The promise of Mercedes Benz quality at a Korean price was an attractive proposition that drew many buyers to the SsangYong Musso. The Korean-built four-wheel drive wagon was imported first by Mercedes-Benz and sold through ’Benz dealers, giving the Musso an instant credibility few Korean cars enjoyed.

Although there were lots of Korean makes and models being sold here, they were typically cheap and cheerful cars that appealed to those with a severely limited budget. With its Mercedes connection the Musso caused a rethink of what Korean cars were.

MODEL WATCH

When it arrived the Musso brought with it some distinctly Asian styling. In a market used to four-wheel drive wagons with fairly straight lines and boxy shapes, the Musso’s angular shape stood out.

Back then it was case of love it or leave it, but compared to some of the four-wheel drives that now fill showrooms to overflowing the Musso fits right in.

The Musso had a head start in terms of credibility. Although the SsangYong name was new to this country, the fact that it was being imported and sold here by Mercedes-Benz made it acceptable in some minds that would otherwise have dismissed it as just another cheap import from Seoul.

At the time SsangYong and Mercedes were involved in a joint venture with the German star marque providing the Korean company with technology, and access to engines that had been superseded in the Mercedes range.

SsangYong was also able to source components from the same suppliers as Mercedes so the quality came indirectly as well as through the front door.

The Musso was a four-wheel drive wagon of a size similar to the Toyota Prado, Mitsubishi Pajero and Jeep Cherokee, the very models that were beginning to power the push to four-wheel drives for every day round town use.

At launch there was a choice of petrol or diesel engines, both with strong Mercedes-Benz connections. The double overhead camshaft, four valve, 3.2-litre fuel-injected petrol engine gave 161 kW and 310 Nm, which was enough to endow it with a lively turn of speed.

Not only was its acceleration off the mark brisk, it also had good mid-range urge for safe overtaking.

The diesel choice was a sturdy 2.9-litre single overhead camshaft five cylinder which produced 70 kW and 192 Nm for a much more sedate drive.

By today’s standards the normally aspirated diesel lacks performance, it’s sluggish away from the lights, but it’s hard to beat for fuel consumption.

A double overhead cam, four valve, fuel-injected four cylinder petrol engine was added to the range in 1997. With 104 kW and 220 Nm, performance was not breathtaking.

When it first arrived the petrol-powered Musso could only be had with a four-speed auto taken from the S-Class Mercedes, but a five-sped manual was made available from 1997. The diesel could be had with both from launch.

Two types of four-wheel drive system were employed, both activated by a switch on the dash. The diesel had a part-time system, which meant it could be driven in two-wheel drive as well as four-wheel drive, the petrol engines were full-time four-wheel drive. Both had high and low range four-wheel drive for useful offroad performance.

All were well equipped with a long list of standard features, including power steering, ABS, air-conditioning, alloy wheels, power windows, power mirrors, central locking, leather steering wheel, rear spoiler, metallic paint.

IN THE SHOP

The Musso suffered very few problems, there is nothing major that appears to afflict them.

Early wagons with the six-cylinder petrol engines could suffer from oil leaks from the head gasket, but it’s not a widespread problem that should cause undue concern.

With the Musso so well equipped it was really aimed at the buyer who drove their 4WD for every day transport with only the very occasional foray beyond the black top, so damage from offtrack use is not normally found.

Even so it’s worth looking for signs of hard off-road use, like bashed brackets and fittings underneath, dents and scratches down the sides, and dust in the hard to get at crevices inside.

The transfer case caused some grief on early models due to the electric shift motor (coloured blue) overloading the shift fork, which was rectified on a service campaign.

Front upper control arm bushes are also known to chop out, but improved aftermarket bushes are available to eliminate that problem.

Like all cars Mussos need regular and proper servicing to keep them running sweetly, so look for a service record when inspecting one with a view to purchase. Some uncaring owners were inclined to neglect their Mussos and didn’t service them as they should.

OWNERS SAY

Retired Mercedes-Benz service technician Peter Hoockey owns a 1997 Musso diesel ex-Mercedes Benz, which has now done 160,000 km. According to Peter it has been an excellent and reliable vehicle. He likes the roomy interior, the lift up tailgate, which gives weather protection when unloading the vehicle, the reasonable roof height for loading the roof rack, the very quiet pre-chamber diesel, and German-made auto. Other good ideas are the heated exterior mirrors, lay back rear seat squabs, and rain sensing wipers. Acceleration is not exactly neck snapping, but the with 10 L/100 km in city driving and 8-9 on the highway the fuel consumption is excellent.

John Dummler and his wife, Michelle, own two Mussos. Michelle’s is a 1996 auto, with dealer fitted turbo diesel, which has done 142,000 km, John’s a five-speed manual 3.2-litre six which has done 100,000 km. They have experienced no mechanical problems whatsoever, apart from replacing a set of glow plugs on the diesel at 140,000 km, at a cost of $30 each. John felt the suspension was too soft causing them to wallow over rough roads and sag in the rear, but replacing the rear coils and shockers with Pedder’s heavy duty units rectified that. John says both are more than capable of handling some pretty serious tracks, but the diesel lacks the highway performance of the petrol engine.

LOOK FOR

• reliable Mercedes-Benz engines and transmissions.

• roomy and comfortable interior

• capable offroad performance

• zippy six-cylinder petrol engine

• sluggish, but economical diesel

• good value for money

THE BOTTOM LINE

Comfortable, capable four-wheel drive with proven Mercedes-Benz engines and transmissions.

RATING

65/100