Words: Steven Ward Photographs: Dave Leader
Tuesday, 16th February, 2011 was bound by freezing fog as I left the home town of Nissan (UK) at 6.00hrs and headed to Birmingham, home town of MG Motor UK for 10.30hrs. Somebody with connections had read my critical MG6 Essay on AROnline and felt I should attend the Media Briefing at Longbridge to see if my concerns were well founded. I was to investigate and report back here.
Indeed, such was the huge response created by the article and the general negativity of the comments generated. that I felt a sense of responsibility to investigate further. This jaw-dropping opportunity was therefore seized upon. My day job could wait. Besides, I had one burning question twisting away in my mind.
The Parent Company
Guy Jones, head of Sales & Marketing for MG Motor UK Limited took no time in socking it to the assembled hacks. He pointed out that MG’s parent company, SAIC Motor ‘is the largest manufacturer in the world’s largest market.’ That woke me up. China has annual vehicle sales of 18 million units and these are increasing rapidly. For perspective, the UK market is stagnant at a mere 2m.
Guy continued: ‘SAIC Motor is the number one partner for Joint Ventures in China.’ He means co-operation with VW and GM – with GM choosing to use SAIC Motor exclusively. SAIC Motor has sales of 3.58 million (and increasing) which places them within the Top 10 of vehicle manufacturers in the world. Look at it this way, MG appears to be part of a new world ‘BL’ with regard parent company size – only this time, contraction and retrenchment are not on the cards.
For reference, MG’s sister brand is Roewe and their combined sales last year totalled 160,000 units, virtually all in China, virtually all Roewe. This is expected to increase rapidly as a whole family of new MG and Roewes are designed and developed.
Again, more startling figures from Guy Jones. Longbridge has benefited from £45,000,000 of investment. You can add to that figure the overheads of running the facility and having around 400 people on the payroll. What this means is that Longbridge is capable of designing, testing and manufacturing a car from a clean sheet of paper.
If you don’t believe me, then consider the UK-spec MG6 is effectively the fifth car to come from this Design Team. The Roewe 550 came first and that is considered the benchmark car in China. This was followed by the Chinese-market MG6 Fastback and Saloon, the Roewe 350 and the Roewe 750 ‘Mild’ Hybrid (whatever that is). This level and pace of development has taken hundreds of millions of pounds to achieve.
Longbridge can essentially be split in three components.
MG Motor UK: employs around 100 staff – their role is to manufacture and sell cars to the UK. That was previously the TF and will shortly be MG6 Fastback and Saloon.
SAIC European Engineering Technical Centre: employs 275 Engineers (although 300 on site) to design and test cars, powertrains and electrical systems. This is housed in the old Sales and Marketing office which was superb when I toured in 2005. Finally, and surprisingly,
SAIC European Design Centre: employs 25 Designers and their role is one of global design for SAIC Motor’s own-brand products worldwide. That is quite some achievement when you consider it is headed up by an enthusiastic Englishman, Tony Williams-Kenny.
Most of these employees are ex-MG Rover – in some departments 95% of the staff are ‘old-hands’. There is new technical Training College (in the old PVS office and merchandise shop). There are also a new Electronics Testing Facility with a simulation LabCar (we were shown slides) and a £5m Engine Test Facility which is 90% complete. The Powertrain people share an office with the rest of the Engineering team but they kept away from others by a ‘Berlin Wall’ arrangement. Those mad scientists…
The MG6 is to be assembled on the old 75 line which, contrary to popular belief, was not ripped out. This was mothballed and periodically run until now. Money was has been spent to overhaul and adapt it to suit the MG6. The controversial bit is how much MG6 assembly is done here. Not a lot is the honest answer – you’re looking at it being around 80% complete. Assembly here includes;
- The engine is joined to the (new) gearbox here (although they are manufactured in China)
- The ‘stuff-up’ (powertrain into body essentially)
- Front suspension & subframe (Chinese sourced)
- Underbody fix
- Wheels (sourced here)
- All the electrics system testing (MG are especially proud of the new electrics)
- Fluids are added
- Engine fired-up and vehicle dynamically tested
The MG6 arrives in Felixstowe docks from China in this ‘CKD’ (Complete Knocked Down – usually meaning in kit form) state on a specially designed frame which carries two cars. Some small fixings and electrics are UK-sourced as well as the wheels (rumoured to be from Team Dynamics) and (likely Dunlop) tyres.The current General Assembly workforce can, as of now, comfortably produce 5000 cars per annum.
