David versus Goliath. Wimbledon versus Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup final. The world is full of heroic giant-killing tales, but these aren’t the types of battle SsangYong is looking to get involved in.
“Clearly we can’t take a big volume player like a Ford or a Toyota, a Hyundai or a Kia head-on,” says Nick Laird, managing director of SsangYong Motor UK.
“We need to be cleverer around the edges, and go for business that, perhaps for them, are less interesting opportunities, but for us are great.”
It’s a decidedly more modest ambition compared with the last time Fleet News interviewed SsangYong bosses in 2015. Then it was selling 6,000 vehicles and forecasting close to 20,000 by the end of the decade.
Last year, it sold 2,754 cars, of which 1,482 were in retail, and 483 light commercials.
Its priority in fleet now centres on smaller businesses with between 20 and 40 vehicles and often based in one part of the country, which means they can have a strong relationship with their local dealer, according to Laird.
“These customers, particularly those which have a number of pick-up trucks, are great for us,” he adds.
His enthusiasm for the brand’s fleet prospects has been buoyed by two models: the Musso pick-up and new Korando compact SUV.
The current Musso was launched last summer and will be joined later this year by the long-wheelbase Musso XL, which offers greater carrying capacity.
“Musso XL will be 6% larger than the largest pick-up in the market today, and we imagine that will go down very well with people who are essential users and lug a load of stuff around in their pick-ups regularly,” says Laird.
“For example, if you are a builder or a farmer, or just one of those people who need to make damn sure they can get places, need to put kit in the back and need to drive across fields or need to go across uneven terrain, then Musso will work well for them.
“Korando projects us into a much broader market and will be much more competitive with some of the other mainstream models.
“That will provide us with a bunch of opportunities in the retail and business user markets.”
New Korando, on sale this summer, features a much-improved interior over its predecessor, and Laird says SsangYong’s research shows this will be a key factor in winning new customers.
Its found there are “premium players and then there is everybody else”, he adds.
“We’re not trying to be premium. We are trying to be a good, mid-market brand.
“If you are in that ‘everybody else’ category, the research found consumers won’t buy an ugly car, but its exterior doesn’t really make a big difference.
“However, we found the interior is one of the things that is much more important for those buyers, so we’ve spent a lot of time and money designing interiors that are nice places to be, where seating materials are nice, where instrument panels are interesting.
“With our new models, we think the product is ahead of our brand image, so we have the positive challenge where product is perfectly good enough, but we need to give consumers in the business and retail market the confidence and reason to be proud of what they’ve bought.”
Laird says Musso and Korando could both become 2,000 units per year models for SsangYong.
“These two vehicles could – and should – become the mainstay of a larger SsangYong in the UK in the future,” he adds.
The Korando range will expand to include a fully-electric model next year and Laird is optimistic this will further help improve SsangYong’s image.
“One of the nice things about the alternative fuel market is that because there isn’t an internal combustion engine (ICE) to act as a differentiator between brands, it’s a bit of a leveller,” he says.
“Therefore we have more ability to take a big step in people’s perceptions in a tiny market and the buyers of EVs, from what we know today, are so passionate about them that they would love not to buy an internal combustion engine, so the traditionally-strong ICE brands are much less relevant.
“This means we have an opportunity to make progress more quickly in an EV market than in an ICE market where there are very big, well-established and professional competitors.”
SsangYong last month also launched a revised Tivoli small SUV, featuring exterior and interior changes, as well as new petrol and diesel engines.
“We are expecting good things from all three of the products we are launching,” says Laird.
“They are all very relevant to their market sectors and are true to us being a brand that essentially does SUVs and pick-ups.”
SsangYong’s three-point fleet plan
1 Develop fleet business
One of the fleet deals SsangYong has struck is to supply Musso vehicles to the Highways England. It has also placed demonstrator vehicles with police forces.
“We have been delighted to win business from organisations like that because of the credibility that then lends to our product: people will say ‘if it’s good enough for the police, it’s good enough for me’,” says Nick Laird.
“We are using those as ways to get visibility out there and therefore build credibility in the medium term.”
2 Develop relationships with leasing companies
Laird says: “We are developing relationships with a small number of contract hire companies.
“On our scale, we don’t feel we need to have relationships with every contract hire company, and there may be some for whom the fit with us is pretty bad.
“If, as a contract hire company, all you want to do is deliver high-end premium vehicles into professional services companies, we are a very poor fit so there would be little point in either of us getting into a relationship.”
3 Help franchised dealers grow their fleet business
“We are trying to pull some of our dealers along with our fleet strategy, looking particularly at those local business users,” says Laird.
“Sometimes it is about building relationships for them, sometimes it is just cementing relationships that they already have. We are looking to grow our number of dealers across the UK (SsangYong currently has 60 and wants to grow to 90 by the end of 2020), and I would expect the new dealers we bring in will already have experience in fleet.”