Highly Volatile

Ten years ago, MG’s future looked something like this.

Image: Autocar

Since the desiccated remains of MG Rover was picked over by Nanjing Auto, later merged with Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC), the resultant MG-badged products have left observers and MG marque aficionados somewhere on a spectrum between bemusement and outright horror. Taking ownership of a heritage brand always comes with a measure of responsibility – certainly if one hopes to maintain a semblance of credibility and keep the fanbase on board.

SAIC/Nanjing appeared to pivot between solicitude and apathy in the aftermath of their takeover, making all the expected noises about marque continuity and UK production; promises which appear to have evaporated rather quickly with exposure to commercial realities. But in a similar manner to how petrol fumes are at their most flammable when released to the atmosphere, the 2012 announcement of the Icon concept, first shown at the Auto China motor show in Beijing that year was met by incredulity and fiery disdain by the massed ranks of MG torchbearers.

Image: Autocar

In addition to its mission to herald a possible future direction for brand-MG, the self-consciously retro-inflected Icon concept, a compact CUV-style crossover was introduced to coincide with the MGB’s 50th anniversary. Based on SAIC’s ZP platform (which also underpinned the B-segment MG3, Autocar’s Mark Tisshaw speculated that the Icon would preview a production version to be introduced the following year, to be powered by a direct injection 1.5 litre turbocharged petrol engine.

Styled in a manner which suggested the popular but polarising Nissan Juke crossover, the Icon employed a liberal sprinkling of MGB GT cues, from the grille and headlamp treatment to the roofline, C-pillar and tail. Reflections too of MINI, down to the knowing details like the semi-floating roof and the union flag motif etched into the inset rooflight. The design team was headed by Steve Harper, a former Rover Group stylist who was at pains to emphasise their commitment to the heritage of the brand, citing the Range Rover Evoque as an example of how legacy marques could reinterpret their pasts to bridge to the future.

But if the MG fanbase were unimpressed, the industry itself seemed more enamoured, SAIC garnering the ‘Best Concept’ award at the Beijing show, awarded by US auto title, Autoweek ahead of rival concepts from Lamborghini, Mercedes-Benz and Honda.

Image: Autocar

Despite the accolades however, there were no meaningful noises from MG’s Chinese owners about a production version, and reading between the lines of Autocar’s 2012 report, they were (as is so frequently the case) applying a strong element of magical thinking to the matter.  Having gained SAIC some useful publicity, the Icon concept was cast aside and a decade later, the wait for a B-segment Juke-rivalling MG-badged crossover to sit alongside the wholly underwhelming and decidedly by-the-numbers CUV designs which are currently on sale under the MG name remains as lengthy as ever it was.

Looking at the Icon from a comfortable distance, it does appear rather prescient and given the level of market activity amid the B-segment crossover sector in the current era, probably exactly what they should have been building. Certainly, a product of this ilk would have garnered a significant degree of market interest, even if the retro-inflected styling is likely to have dated quickly.

Image: mad4wheels

In today’s era, matters of sentiment and honour are little more than kindling; handy for the occasional PR purpose, but in effect, something of a drag. And since everything else appears to be going up in flames nowadays, it seems oddly fitting that the platonic ideal of MG too is being cast on the pyre. Perhaps a postmodern wink is better after all than a nodding banality after all?

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

18 thoughts on “Highly Volatile”

  1. My gut reaction to this concept is that it is hideous, but looking back a second time I’m not sure if it’s really the execution to blame or simply that you cannot graft MGB GT graphics onto a CUV shape and hope that it will come out in the wash. The side profile is oddly similar to that of the later released Toyota C-HR and, at least here in the U.S., that’s an extremely popular offering in its segment, so clearly it has some admirers.

    Certainly the front and rear of the Icon are jarring, to say the least, but perhaps a production version would have been more toned down and less caricature-like.