However, should demand rise, Longbridge can up this figure to 40,000 per year using just a dayshift. Painting is currently done in China but the still-modern Paint Shop at Longbridge would be re-commissioned if production rose to around the 30,ooo per annum mark. It is not lost on MG Motor UK that the MINI Assembly Hall is there, brand new and still, 10 years on, unused…
On Valentine’s Day this year, the state of the art factory in China pushed the button to start UK-spec MG6 production. From there, it’ll take two weeks for each car to be assembled from scratch and taken to the docks. It will then spend 4 weeks on the high seas before reaching the UK. The first cars to leave Longbridge fully complete are set to do so in mid-April.
MG6 – Styling
The styling is a success to my eyes – although it is slightly derivative in some respects. Designed by Tony Williams-Kenny (ex-MGR), the car looks taut, edgy and confident. Deep, curvaceous sides with a crisp shoulder belt-line that lacks a rubbing stripwill mean parking away from humans in confined car parks.
I reckon that the Saloon works best and this has been reflected in customer clinics – surprising MG. To their credit, they’ve brought forward the Saloon’s launch date from September to July and re-jigged the sales split 60/40 between Fastback/Saloon. Much is made of the car’s ‘strength and character’ and ‘desirable British style.’
The MG badge is revised too – it has been ‘simplified’ for ‘modernity’ and is now finished in a satin chrome and appears three-dimensional to give a sense of ‘crafted solidity.’ Supposedly, the new-look badge will give a ‘trustworthy’ feel – it looks good, with the new red background colour, while those on cars appear to have a black mesh background. Interestingly, the petrol flap on MG6 appears to have been inspired by the Montego – it’s almost a mirror image! Class.
I did manage to get TW-K to one side and ask a very pertinent question: ‘What’s the angle of the tailgate on the Fastback’ I asked? TW-K replied: ‘I’ve no idea, why? That’s an unusual question.’ I unleashed my devastating P.K. ‘Well, as Roy Axe gave the 800 Series Fastback a tailgate angle of 18 degrees as that’s what SD1 had when analysed, I’d define a fastback from the ashes of MG Rover as requiring a tailgate of 18 degrees’.
TW-K, visibly on the back foot, floundered in light of my technical prowess. His reply was along the lines of ‘it looks right – it’s too complex to measure as there are three points to take a reading from.’ His next question would probably have been: ‘have you ever kissed a girl?’ Thankfully, Doug Wallace, MG Motor UK’s PR and Events Manager, took me to lunch at this point. My burning question had burnt out…
MG6 – Mechanical
Long live the 160 bhp, K-Series Turbo. Yes, it may be called the TCI Tech, it may have a new cylinder head and a new make of Turbo charger (Mitsubishi, instead of Garrett, like the old 75 diesel), but it is essentially the same old trouble maker with a sound jacket. Hopefully, the new cylinder head, new inlet manifold and cylinder head gaskets will cure the persistent HGF weakness.
I have heard rumours that the new digital temp display is causing trouble on the Chinese-market MG6 and causing the engine to shut down – also, if that model of turbo is electrically manipulated and similar to that used by Mercedes, its reputation is said to be poor.
I hope this won’t be the case – nothing of the like was mentioned on the tour. Fuel economy is said to be ‘high 30s mpg’ and the CO2 figure is 184 g/km (the MG ZT was 194 g/km) meaning first year road tax of £300, dropping to £250 thereafter. Will this engine cut the mustard?
The gearbox is said to be a brand new, in-house design, with five well-chosen ratios. I asked about why there was no six speed and was told that five good ratios rendered a sixth useless. An MG-R style excuse and no mistake! However, in fairness the forthcoming diesel, will have six forward cogs and, if the market demands it, that transmission can be fitted to the petrol. While we’ve mentioned the diesel, I may as well spill the beans now – MG expects to have a diesel-engined 6 ready to go in 18 months.
It’s a 1.9 litre engine designed in a three-way collaboration with Longbridge, China and a German supplier. Guy Jones was keen to stress three-way Joint Ventures are common in China. When asked if the diesel was a unit ‘borrowed’ from another manufacturer, we were told it was to be a brand new, in-house design, although they had considered using a Fiat Powertrain Technologies (FPT) lump.
Does that sound familiar? Expect the diesel to have a CO2 figure of 140 g/km and be Euro 6 fit. This new powertrain will spearhead the MG6’s assault on Europe and the UK fleet market. This will hopefully take annual output to 5000 without effort. When asked, I was told an estate model is a possibility if sales are strong. However, no automatic gearbox is going to be offered or planned.
