Last Thursday began as a day of ghosts. I was driving to Longbridge, Birmingham, where many thousands of workers once built many thousands of Austins. “The Austin” was one of the biggest and most modern car factories in Europe, and even in the British Leyland years its satellite plants burgeoned.
The unravelling began a while ago when Austin and its Cowley-based Morris counterpart disappeared, Rover became the main brand name, a collaboration with Honda came and went, and BMW took over. Then BMW decided it had had enough, divested itself of Rover, set Mini production up at Cowley where it remains, and Rover (with its sporting MG sub-brand) tried to become self-sufficient at Longbridge.
What happened next was messy. It involved Rover's bankruptcy, financial scandal, the closure and likely flattening of the Longbridge factories, and the sending of tooling and sale of design rights to China. So now the Shanghai Automotive Industrial Corporation (SAIC) makes Rover 75 derivatives (called Roewe 750 and MG7), the MG TF sports car and some all-new Roewe and MG models.
And here's the part that few of us expected to happen. The Longbridge site wasn't entirely cleared and small-scale assembly of the TF has been happening for two or three years now, using kits supplied from China.
All this is about to grow significantly with the launch of the new MG6 mid-size hatchback, to be followed by a saloon version and the smaller MG3 that's already built in Shanghai. The assembly lines are set to run again, using painted and trimmed bodyshells plus engines and gearboxes from China. Does that make this MG6 a Trojan horse, or should we be glad that MG is back doing some of what it used to do well?
Well, the designing and engineering is all done at Longbridge much as they used to be. The creative process is British, even if China pulls the strings. MG Motor proudly displays its logo outside Longbridge's “roundhouse” building, a welcome sight last Thursday after that ghostly drive past derelict factory blocks and flattened land. There's a small rebirth happening here.
The MG6 is a roomy five-door, bigger than a Focus but smaller than a Mondeo (at this stage it is not yet clear whether the MG brand is coming back to South Africa). Its engine is developed from Rover's neat, light and clever K-series unit, now with a turbocharger and 119kW from its 1.8-litres. The style is contemporary but the octagonal MG badge fits it well. You can tell by the visible spotwelds and the moulding quality that the MG6 is built down to a price, and it's a lot of car for the £15 495 (R170 000) asking price for the cheapest version. (A diesel, designed by SAIC, follows soon, by the way.)
The cabin design is unusual, and in some ways all the more charming for that. A hefty padded dashboard hood looms over a pair of strangely small dials, but the information and sat-nav screens are up-to-date in their graphics.
To drive, the MG6 is thoroughly pleasing. Better than expected? Yes, frankly; clearly the Longbridge engineers have had quite a free hand. The gearchange could be more precise and the accelerator's response is inconsistent, but these are forgiven as you enjoy particularly sweet, tactile and accurate steering, a ride which is supple without ever being soggy, and an overall light-footedness and sense of connection found in too few new cars.
It's a sporting car for a whole family to enjoy. Some might find the brakes “heavy” if they have grown used to the over-assisted, snatchy systems fitted to many new cars, but actually the MG6's brakes are refreshingly progressive and credible in their action, much like the rest of the car.
Yes, some details are unusual, but that's no bad thing either. They actually highlight how uniform most cars' functional details have become. We should welcome this new MG6 and not rue the Chinese connection. Better to have Longbridge and China than no Longbridge at all. -The Independent on Sunday