My 10-year-old daughter immediately started calling our Vitamin Red (it's the hero colour of the range) SsangYong Korando test vehicle the "cherry tomato". Very perceptive, I assured her, but in fact Chery is a Chinese brand and SsangYong is Korean. Although it was owned by Chinese giant SAIC from 2004-09, until it was sold to Indian company Mahindra. Then I forgot what we were talking about.

SsangYong has had a continuous presence in the New Zealand market since 1994. Yet the recent history of the company has been incredibly tumultuous and the Korando represents a complete about-face from anything the maker has done before. So the first question about this new crossover is likely to be "what is it?" rather than whether it's any good.

SsangYong is best-known for tough, separate-chassis off-road vehicles with unapologetically weird styling. In recent years, one of its unique selling propositions has been the use of licensed (but not latest-generation) Mercedes-Benz powertrains.

The new Korando is SsangYong's first monocoque-chassis vehicle, a compact-crossover in the Toyota RAV4 vein that is designed for light off-roading at best and looks rather pretty.

Advertisement

Its 2.0-litre diesel engine does not carry a Mercedes-Benz label - although many are convinced that's where it's come from - but it is very modern, with an electronically controlled variable geometry turbo and impressive peak outputs of 129kW/360Nm. A six-speed transmission is standard on all but the entry version.

It's not a great thing to drive and doesn't pretend to be. The diesel engine has loads of power but is coarse under load. The automatic gearbox is slick in slow driving, but labours and acts a little confused when the throttle is worked hard. The chassis is effective and safe, with understeer the order of the day.

So there's no way the Korando will challenge a RAV4 or Skoda Yeti for driving pleasure, but I still rather like this little crossover. There's an honest, cheap-and-cheerful character about the Korando - appealing when it comes wrapped up in such a stylish exterior and interior design package.

There are even a few surprise-and-delight features: welcome lights under the side mirrors, a flat floor for rear-seat passengers and one-touch folding seats. And cheap it can be. There's just one engine, but you can have the Korando in a variety of trim levels and two- or four-wheel drive. The entry model, the Korando Sports in two-wheel drive, is just $34,990 with six-speed manual transmission, and that's a package you'd have to recommend.

It gets harder the further up the price ladder you go. What seems like a great family wagon for $35k looks way too expensive by the time you get to our flagship Korando SPR test vehicle, at $47,990. It's got leather, 18-inch wheels, climate-control air and a sunroof (curiously, it's also the only model to have telescopic steering wheel adjustment) - but this kind of money buys you one of the established stars in the crossover segment and the Korando doesn't have the dynamics and fit/finish to compete at that level.

Korando is apparently a contraction of "Korea can do". SsangYong hasn't quite done it yet in the highly competitive compact-crossover market, but this is a promising start.

Alternatives
* Holden Captiva 5 diesel $44,990
* Hyundai ix35 CRDi Elite $54,990
* Renault Koleos diesel $49,990
* Skoda Yeti TDI $48,000
* Toyota RAV diesel $49,990