I found this to be odd, when you consider the autobox is an option in China. When I mentioned this I was told the autobox used in China wasn’t up to Western European demands. In many ways, SAIC Motor and MG Motor UK remind me of Honda in that they are not prepared to buy-in others’ components. Historically, Rover has always bought in autoboxes from AP, Borg-Warner, VW, ZF, Jatco, Honda, etc. This will no longer be the case…
Suspension is similar to the old 75, but not identical. I wonder if BMW prevented use of their Z-axle or whether costs got in the way? Not to worry because the new rear set-up looks competent (two transverse arms per side) and means the fuel tank is no longer the saddle affair from 75.
Andy Kitson takes the credit for the new set-up, so expectations are high. Kitson, if you recall, was largely responsible for the TF and ZED cars. P.K. Spotters will be pleased to hear his first solo project was the 800 Vitesse Sport. It is here where the MG6 will stand or fall. Much is made of the chassis’ competence that gives ‘engaging driving dynamics.’
I was surprised to hear that the Golf was the benchmark. Indeed, such is the faith (and cost?) of this chassis that the words BMW 3 Series were mentioned and – get this – warranty implications. I’ll come to that later.
MG6 – Interior
The boot is generous (2 sets of golf clubs are no problem for the fictitious executive) and has a huge spare wheel well. Indeed, MG are promising ‘Class leading interior space.’ Sadly, I never got a chance to try it, although it seemed fine when I climbed in one at Goodwood way back in July last year.
By class, MG are referring to the C/D-segments which means Focus and Mondeo to you and me. You don’t seem to sit quite as ‘high’ as you do in many of this type of car. This gives a more sporting feel. The glass area is quite shallow if you’re used to 45 too. The styling of the interior is modern and attractive. Interestingly, the switch gear for the windows and lights appears to have been lifted straight from a VW.
I wonder if that was by design of default (remember the VW JVs in China). Either way, it must be looked upon as a Good Thing for Europe although I, for one, feel lost without a bit of Montego to push around. I cannot comment on the rest of the switchgear as I couldn’t (politely) get near and I preferred to fish for P.K.
The body shell is said to be a heavy weight and I noticed a stout bracing plate underneath in the middle that was reminiscent of MGF/TF. I have no dimensional figures to hand, other than I’m told that it’s sized between Focus and Mondeo. My stats and knowledge are lacking in this area currently -other than to say its 4.65m long. Insurance groups are said to be ‘best in class’ at between 13 and 14.
The MG6 is said to be ‘highly specified’ throughout the range to give ‘very strong value for money.’ It is reassuring to note that the MG6 interior clinicked as ‘disappointing’ compared to the exterior, so certain interior aspects are being re-thought as we speak – by customer clinics we mean the MG6 and its competitors were are all assembled, all de-badged and judged by members of the public who are deemed to be prospective buyers.
MG6 – Prices
No firm details as yet. The prices for the base Fastback are said to start at £17k and go up to £20k for the top-of-the-tree Audi A4/BMW 3 Series – rivalling Saloon. Before anyone comments, it was MG that made reference to those German rivals, not me.
MG is looking to sell a ‘unique proposition’ that has the prestige and drive of a BMW 3 Series, at a Ford Focus price. Ambitious to say the least – just look at how many times Alfa Romeo have attempted this. Interestingly, what brand has been re-launched more, MG or Alfa?
Another slightly controversial aspect is the warranty. MG are stating they are just going to give the MG6 an industry average (industry mean?) 3 years 60,000 miles warranty. They are not chasing the Korean duo of 5-7 years. They say the warranties are these Korean vehicles main selling points and that the MG6 has enough other attributes to attract sales, namely those ‘engaging driving dynamics’ and a ‘desirable British style.’
The ‘MG message is not about warranty.’ Toyota was mentioned, but then passed over. Hmm… I can understand where MG are coming from and, to a degree, it makes sense – if you are risk adverse, you’ll not be buying a MG6. However, what was emphasised was that MG needs to be established as a ‘credible brand’ and that the MG6 was a ‘premium product.’
Quality was mentioned repeatedly – SAIC Motor in China has given orders that volume and margins were second fiddle to quality. A five year warranty will be made available at extra cost through the Dealer Network. Being realistic, such is the truly awful reputation of Head Gasket failure and MG, not to be seen to be absolutely confident in your product must be short-sighted. Do MG grasp the sorry state of affairs brought about by the old K-Series weakness?
