"I see you've got one of them there Terror Cans," said a neighbour of mine, who knows a thing or too about cars. Twenty years ago, he might have been right: most Pacific Rim cars were a long way behind their European and Japanese rivals in terms of safety, driveability and comfort. Cheap they were, but at a price.
So much has changed in the intervening period that cars from Malaysia and Korea have become not only far more sophisticated in terms of cabin specifications, but, with certain reservations, are on much closer terms with the household names that dominate the UK market. Yet despite their by-and-large successful attempts at playing catch-up, Pacific Rim products still retain one traditional virtue that no amount of hardware improvement seems to affect - the extraordinary value-for-money deals that characterise Hyundai, Kia and Proton cars.
Take, for example, the subject of this test, the Hyundai Terracan. More or less fully loaded, with proper four-wheel drive, including a low-ratio transfer 'box and a limited-slip differential, it manages to undercut its nearest mainstream rivals by thousands of pounds. With what many buyers would consider a premium-car specification, the Terracan is yours to drive away smiling for £18,495, plus £850 if you choose the automatic model.
And try as you might, it is nigh impossible to find any evidence of short-changing, at least in terms of creature comforts. Things like electronic climate control, an electrochromic rear-view mirror, wood-effect trim, lumbar adjustment, twin 12-volt power outlets, front arm rests, a leather-bound steering-wheel and gear knob, heated mirrors, alloys, roof rails with cross-over bars, front fogs, and so on - all these are standard on the American-influenced, one-model range.
Where the Terracan falls short of its European rivals is in the absence of active and passive safety. Apart from ABS and electronic brake force distribution there are no intervention electronics to improve active safety - traction control (except in the form of the limited-slip diff) is absent, as is any form of dynamic stability control. Likewise, passive safety is largely confined to pre-tensioning seatbelts and twin front airbags - side, torso, head or curtain airbags simply don't figure, even as options.
So there is the Terracan's weakest link - whereas the cabin is pretty much up to the mark, owners who demand 21st Century active safety will need to shop elsewhere, and, of course, pay for the extra peace of mind. But families on a budget, or working users - such as farmers - might well think that the trade-off is acceptable, especially since very few off-roaders are likely to be driven in a manner that makes frequent demands on active safety devices.
Drivers new to off-roading might point to the absence of traction control and hill-descent control and argue that the Terracan is consequently less capable in extreme conditions. I would beg to differ: in the right hands a manual 'box with selectable low-ratio gears and a torquey diesel lump are just as effective, it's all a matter of technique; and farmers, at least, will know how to get the best out of the car. The selection of 4-wheel-drive, high or low ratio is simple enough - just turn a dial alongside the handbrake. High-ratio 4-wheel drive can be selected at speeds of up to 50 mph, which is useful if on-road conditions suddenly turn icy or dicey. In 4-wheel drive, the torque is split 50:50, front and rear; in 2-wheel drive it is the rear wheels that are driven.
Just as reassuring as the traditional 4x4 transmission is the body-on-frame construction. A stout, ladder-frame chassis provides the necessary rigidity for effective axle articulation and suspension travel, and at the same time provides a level of robustness concomitant with day-to-day workhorse duty, as might be demanded by farm, estate or forestry users. Town dwellers can be reassured that a ladder-frame chassis stands up well in a shunt - its inherent design and strength will absorb and spread impact forces. Imagine sitting within a web of RSJs and you will get my point.
However, 4x4s are not just about challenging terrain. Many drivers opt for the extra traction for entirely different reasons. As with any other self-respecting 4x4, the Terracan can tow more than its own weight, and can legally tug a braked trailer with an authorised mass of up 2800 kilos, which is much heavier than most caravans or sports boats, and heavier than most horse boxes. (If you passed your test after 1 Jan 1997 you will have to take a separate test to tow a trailer, at least three months after passing your car test).
The power for all this off-roading and towing takes the form of a 2.9-litre CRDT common-rail, turbo-diesel engine which is new to the UK. Developing 148 bhp at 3800 rpm, and 333 Nm torque, peaking at 2000 rpm, it is not the most inspiring unit ever to grace a modern 4x4 yet it nonetheless goes about its duty without putting to much strain on your ears or your pocket. With an official EU combined fuel consumption of 32.8 mpg, size-for-size, the Terracan is not remarkable, good or bad. Whole-life costs are diminished by Hyundai's industry leading 5-year manufacturer's warranty, which is fully transferable and therefore likely to prop-up residuals.
But in the space versus cost equation, size-for-size the Terracan emerges as one of the value favourites, offering, as it does, bags of room for people and paraphernalia. Rear legroom is a very comfortable 907 mm and the 'boot' will swallow shed-loads of stuff, almost literally, especially with the rear seats folded down. With optional leather seating, the Terracan can be made to look and feel almost as posh as a Land Cruiser, and it is very nearly as spacious.
The company makes no reference to Toyota in its line up of comparable off-roaders, but instead points at the Nissan Patrol, Isuzu Trooper and Mitsubishi Shogun Sport as the Terracan's principal (and more expensive) rivals. In an almost throw-away line, the company also suggests that a new Terracan might be considered as an alternative to a second-hand Land Rover Discovery. So it might, in price terms, but the Disco is in a different league. The Terracan has much to offer, but it's not up to Land Rover standards.
Aside from the very limited active and passive safety specification, my only other major criticism of the Terracan is its dated appearance. Its over fussy face, bonnet-mounted air scoop, and smallish wheels (for its size), place it firmly in the mid-90s, and it is a long way removed from the muscular, king-of-the-road stance of its European contemporaries. It is perhaps apposite that the word, 'Terracan' translates as 'king of the land'. There is a world of difference.
Performance, too, is rooted in the last century. The 0-62 mph time of 13.7 seconds does not make for riveting performance, nor does the quoted top speed of 103 mph look especially impressive. In a similar vein, the drive is reminiscent of a Toyota or Nissan of a generation or two back. The body rolls quite noticeably and the roadholding is plagued by roll-understeer at anything above a modest pace, thanks in part to the high-aspect-ratio rubber. The steering ratio is also rather low, so any attempt at rapid cross country driving involves a lot of steering input, and a fair amount of cog swapping as well, as the torque envelope seems quite narrow.
But in fairness, the Terracan has to be placed in context. The company does not claim that it offers the performance and dynamics of a BMW X5; nor does it, except in new-for-old terms, does it claim for the Terracan the stature of a Disco. Interestingly, amongst the nominated rivals is the ageing Frontera (itself a kind of Isuzu hand-me -down) and it is with the Vauxhall that the Terracan is most obviously compared for ride, handling and roadholding.
Posted on 19.05.2004 by Graham Whyte
Again, though, I would make the point that most buyers of the Terracan are unlikely to place vehicle dynamics high on their list of priorities. The fact that it will transport mum, dad, a couple of kids, and their bikes, in satisfactory comfort at a reasonable pace is surely enough for most averagely aspirant families? For sure, it doesn't have a BMW badge or looks, nor that of a Volvo or a Landie, but if any of those companies were asked to build a large, five-seat, genuine off-roader, and ship it half way round the world for under eighteen and a half grand, I wonder what would be the result? In value terms, I doubt that any of them would come anywhere near the size, specification and capability of the Terracan. There is a strong argument for saying that is how it should be judged, not on its absolute specification.
We know that labour rates are cheaper in Korea, and that obviously has some bearing on the matter. And we also know that the Terracan is not exactly leading-edge. But for young families on a budget, or for farmers anxious to spend their EU hand-out with caution, it has a lot to offer. In fact, you might say it does exactly what it says on the tin. Or should that be on the can?