News : April 2004

New 45 finally unveiled…

Rover have unveiled its first picture of the revised 45, and its changes appear to mirror those effected on the Rover 75, launched earlier this year. That is not to say that the company doesn’t have something up its sleeve regarding the revised ZS…

Currently, Rover’s strategy of remaining in volume production looks to be on very shakey ground, when one considers the falling sales of the Rover 45/MG ZS range. As is well known in the industry though, the 45 chassis does possess a great deal of potential, and as a driver’s car, it manages to cut it among its newer rivals in MG form. So, with that in mind, and with the level of budget available, it would be logical to address the car’s weakest points: it’s dated dashboard, which “features” scattergun positioning of some of its switchgear, and its dated exterior styling.

Certainly, all that seems to hold back the ZS180 is its styling, and AUTOCAR magazine were not shy in pronouncing the curious conclusion that the ZS180 would have been a winning contender in its 2001 giant test of hot hatchbacks, had it not been for its unfashionable style.

MGR do seem to have taken this criticism to heart, and in devising the new car’s near-end-of-life titivation, it has gone for a modest external restyle (using the same styling cues as the 2004 MY Rover 75) and a modest restyle of the interior as well. MGR’s own press release states that the 45 now features, “a new high quality fascia design, including new switchgear and instrumentation.”

But what about the MG version? Well, rumour has it that is going to feature XPower SV-style chrome rimmed air vents on the dashboard (a-la Audi TT) and “gills” on the front wings. Knowing MGR, the main news will be the chassis, which will feature sharpened up handling in the Rover version, which should move it closer to the current MG ZS ride/handling compromise.

The list of 45 features includes:

New fascia design incorporates stylish rotary air vents
New fascia console with soft-touch membrane switches
New column stalks
Revised seat design and fabrics
ATC air conditioning
Master locking switch and drive-away locking for occupant security
TrafficMaster® congestion warning alert system (unique to cars in this class)
Prices range between £9,995 – £16,200
New interior trims and colours, with new Burr Walnut, Light Oak or Black Oak wood finishes

The full product reveal is set for the 20th April…

Towers faces Select Committee

The “Phoenix four” must be beginning to wonder when the glare of media attention is going to to focus on someone else. Having endured four torrid months at the hands of the financial press over its alleged “financial sleight of hand”, and further attacks from the motoring press over the indifferent build quality of the CityRover, it must have seemed like trial by fire having to appear in front of a Parliamentary Select Committee…

John Towers and Peter Beale were MG Rover’s representatives at the enquiry into the state of the British Motor industry, and were immediately subjective to a barrage of questions over their recent financial transactions. It was Beale that responded bullishly, raising some wry smiles with some of his responses to Martin O’Neill MP, the Chairman of the committee:

MO’N: “If things are so good, why have they gone so bad? How have they [the media] got it so wrong?”

PB: “My wife keeps reading that I am a billionaire.”

MO’N: “Well, £51m between four people is…”

PB: “We are very well paid and we have got a well-reported loan note and a good pension scheme.”

MO’N: “You have treated yourself rather well. It is not very good corporate governance is it?”

PB: “It is the same corporate governance that applies to other private companies in the UK.”

MO’N: “You say it is more transparent, but the transparency is a rather effective conduit to look after yourselves.”

PB: “We are the last transparent private company in the country.”

Towers also gave evidence, and spoke with some passion on the subject, revealing that he feels a great deal of frustration at how his company is constantly under media scrutiny. Towers made these frustrations clear by reiterating the events of 2000, recounting how it was he and his board members that put their hands in their pockets when everyone else said that it could not be done.

However, it is a fact of Longbridge life that the company will attract attention, with so many jobs depending on the future of the company, and it seems to have been the case since the company’s antecedent joined the public sector way back in 1975…

Some interesting facts came out of the excahnge though: £460 million has been spend on research and development since 2000, with £100 million of that going on the RD/X60 programme. As has been well documented, much early development on this car was undertaken by the now-defunct TWR Group, and it looks like MGR will be again, turning to a “joint venture partner”; this time to handle the styling. One thing is for sure: MGR are not in the RD/X60 alone, as this TATA recruitment ad plainly makes clear:

So TATA are being asked to report on RD/X60 cost saving opportunites?

Towers made one interesting announcement about the future shape of the Phoenix board: PVH will appoint an independent non-executive director by the end of 2004, in order to ease press criticism about its corporate behaviour.

MGR Look to overseas partners

Polish 75s, British Protons?

Is there a chance that the promising Proton Gen.2 could end up being built in the UK?

More fascinating news came out of the Select Committee, and that was the affirmation that MGR would more than likely be moving ito Poland in the very near future. For some time, the company had been chasing the Polish government for assistance in buying the ex-FSO/DAEWOO factory, which could be converted into an MGR production facility. Indeed as long as a year ago, MGR were publicly courting the Poles, and it was through this avenue that the original RD/X60 prototype pictures escaped onto the internet.

For some time the deal hung in the balance, but it would seem that MGR are still confident of bagging the plant. Indeed, it was John Towers himself that stated, “There is a huge market in Poland for the 75 and making it there would mean it would be priced for that market.” Without doubt, the expansion of the EU into this area of Europe could stimulate demand for new cars, and MGR would like to be at the forefront of this. Much speculation originally centred on the current 45 range being transferred to Poland, when the RD/X60 went into production, but now this has fallen behind schedule, MGR could well be looking at either moving the 75 to Poland wholescale, or more likely, opening a second production line there.

Towers also confirmed that MGR talks with Proton were still going well, and that being the case, there could be the potential to manaufacture Malaysian cars here in the UK. As Proton already has strong research and development links in the UK (thanks to Lotus), the company’s newest product, the Gen.2 looks like being a good base to build from. In spite of these talks with Proton, ambitions in Poland, and an ongoing arrangement with TATA, Towers stated that he was still keen to find a Chinese partner…

Powertrain partnership with Indian producer Sonalika

And if all that wasn’t enough, the Sonalika Group, makers of the Sonalika range tractors, said on Tuesday that it has signed a technical collaboration agreement with MGR, to manufacture a SUV to be launched in 2005. This would represent Sonalika’s first move into the sector, and a vitally important one, given the 2 million Rupees investment being put into the project. Sonalika’s Chairman, L.D.Mittal, state that, “Our entry into this segment is driven by our research which indicates that there is a large market for SUVs in India. An offering that is superior in technology and highly competitive in pricing will create an entirely new market both for current car users who will upgrade to the SUV segment as well as for non-users. The potential is immense and more importantly, untapped.”

Powertrain’s involvement in the project would appear to be a technical one, which sees its expertise in the diesel engine field being put to good use in India.

How this collaboration will pan out remains to be seen, but there is still the small matter of BMW’s condition of sale to Phoenix back in 2000, which stated that the company would not be allowed to produce a 4WD vehicle… sporting a Rover badge, for fear of queering (Ford-owned) Land Rover’s pitch. So I wonder if PVH will be looking to “invent” a brand if the Sonalika SUV comes to the UK… don’t bet against it!

Keith Adams

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