EAST V WEST IN OFF ROAD BATTLE

18 July 1997




EAST V WEST IN OFF ROAD BATTLE

East meets west as Jeeps Laredo takes on SsangYongs Musso, with David Cousins andAndrew Pearce as referees

AH, THE blessed sound of silence. Instead of the usual rattle of diesel off-roaders, this months head-to-head features a brace of automatic petrol burners.

In price/performance terms theyre bargains – Jeeps Grand Cherokee Laredo is Austrian-built, costs £26,495 and brings 174hp, while SsangYongs £25,610 Musso GX220 is blessed with 215hp. Putting those prices into perspective, a V8 Discovery S (182hp) stands in at £25,745 but does without the ABS, air-conditioning and sundry other goodies of the test pair.

The Laredo is a mid-spec model with Limited and 5.2-litre versions above it, the GX220 is top of SsangYongs South Korean tree. Theres quite a contrast in looks – the fat-nosed, cheesy-grin Jeep is the smaller, with a shape that only just evades blandness.

The Musso, though – particularly in test-car black – carries a hint of urban menace in its slit eyes, wide stance and rakish tail. Just the job for pottering round the village.

Engines, transmissions, economy

The engines are both fuel injected, straight sixes, with power put to ground through permanent four-wheel-drive systems. Jeeps iron block lump has two valves a cylinder, 4.0 litres and 174hp/222lbf ft torque. SsangYongs powerhouse carries Mercedes pointed star on its covers, under which hide 24 valves, 217hp and 226lbf ft torque. Vehicle weights are 1820kg for the American, 1970kg for the Korean.

Bald figures suggest there shouldnt be much performance difference between them, but there is. Torque is the clue – the Jeep peaks at 2400revs, the Musso at 4000.

When youre not in a hurry, the Jeep is the most flexible. Its happier to lug and builds power seamlessly. The Musso though is not too interested to pull from low revs, droning quietly up to 3000rpm before kicking into life.

But when the chips are down and the throttle pedals hit carpet, hold on to your hat. With an urgent, edgy scream the Musso heads for the horizon at a rate which confuses plenty of cars, let alone 4x4s.

The Jeep just cant hold it, partly as the autobox shifts up too early and pegs the motor back. Even switching out the overdrive top and holding gears manually wont close the gap – the Mussos free-spinning Merc is too strong.

The Korean also has the sweetest powertrain. At idle its hard to tell if the engine is running, and it never gets rowdy. Not that theres much wrong with the Jeeps motor and transmission; its simply that bit coarser.

Where big motorway distances are on the menu, these cars will munch them. In the Korean theres little wind noise, some whoosh from the wide Michelins, an undercurrent of transmission whine and – unless you push it – no noise from the motor.

Jeep has geared the Laredo so high it simply lopes along, generating less tyre noise but a tad more from the transmission. A tall overdrive top gear can sap the motor on hills, and the car never manages the urgent thump in the back that the Musso delivers from 80mph on. But overall, its marginally the more relaxed cruiser.

Using either vehicle hard brings a smile to the local petrol emporium. Around 600 miles of fast cruising, pedal-to-the-metal stuff and off-road rumblings produced 19.3mpg from the Jeep and 19.6mpg from the Musso. Well, fun never did come cheaply.

Interiors

Both cars seat five. All the way the pair are nip and tuck: While the Mussos cab is brighter, thanks to a deeper front screen and lighter grey trim, the Jeep edges it out on materials quality and finish. Seat height adjustment options give a high driving position in the Musso; Jeepists sit more down in a hole and face a taller dash, though as this is further away theres the notion of more space.

Both cars bring up/down steering column adjustment, clear instruments (though Jeep minor dials are so-so) and haphazard switch gear. Bonnets drop away so you cant see the front corners, which is tricky off road and in tight car-park corners; and the Laredos thicker front pillars are the more intrusive.

Where Jeeps velour front seats are soft, wide and bum-snuggling, the Mussos equivalents are harder. The Laredo scores again with stepless backrest rake adjustment; the Musso counters with variable lumbar support.

The Laredo thrusts with a high-set and built-in radio; the Korean parries with a gear stick thats in reach, though its stepped gate is more awkward than the others straight-line shift.

Both cars have a centre oddments bin and shallow door pockets. In the crucial cup-holder stakes the result is an easy 4-0 win to the USA – Koreans clearly dont drink and drive.

Moving to the rear reveals significant differences. Back seat inhabitants can slide easier into the SsangYong and find more headroom, better leg room, seat rake adjustment and a less knees-up position. The seat itself is hard and unsupportive, though its height lets you see clear over the front headrests. In the Laredo these block forward view.

How about creature comforts? Both cars come with electric windows/mirrors, air-conditioning and cruise control. The Mussos version of cruise is a right pain, as in a fit of nannyism the makers have limited its top whack to 76mph.

