after a long and exhaustive search, andy enright thinks he may have landed on the best ski car in the business.
Granted, it sounds a simple assignment. Chuck your ski gear in a car, drive to Alps, ski, drive back. But, as with any apparently straightforward task, there are ways and ways of doing it. I've been wearing a groove between Calais and the French Alps for over twenty years now and in that time, I've managed to progressively develop the requirements for what makes the perfect car for the job. What's more, if it can work well as a ski car, it also works extremely well as an all-round family hack.
Prior to this year, if pressed for the best car I'd used, it would have been the Toyota Land Cruiser. What's more, it was tough to see how the big Toyota could be beaten. Thing is, we start running into a question of value for money. At over £35,000 for a four-wheel drive, five-door Land Cruiser with an auto box, it starts becoming a rather valuable trinket to be flogging over a snowy pass. In the search for a more affordable alternative, one name stood out. You might remember SsangYong for a series of slightly odd looking 4x4s in the Nineties. They weren't the sort of thing I'd have given much time to, but like every other South Korean manufacturer, SsangYong has come charging into contention with a more contemporary range of products. I chose the big Rexton 4x4 because it seemed to satisfy ten fundamental requirements.
To satisfy these criteria, the car in question must offer a proper four wheel drive system, a torquey and economical diesel engine, it must be big enough to get skis in the back with at least three people and luggage on board, must feature ESP stability control, needs seat heaters, industrial-strength air conditioning, cruise control and a decent USB-in stereo, offer adequate ground clearance and can't be fitted with impractical low-profile tyres. Checking off all of these requirements soon whittles down the list of available contenders, but the Rexton 270 EX did all of this and did it for under £24,000. This is less than the very cheapest (and far smaller) diesel Honda CRV or Toyota RAV4. A proper beefy SUV for less than the price of a Barbie truck? Sounds too good to be true.
First signs were promising. The Rexton's styling was neat, the seven seat interior was decently appointed with leather and sat nav but there were a couple of caveats. One was that the car wasn't riding on winter tyres, instead sporting a set of Hankook K406 rubber. The second was that engine refinement from cold wasn't the Rexton's strong suit. Once it got warmed up, noise levels were far more agreeable but a 4am start didn't endear us to the neighbours. With a decent Mercedes-sourced transmission and a well-oiled feel to the steering, the Rexton drives well and cruises easily at typical French autoroute speeds. It never feels the sort of car you'd throw into a corner for the fun of it, but as it's loaded to the gunwales with skis gear, that's probably just as well. Rather impressively, a 192cm ski can fit behind the driver's seat, although it did cross my mind what might happen to unrestrained skis in the event of an accident.
The weather did its best to make this a meaningful test. Our route took us over the 2058m high Col du Lautaret shortly before reaching our destination at Briancon. We had four snow chains in the vehicle but decided to see how far up the snowy Lautaret we could get before we needed to fit them. As the hotel at the top of the pass appeared through the darkness, we realised the Rexton might well be something to be reckoned with. The 162bhp 2.7-litre engine has plenty of low down torque and a winter mode on the transmission also assists traction by preventing the engine revving too highly. The ESP stability control system was barely called into question, but an experimental 'throttle-on' saw the traction being deployed in measured amounts rather than running into a crude throttle cut.
Our second run at the Lautaret was a different story altogether. A blizzard had blown in and we decided to put the SsangYong to a real test. With signs indicating that special equipment was mandatory, we fully expected to need the snow chains. With horrific visibility and snow that was two feet deep on the road, often forming into ruts and drifts that needed to be smashed and bounced over, this was about as tough as on-road winter driving could ever get. Yet still the Rexton got through, without any unnecessary writhing , crabbing or slippage. At one point the tail lights of the car I was desperately trying to follow disappeared into the maelstrom, with my passengers urging me to accelerate through the whiteness to regain contact but it was just too dangerous. When the hotel once again loomed through the whiteout, it was time for a welcome cappuccino and a pain au chocolat.
Don't buy the Rexton if you expect the last word in style or drivetrain refinement. If, on the other hand, you value a vehicle that will get the job done no matter what nature throws at it, it's hard to think of a better buy. It's tough, capable and very well equipped. On one wild evening, high up in the French Alps, I wouldn't have swapped it for anything. Try one and you might well agree that if it can ace this test, it'll have more than enough in hand for the worst Britain's winters can throw at it. If you do buy one, you'll need to find an excuse to drive it in the Alps in winter. Trust me on that one.