Words and Photography: Keith Adams
It looks like the phoney war is over and MG is about to get serious about the UK market. The MG3 is now on-sale and you can order one now but, just to ensure that this vaguely sporting five-door hatch has half a chance, it’s been aggressively priced between £8399 and £9999 on the road and given a seriously tempting insurance grouping.
It’s been eight years since you’ve been able to buy a new MG-badged supermini in the UK and, just like the ZR before it, the MG3 might not be a pace-setting design, but it has the potential to establish itself as a serious player in the sub-£10,000 market. Of course, whether the MG3 lives or dies is down to many factors, not least its maker’s ability to market and advertise the thing.
Here’s the good news, though: the fundamentals are all there and the MG really does have a fighting chance of making the ‘3 work here. Beyond the pricing and those faddish external graphics options (which MINI dealers will tell you are going out of fashion), the fundamentals are there – it’s an honest workhorse of a car that looks and feels like it’s been properly screwed together, after some very effective tweaking and tuning by some very capable Engineers in Longbridge.
However, be under no illusion – the new MG3 is a very different proposition to the once-popular ZR, very much majoring on value-for-money and instant showroom appeal. The 3 has plenty of power and equipment for the money, thanks to its headline-grabbing list price, and that low insurance rating, there’s every possibility that it could capture a useful slice of the market. After all, neither the Citroen Saxo VTR and MG ZR 105 were cutting-edge in their day, but they were affordable, fun and the dealers were keen to help them out of the door.
Will the MG3 entice new car buyers back into their local MG showroom, though?
As AROnline readers, you’re already all-too aware that MG Motor UK’s post-2008 relaunch has been a painfully slow and frustrating slow-burner. The TF sold in dribs and drabs between 2008 and 2011, while the MG6 so far continues in the same vein, despite current tempting prices. In both cases, it’s not because they were bad cars, per se, but more often than not, beyond the enthusiast crowd, no one actually knew that they existed. So, with the arrival of the ‘3, MG is hoping to turn the corner, looking for genuine growth, as well as an increase in visibility.
The first thing to say on that score is that Sales and Marketing Director, Guy Jones, has confirmed that the MG3 will be advertised on TV, as well as in the lifestyle and specialist press. It will be a simple message – buy an MG3 and have fun, fun, fun for the money. Motor sport is also not out of the question, although it needs to be cost effective – his favoured option was for the ‘3 to compete in the MG Car Club’s MG Trophy Championship.
The MG3’s been on sale in China since 2011, but it was a completely new car from the ground-up when launched. Project ZP11 used no existing MG Rover architecture and its main inspirations, according to a well-placed source, were the Skoda Fabia and Fiat Grande Punto – and you can see that in the car’s style, stance and packaging.
It’s a roomy hatchback, boasting a long wheelbase (2520mm) with wheel-at-each corner and, at 4018mm in length and 1729mm wide, it’s slightly larger than the class norm and it tips the scales at a hardly sylph-like 1155kg. For the UK, there’s only one version powered by the all-new EU5 compliant 1.5-litre chain-cam engine, which develops a healthy (for the money) 104bhp and 101lb ft. Consider that most price rivals develop between 70-85bhp and you can see why MG is confident about its chances. Hopefully, thanks to the NSE power unit, any lingering doubts in the wider buying public about MG’s engine longevity should be allayed.
Beyond that, the MG3 has an exceptionally low insurance grouping (it’s classified as 4E, placing it alongside far less powerful rivals), and has a useful amount of kit, such as Bluetooth, USB connectivity and DAB radio, even in the entry-level model. It’s a recipe that MG hopes will see younger customers make a return to their local MG dealer.
Although the MG3 was designed in the UK, the Chinese market version needed work. So, the Engineers at SMTC UK in Longbridge ended up in the interesting position of reworking a car they had already designed for another country’s specific needs – as one engineer told AROnline, ‘we were given the MG3 as a complete package, which we then we were required to tune for the UK market.’
The most obvious changes are visual. The UK MG3 receives new front and rear bumpers, a discreet body kit and a range of larger wheels. These changes give the five-door only MG3 much more road presence, giving credence to the company’s assertion that it’s a fun, faintly sporting hatchback. However, the more important changes were made under the skin.
The suspension and damping set-up, which was overseen by Andy Kitson’s team, has been significantly upgraded. Particular attention has been paid to the ride height and damping, while the hydraulic (a refreshing change these days) power-steering’s valving has also been re-tuned to give more weight and road feel.
The question is – can MG really speak to those people who’d dearly love a Citroen DS3, Fiat 500, Vauxhall Adam, or – dare we say it – MINI, but only have Chevrolet Aveo or Skoda Fabia-sized monthly payments to play with? In terms of what you get for your money, the MG3 is clearly in with a fighting chance.
MG is playing the ‘fun’ card for all it’s worth. The graphics packs are available from £200-£225 and are specified when you order the car. But in the coming months, dealers will be able to retro-fit these vinyls, meaning that if you get bored, you can give your MG3 a modestly-priced external makeover.
