyers willing to forgive and forget the weirdness of the past.
The Tivoli is named after a small town in Lazio, Italy, but it's also "ILOVIT" in reverse. While my jaded, spoiled, elitist self wasn't head over heels in love with it, I can totally respect anybody who would be smitten by this car.