SsangYong Tivoli review

SsangYong hopes the Tivoli will thrust the brand into our hearts. We reckon some of you might grow to love it

Gavin Braithwaite-Smith | May 2015

This is a landmark moment. SsangYong has finally delivered a car with genuine mass market appeal that can hold its own in a fiercely competitive sector. Whether enough people will care remains to be seen, but if you’re on the hunt for a good value, well-equipped compact crossover, the SsangYong Tivoli deserves to be on your shortlist.

There’s a danger here that a Tivoli review could turn out to be a rather patronising exercise. A pat on the back for SsangYong with congratulations on a job well done. But here’s the thing – in the UK at least, SsangYong has played the role of a niche player for so long, with a range of large and even larger SUVs designed to appeal to those who put practicality, value and warranties above all else. The Tivoli is an entirely different proposition – it’s much smaller, is being launched in two-wheel drive guise and is designed to appeal to young and trendy types.

Which creates a problem for SsangYong, because Fiat is chasing the same people with the 500X, as is Jeep with the Renegade, Suzuki with the Vitara, Citroen with the C4 Cactus…you get the picture. The amount of people fishing in the compact crossover pool is growing at a ridiculous rate, but it is rapidly filling up with highly credible cars. Alongside some of the more established players, SsangYong is a mere minnow.

SsangYong Tivoli badge

So the Tivoli is having to paddle upstream against the tide. Few of the buyers SsangYong is hoping to attract won’t have heard the name, let alone be able to spell it. The company has therefore invested in a £1 million TV campaign with the aim of making the SsangYong Tivoli a household name. For SsangYong this represents a significant investment. There’s a heck of a lot resting on the Tivoli’s shoulders.

On the basis of our first drive, the car is certainly up for the challenge. The Tivoli looks and feels like no other SsangYong of the past, moving the brand from niche to nice in an instant.

What’s the SsangYong Tivoli like to drive?

SsangYong Tivoli 2015

To drive, the Tivoli doesn’t excel in any area, but neither does it disgrace itself, which is a huge step forward for SsangYong. The Fiat 500X is unquestionably more fun to drive and the Jeep Renegade will provide a greater sense of occasion, but the Tivoli is perfectly pitched for the assault on the sector.

Two all-new 1.6-litre engines are available, with the petrol version available now and the diesel unit arriving later in the year. A CO2 figure of 113g/km for the diesel version is new territory for SsangYong and at least puts the brand in the same ballpark as its more illustrious rivals.

The 1.6-litre petrol engine needs plenty of work to eek the most power from it, but starts to wail in agony when you hit the upper reaches of the rev range. It’s not a pleasant sound and will certainly encourage you to take life at a more leisurely pace. On the plus side, the six-speed manual gearbox is perfectly acceptable. We’ve yet to test the automatic transmission, but as it’s the same unit found in the MINI and Fiat 500 we’re unlikely to find serious cause for complaint.

The steering is nicely weighted – especially in Sport mode – but offers nothing in the way of feedback. Body roll is largely kept in check, but there’s little in the way of entertainment value. For some inexplicable reason, SsangYong chose to send us down some of the poorest roads in Italy for the Tivoli test drive. Think of the worst road on your morning commute and throw in some craters, crevasses and worn-out surfaces for good measure and you’ll be somewhere close to the types of roads we experienced.

And the Tivoli just about managed to cope with all but the worst of the conditions. It was certainly given a proper workout. On the motorway, which was drenched with the contents of a passing electrical storm, the Tivoli felt composed with only the wind and road noise blotting an otherwise impressive copybook. It’s not as refined as its European rivals, but the gap is much smaller than you might think.

At motorway speeds, the 1.6-litre engine is having to work hard, so you may wish to wait for the diesel version if your daily commute involves motorways and dual carriageways.

Does the Tivoli put right some of the wrongs of the past?

SsangYong Tivoli interior

Historically, SsangYong has made life tough for itself. If you managed to look beyond the challenging looks of old models you were greeted with a lacklustre interior that lacked the quality and the ergonomics of rival models. As a result, SsangYong purchases were driven by factors such as load space and towing capacity, not to mention the firm’s generous and comprehensive five-year warranty package.

