Following its return in 2007, MG Motor was for years a marginal and faltering presence in the European auto market. DTW asks if the Chinese owned company is finally beginning to make a meaningful impact.
The final collapse of MG Rover in 2005 was an ugly, rancorous affair. It was also a long time coming. Since BMW disposed of its troublesome English Patient in 2000, selling it for a nominal £10(1) to the Phoenix Consortium, the company limped along with increasingly desperate attempts to reheat and repackage its ageing product line-up.
The most egregious of these was not the Rover Streetwise which, it could be argued, was simply ahead of its time, but the MG Express(2). Yes, MG Rover really did think (or was desperate to believe) there was a market for an MG branded delivery van. Then there were the foolish distractions: the rear-wheel-drive, Ford 4.6 litre V8 powered versions of the Rover 75 and MG ZT, and the MG SV, a ridiculous vanity project that wasted precious time and money the company could ill afford.
MG Rover never turned a profit, and its so-called saviours were too busy lining their own pockets to the tune of £42 million to be overly concerned about its long-term future. As the bank accounts emptied, there was hope that SAIC (Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation) might step in and rescue the company, but that deal failed when the UK government refused to support MG Rover for the two years it would take for SAIC to bring desperately needed new models to market.
After MG Rover’s collapse, the Chinese returned to pick over the bones of the corpse. Nanjing Automobile(3) bought the Longbridge plant, the rights to use the MG name, and production tooling and the rights to produce the MG TF, ZR and ZT models for £53 million. There was quite a widespread sense in the UK, propagated by press coverage at the time, that the Chinese had somehow acted in bad faith by not consummating the proposed earlier deal when, in reality, they simply made the right commercial decision. Even promises to maintain some design and production facilities at Longbridge did not assuage the ill-feeling, however.
Nanjing began producing its version of the TF, the MG ZT (renamed MG7) and the Rover Streetwise (renamed MG3 SW) from 2007 in China for the domestic market. It also returned to the UK with small-scale assembly at Longbridge of the TF, now with the suffix LE500 added to its name and a lightly modified nose.
Of much greater significance should have been the UK launch in May 2011 of the first MG designed under Nanjing ownership, the MG6 GT. This was a C/D segment FWD five-door hatchback that used some ZT components but was mainly new. It was powered by a 1.8 litre inline four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine producing 158bhp (117kW). The transmission was a five-speed manual gearbox. The styling was anodyne if not unpleasant, with a slightly high-tailed look. It was available in three trim levels and the entry price was £14,911.
Autocar magazine tested the MG6 GT in top TSE spec costing around £19k at launch and awarded it two stars out of five. The car was lauded for its well resolved ride and handling, its spaciousness and generous specification, but criticised for a gruff engine, lack of refinement, and poor economy and emissions. Performance looked respectable on paper, with a 0 to 60 mph (97 km/h) time of 8.8 seconds, but the harsh engine note and noticeable turbo lag made it unpleasant to exploit. In summary, the reviewers concluded that the MG6 as tested “falls way short” but still “shows…ample promise”.
The hatchback was joined by a four-door saloon version with the suffix Magnette(4). A much needed 1.9 litre 148 bhp (110 kW) diesel engine, mated to a six-speed manual gearbox, was added in late 2012. Writing for the Sunday Times newspaper in May 2013, motoring journalist Jeremy Clarkson was characteristically brutal in his conclusion on the diesel-powered Magnette. Awarding it just one star, Clarkson described it as “rotten to the core”.
The 6 GT and Magnette were middling cars and early build quality was somewhat variable. Arguably, a greater problem was the smouldering if unjustified hostility to Nanjing and SAIC over the MG Rover collapse. The antipathy was articulated disingenuously as the new models being “not proper MGs” because they were family rather than sports cars. This conveniently overlooked the fact that the vast majority of MG cars produced over the previous decades had been badge-engineered versions of BMC and its successor companies’ models.
Ignoring the TF, the last all-new MG sports car had been the 1962 MGB(5). A misguided attempt to redefine MG as Modern Gentleman further infuriated diehard MG aficionados. One could plausibly argue that the MG name was more of a burden than a benefit to the cars’ prospects at this time.
Early sales were slow, to say the least. The advertising budget appeared to be minimal and even success in the BTCC (British Touring Car Championship) and a well-judged facelift in 2015, accompanied by a hefty price cut of up to £3k, could not lift the MG6 out of the doldrums. It was withdrawn from the UK market in 2016. Total European sales over six years were just 2,967(6) cars. By way of comparison, Rolls-Royce sold 3,395 Phantom limousines in Europe over the same period.
MG launched its second model onto the UK market in September 2013. The MG3 was designed in the UK and it was promised that models for the European market would be assembled(7) at Longbridge from 2014. The MG3 was a five-door B-segment supermini, powered by a 1.5 litre 105bhp (78kW) engine mated to a five-speed manual gearbox. The suspension layout was the class-standard of front struts and a torsion-beam rear axle. The styling was neat and inoffensive, with hints of the Suzuki Swift in its high waistline, shallow glasshouse and fashionable gloss black A-pillars.
Autocar tested the MG3 at launch and thought it a rather more credible offering than the MG6, rating it at 3½ stars. The reviewers liked its styling, sweet handling and compelling list price, starting from just £8,695. Like the MG6, however, its drivetrain was found wanting, with a limp gearchange and an unfashionably large-capacity engine that gave laboured performance and poor economy.
That said, the MG3 steered and handled with remarkable precision. The interior was spacious and nicely designed, with only a few lapses in material quality. Overall, it was still an excellent buy at a bargain price, where its only direct competitors were the Dacia Sandero and the decrepit and execrable Proton Satria Neo.
European sales, if not stellar, were certainly better than those of the MG6. A total of 7,683 MG3s found owners up to the end of 2016. These were, of course, still tiny and inconsequential numbers in absolute terms for a group the size of SAIC. A smaller and less well-resourced manufacturer might have given up on Europe at this point, but that was never an option for an ambitious company willing and able to take the long view.
In Part Two, we will examine MG Motor’s further progress in Europe up to the present day.
(1) Not only did BMW sell Rover Group for a nominal amount, but it also provided loans of around £500 million to the Phoenix Consortium to cover restructuring costs.
(2) An MG ZR three-door hatchback with the rear seats removed and rear side glasses replaced by metal panels.
(3) Nanjing Automobile would merge with SAIC in 2007.
(4) This resurrected an old model name last used in 1968 on MG’s version of the BMC Farina saloon.(5) The 1961 MG Midget was no more than an Austin-Healey Sprite with a new front end.
(6) All sales data from www.carsalesbase.com.
(7) From SKD (Semi-Knocked Down) kits imported from China. The car arrived around 65% assembled and the remaining 35% of the work, mainly installing the drivetrain, was then completed.