Staying with personal protection, both cars lock all doors as speed picks up (apparently to foil traffic light muggers and other urban ner-do-wells), and witter irritating chimes should you leave the key in the ignition or transgress in other ways. The best place for such electronic ear-bashers is the skip.

Load space

In the load bay the Korean wins, partly as its the longer vehicle and partly as Jeep opts to keep the spare wheel inside; SsangYong hides it under the car. With the back seat up the Mussos bay is 75mm (3in) longer and a whopping 330mm (13in) wider at maximum; and the door opening is 75mm (3in) deeper too.

Folding the Mussos back seat is fast but takes more muscle, while the more fiddly Jeep arrangement rewards time spent by generating an extra 50mm (2in) of load bay length. Both cars have a sensible bed height and relatively shallow bumpers, so heaving a load into their boots is not a back-strainer.

Ride, steering, brakes

The Jeeps coil sprung live axles return the softest ride, which the front seats cushion further. Theres a French feel to the suspension, whose competent damping takes out all heave to leave the occupants largely unstirred by country potholes and ripples.

The Mussos torsion bars and coils let you know much more about whats passing underfoot. The ride is harder with more jitter, and crests can reveal shortcomings in the damping department. Having said that, everything is relative – the Korean is not uncomfortable, just less cossetting.

There are big differences in steering, where SsangYong junked the usual 4×4 recirculating ball system in favour of rack and pinion. While the Musso turns in much more positively and steers more precisely, the systems over-strong self-centering irritates; only as you go faster does it make more sense.

Around straight ahead the wheel often writhes on broken tarmac, bumps can make it squirm and, when braking, the car can hunt for direction. By comparison, the Laredos lighter, mushier system offers no involvement but no surprises either – and has the better lock.

Settled into a fast sweep the Musso sits flatter and feels more secure, mid-corner potholes notwithstanding. Both cars have permanent 4wd, so dry-road grip is high through bends and away from junctions.

Off road

Now were back to nip and tuck. Drivelines are similar, with low range reached through a swan-neck lever in the Jeep and by dash switch in the Musso.

In low range the Laredos centre diff is locked, whereas the Koreans viscous unit looks after itself both on and off road. Torque converters on both cars let drive be taken up very steadily (helping grip) and allow for low-speed trickling where needed.

Neither car is short on urge. The Jeeps power delivery is softer, the Mussos lack of low-speed torque is masked by low range ratios. In some places its sometimes sudden drive take-up from rest can hinder more than help, although when big power is needed its the boss.

Both boxes allow full engine braking in first gear, accessed by nudging the lever sideways in the Musso. The Jeeps straight-line shift makes finding reverse easier on failed climbs, but then the SsangYongs lower reverse brings more engine help on coming down.

Theres distinctly more axle travel in the Jeep. This, plus its fluid suspension, make it the more stable and reassuring of the pair over tough going. But underbody clearance is less, so the American can grind to a stop where the Musso carries on.

Even on road tyres these cars take a fair bit of stopping, and their plastic body bits survived our stint. Of course you can break them or bog them – but as true highway burners come farm transport, they surprise.

Sum-up

If its bargain performance and space youre after the Musso has them, backed and bolstered by that smooth, quiet Mercedes-derived powertrain. Youll live with the unruly steering, moan about the low-revs lethargy, grow into the harder ride and maybe pay a little less on fuel.

Comfort lovers who would rather glide than rush will prefer the Jeeps softer ride and more relaxed approach; its also the easier car to just jump in and drive.

The drivetrains relative harshness wont be noticed; ditto the lacklustre steering, and only very short or very tall people will carp over the accommodation. Remote locking, a standard roof rack and a second air bag help sweeten its £885 price premium – but looks will decide the issue for many.

Cheap thrills – 217hp SsangYong Musso (front) goes against 174hp Jeep Laredo. Both are similarly priced.

Jeep dash is orderly but uninspiring. Straight-line auto shifter and built-in radio are both a long reach forward, smooth-operating single column stalk is backed up by jumbled panel switches. Height-adjustable wheel carries cruise control buttons, showing SsangYong how it should be done. Soft, cosseting drivers seat offers stepless rake variation but not height control.

Wood features more in the Musso. Dash panel is neat and easy on the eye, but less good functionally thanks to switch placement. Velour seats are harder than Jeeps and have height adjustment.

The Jeeps load area blind clips to the tailgate, so opens and closes with it. Rear seat fold is fiddly.

Removable load net in rear of Jeep can be used to secure loose items, small dogs or unruly children.

Now heres real progress. Both Jeep sun visors have mirror illumination, complete with brightness adjustment. Good grief!

Gated Musso gearshift is OK on the road, can be a problem off it when you need reverse in a rush.

Mercedes-derived straight six gives the Musso big top end clout, but lacks sparkle low down. Torque peaks at 4000revs compared to Laredos 2400.

Jeep load bay (left) starts off smaller; cluttering it up with the spare wheel doesnt help. Musso spare lives under the floor – good for space, worse if you need to use it. Curved tailgate (right) can collide with unwary heads.


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