You can make up your own mind on the Tivoli, but we reckon SsangYong has got it right. While hardly original, the Tivoli is well-proportioned, compact and – in the right colour – almost cute. There are echoes of the C4 Cactus and Vitara in the styling. Heck, there are even hints of the Range Rover Evoque in places. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here.

However, it’s the interior where the SsangYong Tivoli shows the most amount of promise. Breaking news – SsangYong interiors are no longer rubbish. The fit and finish is excellent, especially for car in this price bracket, and the ergonomics have been significantly improved. Some of the buttons on the lower part of the centre console are out of touch with the industry’s move towards minimalism and simplicity, but some will like the ease of use they present. There’s also a useful 423 litres of luggage space.

Special mention must go to the seats – which are leather on the EX and ELX models – and offer excellent levels of side support. Apparently SsangYong has won an award for them in Korea. That’s one way of getting bums on seats.

The SsangYong is very well equipped, too. Even on the basic SE trim level, you’ll find air conditioning, 16-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, Bluetooth, steering wheel audio controls, seven airbags and engine start/stop come as standard. But it’s the mid-spec EX trim where the Tivoli starts to offer exceptional value for money. For an extra £1,650, buyers are treated to heated leather seats, 18-inch alloy wheels, dual zone climate control, 7-inch touchscreen and a rear-view camera.

SsangYong expects 90% of buyers to opt for the EX and ELX models and when you consider that it’s possible to buy a top-spec ELX diesel with four-wheel drive for less than £20,000, it’s not hard to see why. We always thought the 500X and Renegade were expensive. SsangYong has just confirmed this. You can buy a mid-spec EX diesel with 4×4 for just £17,100 and let’s remember, SsangYong’s heritage lies in the rough stuff.

Verdict: SsangYong Tivoli (2015)

If we were acting as a school headmaster and dishing out awards for the most improved pupil of 2015, SsangYong would be in with a chance of scooping the top prize. The Tivoli represents a monumental leap forward for the brand. It looks OK, feels good inside and represents astonishing value for money. It’s hard not to be seduced by the ELX model which offers 18-inch diamond-cut alloy wheels, a smart instrument cluster, keyless start, front and rear parking sensors, privacy glass, auto lights, auto wipers and TomTom sat nav. Crucially it also adds a roof spoiler which helps to sharpen up the Tivoli’s styling.

It’s not perfect. The opening to the boot is too high and of an awkward shape and the 60:40 split folding rear seats don’t fold flat, leaving a massive step between the boot floor and the seats. There’s plenty of headroom in the back, but tall passengers might struggle for legroom, made worse by the storage cables on the back of the front seats which can dig into your knees.

SsangYong Tivoli boot

SsangYong reckons the Tivoli will appeal to two types of buyers. Firstly, young mums looking for a practical and reliable car for the school run. Secondly, older buyers looking to downsize from a larger SUV. For now SsangYong lacks the brand cache required to attract the 25-35 year olds who are buying it in Korea. A low-hanging fruit would be to sell to existing SsangYong customers, but the numbers are too small and this fails to move the brand forward.

Somehow SsangYong has to find the X-factor. A tough ask for such a niche player. But with the Tivoli it has a fighting chance of success. If there’s a SsangYong dealer near you, check it out. You might be surprised.

Rivals: SsangYong Tivoli

  • Fiat 500X
  • Citroen C4 Cactus
  • Suzuki Vitara
  • Nissan Juke
  • Renault Captur

You have to feel some sympathy for the little Tivoli, for it’s going into battle against some major players. The Fiat 500X is the newest kid on the block and packs a mighty punch in terms of its styling, funky interior and the way it drives. And let’s not forget the thousands of Fiat 500 owners who may be looking to upsize in the future. The Citroen C4 Cactus upstages it in terms of style and individuality, while the Suzuki Vitara is perhaps the closest match in terms of design, price and brand profile. And the Nissan Juke isn’t getting any younger.

Specification: SsangYong Tivoli 1.6-litre petrol

Engine 1.6-litre 4-cylinder petrol

Gearbox Six-speed manual and six-speed automatic

Prices from £12,950

Power 113hp

Torque 118lb ft

0-62mph 11 – 12 seconds

Top speed 99 – 106mph

MPG 39.2 – 44.1

CO2 149 – 167g/km