Making Good? (Part One)

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.

Small beginnings: 2007 MG TF 500LE (c) mg.co.uk

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.

2011 MG6 GT (c) crazy4cars

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”.

2013 MG6 Magnette (c) mg.co.uk

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.

2014 MG 3 (c) mg.co.uk

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

41 thoughts on “Making Good? (Part One)”

  1. I always wondered what the business case was for a 75 V8 / MG ZT. Such a niche product and all that trouble to go from FWD to RWD. Even the heater was different from the standard 75’s, as far as I’m told.

    I spotted one of the current MG models on one of my walks the other day. I was intrigued by it, as I couldn’t figure out what brand it was. The thing looks completely anonymous, but it has performed reasonably well on the Dutch market, mainly because of the tax regime over here. MG has very little brand equity on the Dutch car market I reckon, but outsold Alfa Romeo on a ratio of 7 to 1. I’m not so sure the sales number will keep up as the tax regime will change for sure.

    1. It’s a technology demonstration,show to the potential buyers that MG Rover have the ability to develop new cars.
      To be honest,there didn’t exist any business case for the whole MG Rover
      So I don’t think it makes no sense,even the MG SV
      The only chance to survive is to be bought by an emerging market buyer

    2. Mmm. Not sure if I agree. An extended engine swap doesn’t sound like the ability to develop a new car to be honest.

    3. Hi Oliver. I take your point, but I suspect the ability to shoehorn an old V8 lump and RWD transmission into an existing FWD bodyshell was very far from the technology and expertise that would have attracted Chinese buyers to open their wallets. Had MG Rover been able to demonstrate some expertise in small-capacity fuel-efficient engines or EV’s, that might have been a different matter.

    4. According to my understanding,MG Rover didn’t had the ability to developed a new car.Rover’ R & D department had been sold to Ford
      together with Land Rover.When
      I said show, I means pretend they had.

  2. I am not sure that the ‘MG’ brand offers any meaning to prospective buyers of the current range of cars on offer – all crossovers, most offering EV power, apart from the oddball new 6 estate. They may as well have started afresh with a new brand – in fact, it may even have helped get somewhere more quickly.

    1. Just noticed that the new EV estate is not called a 6 but is a 5 instead. Still odd-looking, mind, like a body-snatched Mazda or Octavia even.

    2. It’s what I imagine you’d get if you made someone recall the design of a Volkswagen Passat under interrogation.

  3. Good morning Freerk and S.V. As far as I can see, there never was a plausible business case for the V8 in any of its MG Rover guises, other than to create the impression that they were working on something, anything as the existing models atrophied. Regarding the MG badge, it certainly did little or no good in the early days, although whether or not it did much harm is a moot point.

    Part One of this story is, I guess, pretty well known, but there are some surprises coming up in Part Two. Stay tuned!

  4. MG looks just like what it is: a set of rather anonymous cars that look as if they were lifted from the Chinese market. You could put any Chinese badge on these: Fankazi, LongJiang and nobody would notice. I saw an MG the other day, on my street and one roving around on the move. There´s not much to them, much like the nervously saminess that Kia and Hyundai had back in the early 1990s. It must be a cast iron law that new brands start bland. Tesla? Bland too, even with a USP for which one might trade one´s living state for.

    1. Hi Richard, the MG5 is not at all representative of MG’s recent work. All will be revealed in Part Two.

    2. That’s in interesting point. When I think about past brands which launched with a splash and a mission – Tucker, for instance – the then current players in the market got nasty. Volkswagen did something new with the original Beetle, but then they had strong political backing, as it were. SAAB? Fairly niche from the start, even in their day. I guess the first aim is not to scare potential customers or indeed competitors, perhaps.

      I think Tesla were clever and recognised that their first priority was not to scare consumers with too much unfamiliarity at once. The Cybertrucks can come later.

  5. They appear to think that a £10k premium for EVs is acceptable.

    I’m trying to think of an automotive brand I’d like to own less – bland products from a marque with a depressing recent history.

  6. Daniel thank you for the article – will you discuss the closure and end of the Longbridge factory in Part Two? There is a sad chance of history repeating with Jaguar Land Rover’s recent vague announcements about the future of the Castle Bromwich plant. Both were important as more than just cars and jobs, as critical production centers during the Second World War and therefore a part of British history.

    Have any of the readers driven an MG ZR 160hp? This level of power would have put the car at the top of its segment in 2001 – was it a good drive? The car seems left out of the discussion around the ‘end’ of MG Rover.

    1. Hi Neil. Apart from mentioning that sales volumes no longer made it economic to assemble MG cars from kits at Longbridge, I thought it best to leave that wound unpicked. It has, in any event, been well covered elsewhere (e.g. AROnline.co.uk) and my focus is on MG Motor’s progress.

