IAIN ROBERTSON 

Inspecting more closely the compact MG3, observers are made aware of the amount of influence that western car markets can heft upon overseas’ carmakers, writes Iain Robertson, as the oriental brand continues its developmental direction in the UK.

Prior to the products of the resurrected MG brand arriving in the UK, I freely admit to displaying an immense amount of scepticism. Regardless of the amount of western support that had been given to all Chinese carmakers, remembering that Volkswagen was one of the first automotive brands to invest in that market in the early-1980s, the Chinese brands guard their enterprises most zealously.

While the post-Mao, domestic market was fast developing, neither build quality, nor safety, were close to European standards. In fact, some early Chinese products, imported to the UK for NCap crash testing, were so disastrously dangerous that earning a ‘zero’ (and even a ‘minus’) rating made them race back to their drawing-boards.

Listening and learning are two of the most important attributes displayed by the Chinese motor industry, as it continues the intentionally subtle ramping-up of its market share in the west. Just look at Volvo, which is now Chinese-owned, as well as built for some models, a brand that possesses an indisputable reputation for vehicle and occupant safety levels. It cannot afford to mortgage it in favour of ‘cheapening’ the products. Without Chinese funding, the PSA Groupe would never have been in a position to buy Vauxhall-Opel. Believe me, the influence of the Chinese is being felt in many quarters.

However, I make no apology for making a direct comparison with Czech brand, Skoda, not least because of the visual similarity that exists between both MG3 and Skoda Fabia, or, perhaps more relevantly, its Felicia forebear. The Czechs benefited from a depth of engineering know-how that the Chinese lacked.

The Chinese are notorious arch-copyists; some observers might even suggest that they are consummate plagiarists, who care little for the ramifications of breaching copyright. However, despite a customary round of retaliation by the rest of the world, in reaction to reports presaging ‘The March of Sino Carmakers’, it could be said that the Chinese assault on car markets outside its domestic one has been as effective as a damp squib.

To be fair to MG, it had more rights and marketing potential to create a toehold in the UK than many of its home-based rivals. After all, with an MG Car Club that is the largest such body in the world, albeit one jaded slightly since the demise of the TF Roadster, and hijacked brand allegiance, albeit not as much as BMW exercises with Mini, for MG not to have a place in the UK would be both myopic and injudicious.

The first generation MG3 amused a few people and provided perfectly dependable mobility for many ‘blue-rinsers’. Fortunately, the Japanese art of ‘Kaizen’, or a movement dedicated to continuous improvement, has played its part and, while I was not a fan of the earliest versions of the MG3, the last model I tested around three years ago was significantly better, in all respects.

The latest version is precisely where the car should have been six years ago, with a couple of important codicils! The first lies with its 1.5-litre, 103bhp, normally-aspirated, four-cylinder petrol engine, which not only sounds like it harks back to a former era but it also lacks the grunt and vivacity of a more modern 1.0-litre turbo-triple, which MG already has in its line-up and is used to exceptional effect in the excellent MG ZS (the firm’s most recent compact SUV). Of course, MG may well be waiting for the next redesign before it installs that engine into its compact model line but it could have factored-in an additional reason for potential buyers to be drawn to the new MG3.

The second glaring issue lies with the car’s low-speed suspension refinement…it does not possess much. Feeling both leaden and overly harsh, the MG3 rides uncomfortably and noisily over broken road surfaces (of which we still have far too many in our country), crashing raucously on cobblestones and reacting with jolts to the occupants’ spines. However, these unwelcome characteristics have a tendency to occur predominantly at lower speeds. Travel a little faster and the car’s composure over most road types is sporty, well-controlled and firm. It makes me wonder if MG is trying to recall the harsher ride appeal of some of this car’s historical antecedents.

Yet, the MG3’s steering is lovely, with positive feedback through the leather-wrapped rim of the wheel, accompanied by a sporting level of light power assistance. While the clutch pedal is offset towards the left of the pedal box area, the brake and throttle pedals are well-aligned to allow heel-and-toe downshifts that are more than up to the classic inferences of the brand. The improvements made to the former, notchy 5-speed gearbox are excellent, as the quality of shifts is now much sweeter, smoother and faster than before.

While inside the cabin, the designers have taken a number of positive steps and, although a ‘soft-touch’ dashboard is unavailable on this model, the visual appeal is strong. Even the ‘metal’ styling strip across the dashboard is finished in a cute ‘plaid’ pattern, while sitting amidships is the all-new touch-screen interface for the vastly improved connectivity. It is a well-designed feature, with classy graphics, that doubles as a screen for the owner’s sat-nav and music collection apps, while providing a logical and attractive means to listen to the radio and provide a practical full-colour screen for safer reversing manoeuvres.

Differently styled door cards and much-improved seat designs highlight that MG has been listening carefully and amending its cars on-going. The part-hide upholstery of the test car looks as good as anything from western carmakers in the class, further highlighting MG’s intentions to captivate its customers, who will be drawn to the value-for-money price tag, which starts at a listed £9,495. The Exclusive model tested is a heftier £12,795.

Three levels of trim are offered: Explore, Excite and Exclusive. However, the top-of-the-shop version also benefits from a very generous standard equipment list, which includes the sportier seats, cruise control, the aforementioned colour reversing camera and Apple CarPlay.

Despite my earlier comment about the engine, its performance figures of 0-60mph in 10.4s and a top speed of 108mph are little less than totally respectable. Ally that to an insurance rating of 8E and an Official Combined fuel return of 47.1mpg and you appreciate that the MG3’s running costs are affordably low. However, as an adjunct to the report of an ‘ageing powerplant’, its CO2 rating of 140g/km equates to a first-year road tax payment of £205, with £140 standard rate applicable in subsequent years.

Overall, from its very Peugeot-like new front radiator grille, past its Fabia-like flanks, with their subtle skirts, to the Fiat Punto-like hatchback, the latest version of the MG3 is a charming, well-finished and more beguiling compact hatch than ever before. It is good looking and is also sure to continue building a following. After all, you hear nothing bad about preceding models and an industry-leading, seven years’ manufacturer’s warranty remains a clear attraction.

Conclusion:     If you only desire basic transport, albeit very well-equipped, an MG3 will do more than merely satisfy your needs and a growing network of MG dealers can establish all of the customary requirements on pricing, availability, colours, personalisation, delivery and back-up.