• In the 90s, Mercedes-Benz had a joint-venture with SsangYong.
• The Chairman shared platforms from both automakers.
• The Chairman was a Korean-built limousine which looked sort of like an S-Class.
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One of the most curious automotive joint-venture agreements was between Mercedes-Benz and SsangYong.
Why the storied German marque decided to share engines and platform technology with Korea's least successful car company remains a mystery.
It could be argued that during the 1990s, when merger mania was in vogue, Mercedes-Benz felt a compulsion to have partnerships in Asia and America.
The company's misadventure with Daimler-Chrysler is well documented, but the SsangYong-Benz collaboration is less broadly understood - or explored.
In South Africa, the SsangYong-Mercedes connection was presented as a range of Prado-sized SUVs. Upon reflection, these were very interesting vehicles, in a market where the notion of a luxury gravel travel vehicle was still undefined and underappreciated.
With Mercedes-Benz engines, the SsangYong Musso had powertrain cachet that many Japanese SUVs could only dream of. Popularity was limited, with most South African buyers preferring the more rugged Hyundai Terracan as their Korean full-sized off-roader of choice.
When S- meets E-Class
By far the most interesting of all SsangYong and Mercedes-Benz's shared platform models, was the Chairman.
No other vehicle symbolises Mercedes-Benz's technical excellence and brand values with greater authenticity than S-Class. One would, therefore, expect Mercedes to jealously guard any and all technical secrets and components related to S-Class, and when it came to SsangYong, they did – sort of.
When the Chairman launched in 1997, it was a very unusual blend of S-Class design likeness, on an E-Class platform. The idea was clearly to leverage the established limousine presence of Mercedes-Benz's S-Class, but with a lesser platform. And when we say lesser, we mean old. For the first decade of its life, the Chairman used Mercedes-Benz's W124 underpinnings, which first debuted to market in the mid-1980s.
Although Mercedes-Benz clearly had a powertrain-sharing relationship with SsangYong, there was no way that it would agree to a technology twin limousine. The compromise was that SsangYong could use a generation-old E-Class platform for its Chairman while being allowed to style the vehicle in a manner that would be remarkably close in proportion and detailing to the S-Class.
The result was something that looked like an S-Class, but drove like an overweight E-Class. SsangYong produced the Chairman from 1997 to 2017, primarily for the Korean market, and it was always a case of being a true retromobile.
More of an 'S' towards the end
There was one significant model update, in 2006, when SsangYong transitioned to using the discontinued W140 S-Class platform.
Until its retirement in 2017, you could buy a Korean-built limousine which looked sort of like an S-Class, with strangely relatable styling but which rode on a platform from the 1990s.
Mercedes-Benz clearly never felt threatened by its relationship with SsangYong. By providing the Koreans with E- and S-Class hardware that was often more than a decade out of date, Mercedes-Benz ensured that although the Chairman looked very much like an S-Class, it never drove even remotely like a comparable model year version.
This allowed Mercedes-Benz to turn some profits from technology that it was no longer using, while never threatening the brand cachet of its most lauded model range.