Taking a close look at several cars at launch, the fit and finish is excellent and the paint is deep and even. Panel gaps are also where they should be and, inside, the fixtures and surfaces feel solid and durable. The leather-rimmed steering wheel and gearknob feel right, while ancillary controls such as the column stalks, ICE and air conditioning controls have good tactility – banishing memories of some of the MG6’s more iffy details.
Nice touches on our top of the line 3Style are the fingertip controls on the steering wheel, which operate the audio and cruise control’s features, while special mention should be made for the dash-top storage area, which is doubly useful for having a retractable blind to cover it and an integrated mounting point for your smartphone or satnav (and which worked really well with the iPhone’s in-built sat-nav). Additionally, for a little bit of heritage, there’s a rubber non-slip mat that Rover 200/400/800 owners are all too familiar with.
The seating position is high and offers excellent forward visibility – although predictably, the driver’s A-post intrudes at angled junctions, while over-the-shoulder visibility suffers at the hands of chunky B- and C-posts. Rear room is class-leading, with ample head- and leg-room, matching the physically larger Dacia Logan. Indeed, that seems to be a part of the new-MG’s DNA and is no doubt linked to China’s love of rear lounging room.
Once underway, engine refinement is acceptable from idle and in the lower half of the rev range. When driven sedately, the MG3 is reasonably hushed and unintrusive, with an appreciably quiet idle – which you notice as the car does without stop-start, more’s the pity. Initially, it doesn’t feel that quick, either, with unexceptional throttle response – but that changes if you push a bit harder. The undersquare 75mm x 84.8mm bore and stroke measurements and 10.5:1 compression ratio probably explain why it feels a little torque-shy.
From 4500rpm, the power steps up markedly and gives the driver who’s prepared to work hard through to the 7000rpm rev limiter, handy for A-road overtaking acceleration in second/third gear. And for bar-room braggers, it will reach 60mph in second, which explains its competitive 0-60mph time of 10.4 seconds (still slower than a Montego 1.6L). Of course, it gets louder and more coarse when driven enthusiastically, but not excessively so – although it’s an undistinguished sounding power unit. Sadly, it doesn’t sound that sporting inside either – although we noted the exhaust sounds quite fruity at idle – another important selling point for the younger drivers MG dearly wants to attract.
The British design team has certainly made it steer and handle well. On faster A-roads, the steering has plenty of feel and is responsive and quick and, as one Engineer told us, much work was done to eliminate striction and the play around the centre spot that Chinese-spec cars have (and which drivers there demand). It’s not transparent, but certainly feels less artificial than most EPAS set-ups.
The ride is quite firm by ‘cooking hatchback’ standards, but not objectionably so, and it doesn’t feel restless unless the road surface is particularly poor. By the same token, it won’t knock the wind out of you, as seems to be the way with today’s hot hatches. So, it offers something of a halfway house between the two, which seems to sum up where MG is pitching the ‘3.
Damping control is worthy of note, particularly in early corner turn-in, where the transition to roll is nice and consistent. Would we call it sporting? Not really, but it’s competent and poor surface conditions rarely intrude too much, even if there’s a tad more road noise than most superminis. Corners are also taken competently, with plenty of lateral grip and a minimal amount of understeer at UK A- and B-road speeds to keep things nice and safe. The disc/drum braking set-up is consistent in general use, with no cause for comment and good pedal feel. Disc-wiping is standard.
In short, it’s fun and safe, with above average levels of communication and all without being too challenging, and it wipes the floor with the Vauxhall Adam.
Overall, then, you’ll have already worked out that the MG3 doesn’t re-write the small car rulebook. It has plenty of good points, such as its generous cabin and well-shaped boot, easily mastered controls and more than acceptable dynamics. However, as a basic design, it’s already pushing past its first flush of youth, even if it has some attractive design details.
There’s only one powertrain option and, while it delivers reasonable performance, it’s far from being the cleanest (136g/km) or most economical (48.7mpg combined, 39mpg on our admittedly brief test) small hatchback on the market.
However, when you bring cost into the equation and view the MG3 as an overall proposition that’s aimed at real people with modest budgets, it’s difficult not to conclude that it’s near-compelling. That’s because, at this price point and with the combination of generous kit and 104bhp engine, it’s difficult to find any rivals to put it up against – similarly priced cars are more spartan and certainly slower, while those that match the ‘3’s kit and pace are considerably more expensive. For younger buyers, the cheap insurance is also a potenially huge attraction, bringing a warm-hatch to within their reach.
There are questions, of course. The car needs marketing and needs a tangible, desirable image setting out from day one. The three-year warranty (with option to buy year four and five) is okay and we still need to hear what the PCP costs are going to be. Also, long-term residuals are an unknown right now and this will undoubtedly play out in the coming months. As for reliability and servicing, MG Motor UK’s Dealer Network is currently patchy, with around 30 outlets for the entire UK. That said, the company is aiming to have around 100 dealers on board by the end of 2015, as well as a network of service agents with an as-yet unnamed national chain.
Overall, then, the ‘3 is a likeable addition to the market that’s quick, stylish and cheap – and, without sounding harsh on MG Motor UK, which is effectively a company still in its infancy, it would be a sure-fire hit if it was being sold by, say, Ford or Vauxhall. As it stands, it’s a good car that’s not perfect but, at the price MG is flogging it for, you can more than forgive its faults.