MG rises from the ashes

ROB MAETZIG
Last updated 05:01 15/09/2012

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As media launches of a new vehicle go, this was pretty unusual.

For starters, the car hasn't been launched yet. No prices have been announced. A dealership network hasn't been set up, either. And the car available to be driven wasn't actually the car forecast to be the volume seller, because it had manual transmission rather than auto.

AT A GLANCE

Powerplant: 1.8-litre four cylinder DOHC turbocharged and intercooled petrol engine, 118kW at 5500rpm, 215Nm at 1750-4500rpm.

Running gear: Front-wheel drive. Five-speed manual transmission. MacPherson strut front suspension, multi-link set up at the rear.

How big: Length 4651mm, width 2008mm, height 1472mm, wheelbase 2705mm.

How much: Prices not announced yet, but expect them to range from just under $30,000 to $35,000.

What's good: Beautiful build quality, good levels of specification for the potential prices, secure ride and handling.

What's not: Manual is only a five-speeder. Interior uses too much hard plastics.

Our verdict: Re-introduction of the MG will be very much a "soft" launch. But don't let this fool you. This time around, thanks to Chinese investment, the marque has real potential.

So the event in Canterbury last week was more a toe-in-the-water exercise by importer British Motor Distributors, designed to familiarise the motoring media with what's coming this year and further into the future.

It's all a bit exciting really, because the media function did mark the relaunch of a famous British brand that was founded in the 1920s and which in more recent years has suffered a stop-start career involving a series of different owners including British Leyland, Rover Group, British Aerospace and BMW.

The last owner was MG Rover, which ceased production in 2005 when the company went into administration.

The assets were then bought by Chinese carmaker Nanjing Automobile, which was subsequently bought by Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC). It is now the largest vehicle-producing company in China - it built more than 4 million vehicles last year - and is listed on the Chinese Stock Exchange.

SAIC produces a total of 19 vehicle brands, including models built via joint-venture arrangements with General Motors and Volkswagen. Its MG operation is based in Birmingham, England, and it has production facilities in Britain and China.

Last year, it sold more than 162,000 MGs, the vast majority of them to 35 left-hand-drive markets. But right-hand-drive markets are increasingly being served too - primarily because the Chinese owners recognise the importance of MG's British heritage - and this product is being sold in Britain, South Africa, New Zealand, Mauritius and Hong Kong.

The first MG that New Zealand will see is the MG6 GT, which will be available as a five-door liftback or as a four-door sedan called Magnetta.

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Powered by an updated and turbocharged 1.8-litre version of the Rover K-Series petrol engine we've already experienced in Rover and MG products, the car is about the same size as the Suzuki Kizashi, Mitsubishi Lancer and Holden Cruze.

Once the car does go on the market in New Zealand - and that's expected to be around October, once the MG dealer network is finalised - it will initially be available with manual transmission only, but that will be quickly followed by a turbo-diesel version late in the year and a twin-clutch automatic model next year.

Next year will also see a smaller MG3 hatch launched in New Zealand, and 2014 is likely to feature the arrival of a Ford Focus-sized MG5, a compact SUV, and even a hybrid model.

British Motor Distributors operations manager Kerry Cheyne told last week's function that MG enthusiasts in New Zealand are expressing strong interest in the new Chinese-built product.

"But we don't know at this stage what the sales volume will be. That's one of the reasons why we're doing this pre-launch exercise with the manual."

When the MG6 does enter the Kiwi new-vehicle market, one criticism it won't have to face is for the quality of its build. Immediate impression during a drive programme through

Canterbury was that even the entry model - expected to retail for less than $30,000 - is very well put together, offers an excellent level of specification including electric sunroof, and performs well.

Thankfully, the New Zealand importer is confident that will be sufficient to support a low-key introduction of the model, which means it won't have to go so far as to market this car quite the same way as in Britain, where the advertising campaign features such slogans as "British girls were always cuter than German girls".

Good heavens. Of course the British MGs are assembled in Britain whereas ours come from SAIC's Lingang plant near Shanghai but the marque is still Chinese owned. So that advertising slogan could be said to be drawing a bit of a long bow.

It will be interesting to see if the MGs we get in New Zealand will be considered Chinese product, rather than British designed-and-developed cars built in China.

At last week's media event the British Motor Distributors people suggested opposition marques will now attempt to push the fact our MGs come from China.

"It won't be because of xenophobia - because the Japanese and Korean marques will see the Chinese product as a market threat," director John Fairhall said.

And what of the MG6 GT itself? Well, it's an attractive if rather conventional-looking vehicle, with perhaps potentially its greatest claim to fame being that it boasts that hexagonal MG badge in the middle of its good-looking nose.

It's going to be available with three levels of specification.

The base S model that I drove during the media event features an electric sunroof, air conditioning and electric windows all round.

Next up will be the SE, which gets a rear parking aid, cruise control, and one-touch operation of the electric front windows.

The top model will be the TSE, which will boast leather sports seats, reversing camera, dual-zone climate control air conditioning and full connectivity including bluetooth.

The interiors are nice, with perhaps a little too much use of hard plastics, and legroom is generous front and rear. The boot space is 472 litres, and this can be expanded considerably by folding down the split-fold rear seats.

Powering this vehicle is a 1.8-litre turbocharged and intercooled DOHC engine that delivers 118 kilowatts of power and 215 newton metres of torque. Maximum torque is available from 1750rpm, which means there's smooth delivery of the engine's pull. I found the performance to be quite good.

Even better is the ride and handling. Perhaps the most impressive feature of the MG6 is that it tracks well, and takes on corners and sweeper bends with real confidence. Helping in this regard is hydraulically powered steering which feels heavier than most other similar-sized vehicles on the market.

The ride feels quite firm, too. Of course MG claims this is because of the brand's sporting DNA, and it is true that it is the result of work by chassis engineers in Britain who were given the task of tailoring the car's platform for the European market.

There's no reason to suspect that things would be in any way different with the product sourced from China. Perhaps the best thing that can be said of this new MG6 is that it is as good as equivalent vehicles from Japan or Korea. That in itself probably speaks volumes about the rapid progress being made by the automotive industry in China.

This is, to all intents and purposes, a British car that happens to be built in Asia, but it is also significant that MG is now owned by the Chinese. So is the new MG6 British or Chinese?

It's quickly getting to the stage where is doesn't really matter.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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