    I still stand by the original Juke; popular opinion says it’s ugly, but I found it to be really well-styled and endearing (as far as horrid little CUV things go) with little of the unnecessary sculpting and shaping that its competitors today have gravitated towards, e.g. the aforementioned C-HR, the Hyundai Kona, the outgoing Honda HR-V/Vezel, etc. In contrast, the Juke was confident and dune buggy-like, the only real stylistic flaw being the poorly concealed ‘hidden’ handle and resulting DLO fail.

    It’s just a little frog, and I want to give it a squeeze!

    1. Oh, I’d never own one myself, but as far as street furniture goes, it’s at least much more curious and inspired than its North American successor, the Kicks.

  2. This came to mind for me:

    “Girl you’re just a vampire for my love” Though I don’t think anyone under 50 would get the reference.

  3. They might be more successful if instead of taking a mix of styling cues from the MGB, they take the idea of making an actual new MGB-like sportscar and bringing it up to date by making it an electric vehicle.
    At least, judging by the patent drawings very recently lodged by MG, it looks like they are thinking this too.

    1. Quite. As I saw these pictures I thought the same thing that I remember thinking back then: Mini. There’s an argument to be made that, a little like Alfa Romeo, MG has sunk so far in the public consciousness that grafting design details from famous MGs (or Alfas, although they are lucky that the Scudetto is a more readily recognisable design element) onto contemporary designs evokes next to nothing to the general public. Or apparently it works that way for me, at least. Most people, however, do probably have some inkling as MG (or, again, Alfa) as purveyor of ‘sporty’ cars, so something in that mould would evoke more ‘recognition’. While MG is carving something of a niche for itself with its EVs, they are generally still value offerings, so evoking some ‘brand cachet’ to command higher prices (which after all is Gospel right now in marketing land) would be advantageous.

      You’re right, Eóin, that apart from the retro references that appear to have flown over my head, the Icon does resemble the Juke most of all and as such, would have been a very timely addition to MG’s portfolio. I don’t particularly like the Juke, but I’m with Alexander in considering it a well thought out design. I don’t mind the C-HR (for an SUV), but it does remind me of my Mk8 Civic hatch, albeit on stilts and with contemporary (i.e fussier – and that’s saying something, compared to the Mk8 Civic) detailing. The C-HR has been pretty popular over here in the Netherlands as well, there’s quite a few around.

      It’s interesting that the Smart #1 seems to follow a similar idea: retro-ish design (although there’s no past to hark back to in this case) that mainly evokes Mini’s design language and B-segment SUV/CUV size.

  4. I’m thinking that MG aficionados have likely been bemused since the release of the the MG Montego in 1985. I don’t feel that the featured car would improve their demeanour very much at all.

  5. Good morning Eóin. Despite Autocar’s enthusiasm, I never thought the Icon, even in toned-down production form, was ever a realistic proposition. A company as established, large and well resourced as Nissan can risk some capital, successfully as it turned out, on the Juke, but MG enjoyed none of those advantages, so its production models were very much intended to compete with the mainstream.

    The strategy appears to be working for the company. Here are the latest European sales data:

    2009 – 374
    2010 – 285
    2011 – 362
    2012 – 787
    2013 – 513
    2014 – 2,326
    2015 – 3,157
    2016 – 4,194
    2017 – 4,442
    2018 – 9,050
    2019 – 14,061
    2020 – 25,199
    2021 – 54,000
    2022 (Jan-April) – 28,369 = 113k annualised.

    Their sales growth in China has been similarly impressive:

    2007 – 3,131
    2008 – 9,361
    2009 – 13,785
    2010 – 29,216
    2011 – 50,191
    2012 – 72,516
    2013 – 74,684
    2014 – 52,217
    2015 – 70,377
    2016 – 80,389
    2017 – 134,786
    2018 – 256,084
    2019 – 269,751
    2020 – 297,317
    2021 – 456,243
    2022 (Jan- May) 146,685*

    * sales in April 2022 were just 11k, roughly a third of other months. I would speculate that this was caused either by Covid or a shortage of microchips.