    2. Neil, yes, during one of MG’s ‘Drive Days’, at Oulton Park, the toys available included a ZR160, in which I drove some laps. To me it felt a pleasant package, with a welcoming interior including leather seats coloured to match the (green) car, the handling and braking were thoroughly upgraded, didn’t feel quite like 160 bhp under the bonnet to me, but it went willingly enough.
      Sales, though, were very modest. The 200 / 25 range had a general tendency to fall between too many stools, and the MG versions, perhaps more so ? With the hot hatch sector being defined so much by its class leaders, from Peugeot / VW / Renault, the physical size of the MG was ‘in between’ those rivals, the pricing of the MG’s was no doubt ambitious, plus the ZR160’s 1.8 engine being an odd size for sporting purposes.
      Also, depending which opinions you listen to, the 1.8 VVC version of the K series, if driven pedal to the metal, may have been one of more fragile members of the K family ( a big subject, of which we’ve probably all heard enough ). However … of the customers to whom these MG’s would appeal, I doubt that this would have been typical treatment.

  7. I was a bit of a fan of the design of the original version of the MG3 (they have ruined it now with the new grille). It looked all of a piece, handily sized, and rather fun – a bit like the original Suzuki Swift, but with echos of the early iterations of the last generation Punto (I miss there being a Punto on sale!). Almost everything else about the MG3 – chassis aside, so one reads – was pretty poor, but it looked better than many of the current crop of sub-compacts.

    1. “Pretty poor” is the wrong way to describe an MG if it is an MG. Does anyone know how much it costs to tune a chassis as a proportion of new vehicle development? I labour under the belief that it´s not that big a cost -but maybe I am wrong and it´s a reasonable way to save money even if it means the car is not pleasant to drive.
      It´s not as if none of this has never been worked out. My cheap as chips 205 road well; Fiestas always ride well. Polos. Renaults. So why do MG have to cook the bunny with a bad chassis set-up?

    2. Hi Richard. I think S.V. is being a bit hard on the MG3. As I mentioned in the piece above, Autocar gave it 3 1/2 stars and praised its fine handling, although the consequence was an overly firm ride. It’s biggest failing was the primitive 1.5 litre NA engine. It desperately needed a modern 1.0 litre turbo unit.

    3. An MG with an overly firm ride, where have I heard that one before? One needs to take what they read with the biases of the writers in mind. That said, truths about Hydragas seem somewhat elusive.

    4. @gooddog, I was the custodian of no less than an MGF VVC for two years (it was a company car back when such things were still perks – the company ran only Nissans and Rover Group and I could no believe my luck that the MG was on the list and within my pay grade). The Hydragas suspension was a bit of a curates egg, depending on which car you drove. My stepfather had a non-VVC car and it was very sweet riding and handling, with hints of oversteer available if you felt like it on the exit from roundabouts (I was young then, OK?).

      ‘My’ car arrived looking like it was on stilts, requiring a special trip to a dealer to have it reset, at which time I asked them to check the tracking and everything else. The ride was very nice for such a car – very level and everything smoothed off – but the car always felt a bit inert and also like the whole car lacked torsional stiffness. Basically, the supposedly lesser car was the nicer drive. Moreover, keeping the Hydragas set-up correct proved tricky, and, at one point, I noticed horrifically uneven tyre wear on the front wheels as the car had gradually sagged, changing the camber of the front wheels.

      I enjoyed having the MG – the engine was great, if not as good as a Honda of the same era, and it was a lovely and unique experience to have a drop top. It was a bit of an unlucky car, though, as I had three prangs in it – two not my fault and the other a minor bump into a low-wall which I could not see at the back of the car. The thing is, I don’t recall any memorable drives in it, but I do recall having a Focus hire car whilst it was having some bodywork sorted and thinking ‘wow, the chassis on this is absolutely sensational’ – and so, suddenly, the MG seemed less fit for purpose any more.

    5. Thanks S.V.

      I appreciate your succinct review relating your experiences with the MGF, particularly as regards the performance of the Hydragas suspension. Now I better understand all these improvised hand pumps that intrepid MGF enthusiasts have designed and built themselves (it’s not just because the cars are old). https://mgfcar.de/pump/index.htm It seems as though you might have had a much better experience if only your dealer had been slightly more attentive.

  8. I’m not sure about the MG Express – an error of judgement, maybe, but the cost must have been negligible. Other markets seem to have more car-derived-vans; by comparison, I think Mini offered a van version of the first Clubman, and Dacia of the first re-introduced Dusters. As with the MG, I don’t recall seeing them outside of reviews. The MGSV, on the other hand…and I notice you have protected the sensitive by overlooking the (Tata) Cityrover!

    I’ve seen a few modern MGs of late, including an electric-only MG5 today, which may be the only battery estate on sale at present, should you want such a thing.

    The Phoenix era bought the employees a little extra time to prepare for the inevitable, I suppose. What the Chinese (SAIC) did Make Good was the K-series engine, which became the Kavachi/TCI-Tech, and did not have the head-gasket-failure issues associated with the MGR version. That lasted until 2016, used in the Roewe 750 (Rover 75).

    Not all that relevant, but I’m fairly sure that the MG6 diesel version was originally badged Turbo D, recalling an old PSA badge. Possibly the lawyers got interested, as it was later known as DTI-Tech. Turbo_D is now used on Vauxhall/Opel, presumably because CDTI was retained by GM?

