DTW continues the story of MG Motor and asks if things are finally coming good in Europe for the reborn marque.
The summer of 2016 must have been a worrying time for MG Motor and its UK dealers. The MG6 GT and Magnette had failed in the market and were discontinued, so the company was reduced to a single model, the MG3 hatchback. European sales of the MG3 were trickling along at around 250 a month, a level at which final assembly at Longbridge was not viable, so the model would in future be imported from China fully built.
There was, however, a new MG on the way, the GS, a medium-sized five-door FWD crossover. The model was launched at the London Motor Show in May 2016, with sales beginning later in the year. The GS was powered by a 1.5 litre turbocharged petrol engine producing 168 bhp (125 kW). This unit was developed jointly by SAIC and General Motors.
The GS was built on a new, scalable platform developed by SAIC for all the company’s crossover models. The wheelbase and overall length were 2,650 mm (104½”) and 4,500 mm (177¼”) making the GS slightly larger in size than the Nissan Qashqai, the segment market leader. The styling was neat and contemporary, if again somewhat anonymous.
Autocar magazine tested the GS shortly after its UK launch. The outstanding feature was its entry price. At £15k, it was around £3k cheaper than similar rivals. It was roomy inside and performed well. The claimed 0 to 60 mph (97 km/h) time was 9.7 seconds but the reviewers achieved a sub-nine second result.
Unfortunately, that was the total of the plaudits it received. The engine, although strong, suffered from a flat spot at 3,000 rpm and was buzzy and breathless at higher revs. This was especially disappointing for the newly co-developed unit. The ride and handling, previously an MG strength, was poorly resolved with inconsistent damping and an unsettled ride on even moderately poor surfaces. Fuel economy was below the class average, and there were inconsistencies in build quality. Overall, the reviewers felt the GS represented much less of a step forward over the MG3 than that model had been over the MG6. In some areas, notably ride and handling, MG had regressed.
The GS did little to improve MG Motor’s fortunes in Europe. Over three years on sale, a total of just 2,904(1) found buyers before the model was discontinued in 2019. Fortunately for the company, the now ageing MG3 was continuing to find buyers, helped by a facelift and new interior in 2018. This gave the car some much needed identity, with a hexagonal grille in the centre of which was positioned an enlarged MG octagon badge. European sales from 2017 to 2020 inclusive were 12,152 units.
Having missed the target by some margin with its first attempt to join the burgeoning European market for crossovers, MG Motor launched a second, smaller model in 2017, the MG ZS. This was a compact crossover, with a wheelbase and overall length of 2,585 mm (101¾”) and 4,314 mm (169¾”) respectively, which pitched it directly against the Nissan Juke and Renault Captur.
It was unveiled at the London Motor Show in May 2017(2) and went on sale at the end of that year. The styling, whilst clearly derivative of compact crossovers already on sale, was not unpleasant and had what would become MG’s new ‘face’, the hexagonal grille containing a large MG octagon badge.
Autocar magazine tested the ZS at launch and the reviewers were considerably more impressed than they had been a year earlier with the GS. The entry price for the ZS of £12,495 undercut the cheapest Nissan Juke by £2,385. The top of the range Exclusive model tested had a list price of £15,495 and was very well equipped, with climate control, heated door mirrors, an 8” touchscreen, DAB radio and Apple Car Play, rear parking sensors and camera all as standard. The interior was spacious, and nicely designed and finished. Although there were some areas of hard, scratchy plastic, it was on a par with its competitors in this regard. The model also came with an impressive seven-year / 80,000-mile warranty.
Previous MG models had been let down primarily by the poor performance of their unfashionably large capacity engines, but the ZS came with an optional 1.0 litre three-cylinder turbocharged engine producing 109 bhp and driving the front wheels via a smooth shifting six speed automatic transmission. The new drivetrain cost a premium of £2k over the 1.5 litre normally aspirated engine and manual gearbox, but the reviewers thought it would be money well spent.
Dynamically, the ZS was in a different league to the GS. The reviewers summed it up as follows: “The ride can be a touch lumpy, but there’s decent body control and not too much roll in bends, the steering is light and direct and the suspension does a good job of brushing off potholes and broken patches of road.”
Suddenly, MG Motor had a model to offer that was broadly class-competitive and without any notable weaknesses. The market responded: sales started strongly and continued to accelerate in 2018 and 2019. However, there was more to come from the new model. The platform on which it was based had been designed for both ICE and EV applications, and a ZS EV was launched at the 2018 Guangzhou Auto Show. This model went on sale in Europe in mid-2020.
The ZS EV features a 44.5 kWh battery and a front-mounted motor producing 141 bhp (105 kW) which is good for a 0 to 60 mph (97 km/h) time of 8.0 seconds and top speed of 87 mph (140 km/h). The WLTP range is 163 miles (263 km), significantly shorter than some rivals, notably the Kia e-Nero which achieves a WLTP range of 282 miles (455 km). It is, however, perfectly adequate for many potential users’ needs.
Auto Express magazine tested the ZS EV in June 2020 and rated it at four stars out of five. It was practical, roomy and well equipped, with just a few areas of sub-par finish that betrayed its budget origins. The extra weight of the drivetrain seems to have had a negative effect on both ride and handling over the ICE model, although it was not unacceptable. The pricing was the ZS EV’s trump card: the mid-range Excite model cost £24,995 after UK government grant, putting it on a par with smaller supermini EVs such as the Peugeot 208 and Vauxhall Corsa.
In late 2019, MG Motor introduced the larger HS crossover, available in both ICE and, from December 2020, plug-in hybrid models, further widening its offering. The HS is another competent if not outstanding model, selling for between £18k and £25k, which represents a saving of up to £6k against its competitors.
One slightly unusual recent addition to MG Motor’s European range is the MG5 EV, a C-segment car available in estate form only. This is not actually an MG, but SAIC sister company Roewe’s Ei5 model, unchanged apart from its MG badging. It is rather frumpy looking, sitting on small wheels with a heavily indented and high waistline, but its technical specification and performance shows further progress.
It has a 52.2 kWh battery and a 154 bhp (116 kW) electric motor that gives a 0 to 60 mph (97 km/h) time of 8.5 seconds, top speed of 115 mph (185 km/h) and WLTP range of 214 miles (345 km). It is priced from £26,995 after UK government grant. It received 3½ stars from Autocar, who thought it great value and only let down by some inconsistency in body and cabin fit and quality and its un-MG-like appearance.
The advent of the ZS has had a dramatic impact on MG Motor’s European sales performance. In 2018, total sales more than doubled over the previous year, then increased by a further 55% in 2019. In 2020, total sales were 22,225(3) units, representing another substantial 58% year-on-year increase. This is a remarkable achievement in a year so severely affected by the Covid pandemic, where total European auto sales are forecast to have fallen by around 25%.
Throughout this piece, I have referred to MG Motor’s ‘European’ sales, but these are, effectively, UK numbers: the company only returned to mainland Europe in 2020, so has barely started to exploit the wider potential in this market. It is certainly one to watch in 2021 and beyond.
(1) All sales data from www.carsalesbase.com.
(2) Initially, the new ZS was to be called XS in Europe, to avoid confusion with the MG Rover-era MG ZS hatchback. That plan was abandoned before the new model went on sale as the ZS.
(3) Of which 89% were the ZS, highlighting the critical importance of that model to MG. Moreover, 85% of ZS sales in 2020 were of the EV variant.