Well, here we are a year on from the build-up of the UK ‘launch’ of the MG6, and how things look different 12 months on. Back in the late months of 2010, and following months, nay, years of MG and Longbridge inactivity and a Chinese Wall of secrecy from the overlords at SAIC, it finally looked like our beloved company was about to go nuclear in a big way. The new design centre at Longbridge was opened to us, and very impressive it looked too; and it looked like the start of a five-year plan that had the potential to shake up the European establishment – after all, MG and SAIC would be able to combine British engineering skill with Chinese cost effectiveness. What’s not to like?
However, from that moment on, and even before the launch of the incredibly important MG6, things it seemed started to go awry. The first official UK showing at the Top Gear Live/MPH Show drew the punters in, and got bums on seats, but proved something of a Public Relations home-goal as the mouthpiece of that event, a certain Mr Clarkson was quick to pronounce the car – and its maker – moribund. Did he have a point? Well, we were all certainly ticked off about it at the time, but for my part, the disappointment was aimed at MG UK (for launching in Clarkson’s backyard) rather than the great man himself (for being true to form).
Anyway, on to March, and the first drives of the MG6, and the muttering rotters who made the trip to Longbridge to drive the car seemed largely impressed. There might have been a few rough edges with the interior, but the dynamics were pretty much spot on, and the all round value proposition seemed okay, too. Think of it as a Mondeo sized car for Focus money, and you’d not be too far off.
But even at this point, months before the MG6 was due to go on sale, the re-launch plan wasn’t really looking as shiny as it might. SAIC truly is an industrial giant, and is now one of the world’s main automotive players – and yet, here we were at Longbridge driving the new cars, and it was clear that the company’s PR budget amounted to very little indeed. When a company with international ambitions launches its mid-market mainstay on its home market, you’d expect it to really push the boat out – yet here we were with a limited number of cars, and limited places. It all seemed very cheapskate.
For me, and for the AROnline readership, that’s probably no problem at all – and great opportunity to meet the guys behind the UK development of the car at the coalface, as well as have a proper look around the factory. But as major launches go, the UK first drives of the MG6 were truly low-rent. The alarm bells should have started ringing then – if there’s no PR budget, where does that leave marketing? – but I was just relieved that the MG6 had the makings of a good car.
Slowly, but surely we moved to the MG6’s on-sale date of May – and first we had the hasty GT and Magnette branding exercises, followed by the TV commercial which, thanks to its copious use of an MGB roadster, proved toe-curlingly awful. ‘It’s time to love fall in love again’, it preached as the old classic was overtaken by the sporting new pretender. As long as you’re not paying for your own fuel or tax, we all thought to ourselves thanks to the 1.8-litre turbo petrol being the take-it-or-leave-it option.
And that brings us to the matter of the business community. Would any serious company fleet manager chance his arm on a range of cars that was offered with such an unfavourable set of residuals? And why, when we addressed our concerns to Longbridge on this very matter, were we greeted by silence? We know the diesels are coming – but it’s a reflection of the Chinese company’s ambivalence to fuel from the black pump, and its inability to listen to its European staff that we’re in this situation that there’s going to be an 18-month gap (at least) between the petrol and diesel MG6 launches. And that’s a disgrace in the era of the £1.39 litre.
But it was a start – the MGs were at least on sale and the message was getting out there. Except that it wasn’t. Here we are six months later, and part of a sympathetic crowd, and most us us have yet to see an MG6 on the road. Let alone a billboard advert. Or a dealer. And this is where – sadly – I think the marketing budget, or lack of it, is really killing the MG6. And SAIC in China should be ashamed of itself for allowing this to happen – leaving Longbridge out in the wind, despite it being talked up as a serious bridgehead into the EU marketplace. Not that anyone else in the EU can buy an MG6. Not even the Irish.
Back to the UK. Why isn’t the company sending fleets of them around the M25 every weekday or plying the M1? Why aren’t the adverts running on constant TV heavy rotation? Where are the cute viral Internet videos? But then, this all costs money – lots of it – and the Chinese aren’t too generous in parcelling it out to the UK. And that casts doubts on the operation. Which potential customers must surely pick up on.
In fact, MG UK’s entire online and social strategy seems to be regular posting of pictures on its Facebook group, especially the infamous ‘sold!’ shots showing new customers taking deliver of their new 6s. And most were, er, hardly reflective of the young and dynamic potential Alfa Romeo or SEAT owners the company was chasing. Luckily, once it became clear that sales were slower than anticipated, the pictures stopped coming…
And that’s ultimately the biggest disappointment about MG UK’s performance in its first year, and that sales have fallen well behind the admittedly pessimistic annual target of 2000 cars. And let’s be honest, that’s not really down to the product – as I’ve said from the outset, the MG6 is a good car to drive, and a fine family car, at a reasonable price. Yes it doesn’t come with a diesel option, but it should have been enough for the MG message to get out there as part of a soft-launch building up to the arrival of the MG6 diesel, MG3 and MG5.
And let’s face it, once those cars are on sale, MG’s range will begin to look a lot more tempting, and the scope of SAIC’s ambition for the company will become a little clearer. But, then, production in Longbridge is clearly not part of SAIC’s global plans for MG and, if it fails after a couple of years, at least the head honchos in China can say they gave it a shot, and ultimately failed – leaving the Birmingham factory open to become the R&D centre it was always planned to be.
However, that’s under-selling the potential that Longbridge has in the European plan for MG. I still believe European buyers will take these cars more seriously if they know they’ve been built here – and less likely to refer to them as ‘Chinese cars’, and all that entails. Even if they’ve been made up from kits. But the way things are looking, it’s all going to be academic, as SAIC Motor seems to have scuppered the plan for Longbridge before it was even it approached fruition… and all for the sake of a little marketing money.
A shameful state of affairs…