I think not when they mention keep mentioning ‘Quality’ and ‘brand-building’ without the warranty commitment. Residuals, while a thorny subject will be held high by holding used cars in the Dealer Network (something Ford pioneered with the Mondeo) and the very modest sales target of just 2000 cars in 12 months.
MG expects car finance to be taken out on 50% of cars sold, so residuals need to be decent. This, somewhat unusually, points to the anticipated core-customer being a cash-rich person of, ahem, more mature years. When was the last time a manufacturer chased the older buyer?
MG6 will be launched in two stages this year. Mid-April for the Fastback and mid-July for the Saloon. We’re told to expect a ‘Big Bang’ of publicity which will include adverts by the fellow Geordie Ridley Scott.
Ridley Scott is, of course, famous for producing the R6 Metro advert. Class… Latest generation cameras are used for the action shots which are currently being finalised in Hong Kong. There are said to be 11,000 interested people on MG Motor UK’s database for the launch propaganda.
However, what cannot be stressed enough, is that the MG6 is just the toe in the water for a huge and potentially vast range of cars. Next on the horizon is the MG3 which, at exactly 4 metres long, will be the biggest B-segment car available. The concept of this car was present for us to look over and sit in. It is not known if this car will be built at Longbridge. New powertrains are being made for this car with a variation of FPT’s ‘MultiAir’ technology if rumours are true.
Expect three volume cars, possibly including a crossover SUV, before we get an MG TF replacement though. A two seater is essential to the MG brand in my eyes and this programme suggests it is a long way off. There is a whole range of new engines undergoing development as well as advanced Hybrids and plug- in electric vehicles. SAIC Motor also has a JV with American battery manufacturer A123 Systems.
A target of 1 million units is mentioned for combined MG and Roewe sales in 10 years hence. Like I said earlier, SAIC Motor are very ambitious.
There will be 50 dealers up for the launch, that’s up from the current 39. A couple of dealers have been let go and some 40 interested dealers were refused a franchise, but there are still gaps in the country where dealers are being actively sought. Entry to the franchise is relatively low cost at £16k and you should be no closer than 30 minutes to another outlet. Sales and workshop staff start their training at Longbridge imminently.
MG is said to prefer to keep the franchises in small and family dealer groups rather than playing to the national dealer groups. Part of Tuesday’s event was the unveiling of the new MG Wall which is to project the brand style in dealerships. That’s basically the red wall and satin chrome MG badge you see behind the MG6 in the accompanying photos.
It reminds me of the just-departed Honda dealer branding. To go with the new (Chinese red) look, there is a new web site, the Facebook page (3000 members gathered in less time than it took Hyundai was the proud message!) and new merchandise for those really keen enthusiasts.
Parts supply is to be taken in house at Longbridge where parts will be kept for dealers, repairers and, of course, assembly. The technical helpdesks are also in house within Longbridge and not subcontracted to General Motors (who in turn subcontract to HP) as was previously believed.
MG are looking to go back into motor sport in addition to the TV adverts and the complimentary Facebook campaign. Images of Le Mans were flashed-up and there were Touring cars on display in the Round House. When questioned on the subject, Guy Jones could not be specific and implied it was just their intentions at this point with nothing definite being pursued.
MG is also going to actively engage MG6 owners with the MGCC and MGOC by showing them ‘An ownership experience to be loved’. I’ve experienced the available lifestyle and fun to be had from fellow enthusiasts and it’s a great community. This is a good line to take I feel and will further engage those who’ve invested (gambled?) on the MG6 and maybe give confidence to those considering it.
MG Motor UK is presently shying away from the world stage as they are staying local. Staying away from the world stage by not exhibiting at Geneva, Paris and the like is crazy in my view when even Iran’s Khodro can send out a (poorly) re-bodied 405 for such events. Never mind, MG will be having displays at Silverstone, Goodwood, MPH and the like this year.
I suppose MG’s reasoning is that they are small, even compared to Roewe, so they are not going to stretch themselves. I wish them luck and I’m confident their modest expectations will be easily realised. MG are keen not to promise more than they can deliver but this can be seen as a weakness when very little is forthcoming.
The next big event will the Ride and Drive Session for the Media in mid-April for the final MG6. Then we’ll see if the car lives up to the confident hype. MG must get that right to keep the brand alive, vibrant and, crucially, believable.