If you’re anywhere near an actual test drive of the new Rodius, don’t read this. It might ruin your fun discovering how this big MPV can’t be what it’s supposed to be.

With looks that are a dramatic improvement over a previous model once called the ugliest vehicle on the road, Ssangyong’s second generation Rodius MPV otherwise offers no change from the front-engine / rear-wheel-drive (RWD) layout of its first generation model. So, new looks, but maybe not-so-modern engineering. Turns out, no, not even close.

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RWD but not the way you’d expect

The Rodius features this compact RDU (rear drive unit) that’s commonly used for giving basic front-wheel-drive (FWD) crossovers an all-wheel-drive option

Those rear driving wheels, especially on a big, full-sized MPV, usually mean rugged body-on-frame construction atop a rigid axle. The ride in back might be a compromise at best, the kind that would get better only with more passengers, the price to pay for a robust ladder frame and solid axle dog bone—mediocre comfort in exchange for hard durability.

img20160807105926But instead, the Rodius features this compact rear drive unit (RDU) that’s commonly used for giving basic front-wheel-drive (FWD) crossovers an all-wheel-drive option. From the longitudinally mounted engine up front, the driveshaft that runs underneath the cabin to the back connects to an RDU box which in turn transmits torque to the rear wheels through secondary shafts mounting universal joints on both ends. There’s no rigid beam between the wheels.

i-img20160810144124And this explains the Rodius’ four wheel drive (4WD) variant, unique among MPVs. To outfit her with part-time 4WD they simply add a drive unit for the front (it may already be in there, this latent transaxle just waiting for shaft connections to the front wheels).

Suddenly, that multi-link independent rear suspension described in the brochure makes a lot more sense, stabilizing an assembly of undulating links that isolate one wheel’s movements from that of the other. All these are under a lightened unibody enhanced with front and rear sub-frames for mounting the running gear and firming up the body ends. The ride in back is excellent with a full load or not—comparable to that of the Honda Odyssey and Kia Carnival, both full-size MPVs with unibody construction and a FWD format that allows for independent rear suspensions—but with the Rodius offering the rarity of a responsive RWD feel at the driver’s seat up front.

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With stabilizing double wishbones in front and a long three meter wheelbase in the middle functioning as a keel to keep her upright in turns, the Rodius’s rear drive wheels pushing her into those curves puts you ahead of the powertrain, literally, with straight line force from the back not complicating the steering geometry in front. Those rear wheels also feature dynamic camber—the tops of the wheels leaning inwards, the bottoms splaying outwards to widen their track, under heavy load or under body-rolling G’s in fast turns. The Rodius might have high ground clearance of 185mm, this in deference to her utilitarian MPV roots, but the engineering that SsangYong invested in this high-riding hauler makes her hunker down in those fast turns, making her handle like a big low-slung sedan instead.

A drivetrain tuned for power

This Rodius’ second generation model mounts the 2.0L SV200 inline-four, a turbocharged direct injection diesel that’s been downsized from the first generation’s five cylinder 2.7L. The new 2.0L has high pressure direct injection but no variable geometry on the turbo. The compression ratio is even lower than usual for a diesel at 16.5:1. So you’d maybe think this engine was downsized for fuel efficiency, a Euro 4 compliant eco-responsible mill that just barely makes the grade against the Rodius’ hefty two tons of curb weight. Another surprise: no, there’s no compromise hindering this turbodiesel.

d-img20160810085206The 2.0L SV200 brandishes the rich torque of an engine obviously tuned for power. Behind its humdrum 151hp @ 3400~4000rpm, there’s impressive torque of 360NM @ 1500~2800rpm. That’s equivalent to the torque of a 3  liter 265hp gasoline engine. Although the diesel’s low revs handicap keeps it from the high revs to make it equate to the same horsepower, it has a diesel’s distinction of making 52 percent of that torque available at the low end, 190NM already on tap even with the engine still just above idle.

