Not long ago, in this very space, I put forth the proposition that MG’s current lineup would fail in the United States. I said these modern MGs don’t look British and, because they were not sports cars, few Americans would want one.
Let me amend that…
Thanks to Keith Adams, I spent time in an MG3 driving in and around the Longbridge and Birmingham areas. Adams arrived at my hotel in a light blue MG3 press car with 12,000 miles on the clock. I prepared to have all of my suspicions confirmed, that like all other Chinese-made cars I have seen there would be embarrassing issues with the fit and finish, that the engine would be rude, unruly and unwilling. This was not so.
Now that I have seen the MG3 in the metal and have been in one, I understand what the problem is: me. When it comes to MG, time, in an automotive sense, stopped for Americans in 1980 when the last special edition MGBs came to the United States.
There were no more MGs after that for us. No Metros, Maestros and Montegos from the ARG era and none of the Honda-based cars that came later. Most Americans don’t even know those cars exist. The only modern MG that is widely known in the USA – outside of the MG faithful – is the MGF.
Now that I have experienced the MG3, here’s my revised view of the car and MG’s prospects for launching its new lineup in the USA.
The car I was in is every bit as good as the entry level Hyundai and Kia cars already on sale in the USA. The fit and finish of the MG3 is generally excellent. The paint is smooth, the trim is well attached and the build quality shows that the MG3 is as good and probably better than some of its rivals.
The engine, though not overpowering, is smooth, quiet and refined. It sends the power to the wheels efficiently and seems to love being driven quickly.
The steering, brakes and suspension are nicely calibrated, though not particularly sporting.
And that’s where I got it wrong in my earlier assessment of MG’s prospects for the US. I thought any car wearing the MG badge must have sporting pretensions. But that’s not what the new MG is all about. MG, I learned today, has been recast into an entry-level brand for young, probably first-time buyers on a limited budget.
Now, viewed that way, how is the MG3? I’d say it is outstanding. I see it as delivering excellent value for money, with better than average styling and a nice level of equipment. So, could MG come back into the US with its current lineup and be successful?
I would say yes, but with caveats.
The US market is toughest there is. It’s fraught with land mines, legal, logistical and otherwise that can cost a company tens of millions of dollars when things go wrong. But get it right, and the rewards are many.
MG’s Chinese masters need to study every import brand that has failed in the United States since 1991 — Sterling, Peugeot, Daewoo, Daihatsu, Suzuki, Saab, etc. and make sure the same mistakes are not repeated. That means, above all, quality and reliability have to be up to world-class standards and that, when service is needed, spares have to be available immediately. Most American cities do not have mass transit and a car is the only way most Americans have to get to work. A broken down car that can’t be fixed quickly is surest way to fail in the USA.
In the earlier blog, I said the new MGs didn’t fit the image most Americans have of the brand. I no longer think that is a problem. Likely, no one who bought an MG in the 1970s or 1980s would be customers for the new generation of MGs. We’re at least three generations down the road from the last MGs sold in the USA. Now, it’s blank slate for MG in terms of image, so properly positioning the brand for young, value-driven buyers — not appealing to old retro-geezers like me — is the way to go.
Perhaps the most important thing for MG to consider about the USA is the dealer network – that needs to be consistent from city to city and there would need to be about 500 dealers onboard for the brand to be viable. Too bad MG are not ready to return to the States right now. Last year, Suzuki ended car sales in the USA. The Suzuki dealer network would be perfect for the new MGs.
I see an opening in the US market for MG in the coming years. Hyundai and Kia are moving upmarket, leaving a gaping hole for buyers of new cars with about $10,000 to $15,000 to spend. Mitsubishi just launched the horrid Mirage which is doomed to fail. Toyota and Nissan sell cheap cars in the USA and they are exactly that: cheap. They may not breakdown, but they are stripped cars most people do not want to drive.
Let me end with a few more words on the MG3 – it taught me (once again) to leave my biases at the kerb. It was nothing like I’d imagined it to be. We’ve seen Chinese cars in the USA at the big Detroit Auto Show almost every year this century. All were laughable in some way, with weird interior smells that reminded one of a toxic chemical dump, poor fitting panels, or comically worded warning stickers. All that stuff showed the Chinese didn’t have a clue about doing business in the west. There is none of that present in the MG3. It’s a quality job.
SAIC Motor are to be commended for recasting MG. From what I’ve seen, they’ve done a credible job. I’m a little sad that MG doesn’t make sports cars anymore but the ‘3 showed it’s time for me to move on from that now.
The world has changed and MG has changed with it.
Richard Truett is a true British car enthusiast, having owned a string of Triumphs. He works for Automotive News and is also AROnline’s US Editor.