    Anecdotally, I see enough MG CUVs around these days not to be surprised by them anymore. The HS is a rather handsome looking thing:

    Yes, it may be rather derivative, with overtones of Mazda and Renault models, but it’s as least as well styled as either, and I can certainly understand the appeal. Is the MG badge a help or a hindrance to sales? Probably the former, at least to those who aren’t fixated on the history of the marque.

  6. Trying to wrap one’s arms around the original design proposal (2012) is not easy. There is something there, but it also jarring, if not a bit unattractive. Yet some parts are quite nice – if one looks at the side elevation, the front ⅔ is workable (see other, later examples), but the rear wheel haunch is just over the top. Its very strong, even whimsical, while the front half is much more discrete. And I think its that contrast which makes it hard to assess. The rear view is quite nice, so there is some elegance in the design there too. One can imagine if the haunch was just lowered a few inches to be less overtly dramatic, and just a strong move (or even more modest), the whole design might calm down. One could then tweak the details, the expression, to work to distance oneself from blandness without being so contrasty or over the top.
    As to MG historical reference – there is something there, but not so much as to be a vocabulary. Its more an approach, a desire for straightforward and clear response, not quite minimalist, but not overly stylistic. That’s a hard goal to reinterpret, but needs more balance than this design.

  7. Seeing the current MG production models around (an increasingly frequent occurrence) depresses me. There’s nothing wrong with them as such (I understand they’re perfectly competent electric CUVs) but why on earth would you stick the MG octagon on them?

    I understand the concept of buying brand recognition but why did they choose this brand? It stands for something quite different and, at this point, would be better left to rest in peace.

    1. Rest in peace? Like Wolseley, Riley, Austin, Morris, Triumph, Rover, Armstrong Siddeley, Lanchester, Daimler, Jowett and all the other makes in, what was only eighty years ago, the worlds largest car industry.
      I’m rather in favour of the name remaining, as a nod to the past, and as a reminder of how vulture capitalism actually works.

  8. It’s very interesting to see / be reminded of the Icon concept, Eóin. As a design exercise, it would probably meet with less resistance now, compared with 10 years ago. It reminds me a lot of one of the original MINI concepts, in its bulbousness.

    I think they they tried to cram in too many design features from older models and that it would be better toned-down. The inspiration for the original MGB was, I believe, one of their very sleek-looking cars with which they broke speed records (for a certain engine size) and its designers weren’t trying too hard to ‘make it look like an MG’.

    I understand the wish to demonstrate continuity and respect for a brand, though, and the Icon may have just been an exercise in doing that. That said, in the general population, the number of people who associate MGs with the any sort of sports or sporty car, let alone an open-topped one with wire wheels, must be small.

  9. I guess so much time has passed that most of the people buying them today have no real idea of the brand’s history and heritage. They may just remember MGs as ‘those sporty looking hatchbacks from 20 years ago’.

    And you have to move with the times and all that I guess. CUVs sell, whether we like it or not. Don’t get me wrong, I’m saddened by where they currently are, but what can you do?

  10. Dublin taxi drivers appear to be embracing the MG CUV/SUV range in the last few months, so I presume there’s a value proposition there at least. That’s not to sneer at the MG range, by the way: the same thing happened when the original (modern era!) Skoda Octavia hit these shores, and look at Skoda now…

  11. I remember one day, driving around my hometown, in Brazil, Curitiba, and finding an MG dealership, still under construction, the year was 2011. I was amazed, I thought the brand was dead for good, but later on, I found out it was the second MG store in the country (São Paulo was the first). But it didn’t last long, in less the one year they closed the dealership .

  12. The fan base is a prison for manufacturers.
    For MG, it is mostly 60+year old men, who will probably not buy a new car, particularly sports cars. How many will actually lay down their own money for one for a modern MGB roadster? However good it is, it won’t be regarded as a “real” MG.
    MG does still have good name recognition for people who actually will buy a car, unlike say, SAIC. This means people will consider the brand when buying.
    It’s a strategy that is starting to pay off in markets like Australia.
    It ranks in the top ten for sales regularly now.

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