It needs an expert’s touch at the gearshift to make the most of this much early onset torque and that’s where the Rodius’ powertrain shines as well. For its automatic transmission (AT) variant, the Rodius features the 5G-Tronic five-speed automatic gearbox sourced from SsangYong’s one-time partner Mercedes-Benz. It’s the same transmission series that the luxury brand has on their high performance sedans.

h-img20160807110440Working the gears is a shift mechanism that’s so smooth, with a lock-up clutch that kicks in early, with triggers that are so intuitive, it’s like having a veteran stick man in there doing the shifts for you. Gear ratios on the 5G-Tronic closely match those of manual five-speed gearboxes, with ratios slightly taller to indicate minimal slippage in the hydraulic converter driving the transmission (they didn’t need to resort to slippage to multiply torque, the 2.0L turbodiesel being powerful enough, apparently). And going through these familiar ratios is controlled electronically by the gearbox’s artificial intelligence (AI) module. You read it right: there’s an AI in there that at first imposes an ideal shift schedule but then adapts it to your driving style as you, and it, go along.

On my test drive, the Rodius fell back on a conventional shift schedule of upshifts at 20km/h increments but at varying RPM points. Up-shifts triggered at around 1750rpm when we went easy from roll-out all the way to cruise. On those occasions when the Rodius’ seating capacity is fully used, 2000rpm keeps you at a smart 95km/h cruise, slightly more revs keeps you at 100. When I gave into the fun of this smooth saloon masquerading as an MPV, we reached cruise faster, the tachymeter hitting 2000 to 2500rpm at the upshifts. All these, exactly the way I would’ve done it if it had been a manual.

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There’s the option to go manual with sequential shift commands on the electronic AT, but it’s not something you’d need in city driving, not even on the highway where accelerator punches for overtakes prompt fast-twitch kickdowns (that AI is really something else). Although, those override commands will come in handy when you want engine braking to slow down entry into twisties and/or downhill stretches. Not that you’d have to depend too much on drag from the idled engine. Those ventilated disc brakes on all four wheels with an anti-lock brake system (ABS), give such assertive and controlled grip, it’s like they thought you’d be doing heavy hauling, like with the momentum of a cargo truck.

Handsome engineering

f-img20160807105409The Rodius has this sense of snugness to her, no slack tolerated in engineering that’s well put together. With the efficient mass of a modern unibody and the comfort and responsiveness of a fully independent suspension under that, the Rodius manages to bring back that well grounded RWD feel that we had been missing lately on big FWD MPVs such as the Honda Odyssey and Kia Carnival.

And the significance of how they’ve implemented that rear driving powertrain can’t be repeated enough. The surprisingly small turbodiesel brimming with power; the AI-equipped AT with little intrinsic slippage completing the illusion of the expert system acting as your pro on a manual’s clutch and stick; transmitting that intelligent power to a modern RDU box that keeps the rear suspension supple; and the dynamic camber that contrives to widen the rear track on fast turns; all these point to diligent engineering that make the Rodius’ price point more startling.

2t5c1801This second generation Rodius introduced in 2013 puts straighter character lines, a sharp faceted look, and a keener, more aggressive face on the successor of a dowdy first-generation model that earned the derision of many. Yet, ironically, with a cabin spacious enough to take three or four rows of seating, and despite its unique 4WD option on an MPV, the comparatively low prices for Rodius variants ranging from PhP1.29 to PhP1.59 million, depict it as maybe being this lumbering behemoth that’s just been dressed up premium. But this MPV’s second generation reboot features solid fundamentals that counter this notion nicely, reminding us that prices are kept relatively low because of recently enforced tariff breaks for South Korean imports.

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Second and first-generation face off

And, it seems that those all-important fundamentals have been there all along. The first-gen ugly sister had the same dimensions, same wheelbase, same RWD with 4WD option, and all with a curb weight that says it too was of modern unibody construction. It may already have featured the all-important RDU and independent suspension. Good thing then, this second-generation reboot that finally lets SsangYong’s surprising engineering shine through.

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