    1. Hi Tom. The CityRover was, conceptually at least, considerably less stupid than the V8 powered models, but was very cynically and poorly executed. We will be covering it in a forthcoming piece on ‘stop-gap’ cars, so I’ve kept my powder dry for the moment.

  9. I wonder what came of the Phoenix four? My guess they all live in Bermuda as tax exiles, meet every Friday in the Hamilton Princess & Beach Club and bank offshore.🏝🍹💸💰

    1. Good morning ckracer76. There’s an interesting further twist in the tale of the infamous Phoenix Four concerning MGR Capital, a finance and leasing subsidiary that was ring-fenced from the operating companies and survived the bankruptcy. MGR Capital was 51.1 per cent owned by Lloyds Bank Group and 49.9 per cent by Peter Beale and John Edwards, who had set up a trust fund, the beneficiaries of which were of the Pheonix Four and former MG Rover Managing Director Kevin Howe. When the company was finally wound up in 2015, it has assets of £23 million. The five each received a further payment of £1 million to top up the £42 million they had previously extracted from MG Rover. Immoral, yes, but perfectly legal.

      The five complained that they were effectively prohibited from working in business or Finance after the excoriating DTI report into the MG Rover collapse, expecting public sympathy for their ‘plight’. Towers apparently now lives in a chateau in rural France. The whereabouts of the other four is unknown, to me at least.

    1. Hello Tom, yes, it’s all really unusual. Re-reading the report summary, I realised I’d forgotten what a hall of mirrors the Rover saga was.

      Would you take on a basket-case like Rover, as Phoenix did? Did they know what they’d actually taken on? Were some of the more controversial moves they made justified, given the desperate circumstances? It just goes on and on.

  10. Hi Tom, as I recall, the bans were finite, from three to six years, although why anyone would risk the reputational damage of appointing any of them to a corporate board is beyond me.

  11. Jeremy Clarkson wrote this about the Magnette:
    https://www.driving.co.uk/car-reviews/the-clarkson-review-mg6-magnette/
    It gets one star. I hate to bring it up again but the Vectra about which he said nothing at all was in every way a decent vehicle that sinned by not being exciting for Clarkson and here, in the MG6 is a certifiable slab of rubbish (we are told) and he writes, and writes and writes. There´s one good line in the article. Clarkson´s skill was with similes and metaphors – sometimes they were funny exaggerations and then it went too far and he started to write and speak nonsense.

    Here´s an example of a declined description:
    Normal speaker: the steering is not very good
    More precise and dramatic: the steering´s almost completely numb
    Exhibitionist: the steering´s feels like twirling a stick in a paint pot
    Clarkson: this isn´t steering, it´s like waving limply at the front wheels of a shopping trolley from 900 yards on a dark night in December.

    1. I’d love to get some motoring journalists and put them in camouflaged cars and ask them to rate them. In any case, most drivers are pretty insensitive to a car’s feedback. If they really cared, they’d do things like check their tyre pressures.

    2. That’s a good point about tyre pressures, Charles. Our cars, especially over the past year, have seen very little use, but the tyres still lose pressure slowly as they sit in the garage, so I make a point of checking them monthly (with my own pressure gauge) and topping them up if necessary with my trusty foot pump.

      Many drivers these days simply don’t bother and instead rely on tyre pressure monitors, if fitted, or dumb luck. I regularly notice cars on the road or parked up with one or more tyres noticeably under-inflated. I used to mention it to the driver, if present, but I’m not sure my intervention was appreciated, so don’t bother anymore.

    3. Hi Richard. Clarkson is in the business of entertainment, not serious automotive journalism, and has been so for years. In his car reviews in the Sunday Times Magazine, it typically takes until you are two-thirds the way through the piece before you find any mention of the car supposedly under review. Now he’s writing a weekly farming piece for the same publication. I very much doubt that proper farmers will learn much from it.

  12. Clarkson does actually have talent, it’s just a shame that he chooses hyperbolic waffle over relevant substance. His book, I Know You Got Soul, is a pretty decent read, and he did a BBC documentary about his war hero father-in-law which was both sober and moving, neither of which you would expect.

    1. Hi Andy. I don’t disagree. He can be an excellent writer and his witty turns of phrase are often highly amusing. I just wouldn’t turn to him for a sensible and balanced car review, certainly not of any mainstream model.

    2. In a sense it´s good to know JC can be serious. In another sense it´s a pity the “good” Jeremy was overcome by bad, punching, racist Jeremy for so many years.

  13. Haha, you’re right Daniel, sensible and balanced are definitely not words you think of when thinking of Clarkson!

  14. Agreed for MG Rover to invest in the mustang powered V8 range of the MG ZT and Rover 75 was not the best decision considering their then financial state of affairs ….. but being an owner of an MG ZT 260 I am pleased they did (it was only a matter of time before the same inevitable end.
    This car is a remarkable testament to the ingenuity of the MG Rover engineers. I enjoy driving the car as well as updating my blog about the car at https://mgzt.info

    1. Good morning Steve and thanks for your comment. We have a feature coming up in the near future about MG Rover, so keep an eye out for that.

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