Some cars have a clear identity and purpose. The Citroen 2CV is a car for the French country dweller, the original Mini was for the European city, the VW Beetle for a recovering Germany, the Fiat 500 for Italian cities, the pickup is for great American outdoors and a Brougham is for the country club in Florida. Take the location away from those and the purpose is, at least, in part lost.
A small British sports car, like an MG, is for the single chap to chase girls. When necessary, he would upgrade to an MG saloon. The MG saloon, therefore, was for the family man who could afford a little more and had some panache.
Another British brand was for bank managers, though not bankers. They had Jaguars. A Rover was the car for the gentleman who managed the local branch of a national bank; he knew his customers and their businesses and their suppliers and customers. Then came the Rover 800, and even more so the Rover 75. Here was a car that suffered from trying to be competitive with strong modern rivals, like the Audi A4, BMW 3 series, Alfa Romeo 156, whilst also appealing to drivers of smarter Accords, Passats and Mondeos. It had an identity crisis. What was the car supposed to be?
The MG6 was similarly conflicted – it was intended to bring the new era of MG to (principally) the British market, using one of the more famous brand names in British motoring, in a value for money sporting package using building blocks many British motorists had, frankly, almost ignored several years previously, with a dusting of MG/BL/BMC heritage that most likely buyers didn’t see, overlooked or didn’t catch on to.
The origins of the MG6 go back to the days after BMW’s break up and sale of the Rover Group, in April 2000. BMW kept MINI and the Cowley (historically Morris) and Swindon factories, and the commitment to build a new engine factory in Birmingham, Land Rover and Range Rover, along with the Gaydon and Whitley development capabilities were sold to Ford, and the volume car business and the Longbridge (historically Austin, above in its 1950s pomp) was ultimately passed to a consortium known as the Phoenix Four, with a dowry of around £500 million, and the existing range of Rover and MG saloons.
MINI and Land Rover, as part of Jaguar Land Rover obviously came out of all of this is in solid health and with viable futures. The position of the volume cars business was less clear cut – after all BMW let it go because they could not see a path to a viable future for it, in terms of product or volumes.
The business, named MG-Rover, had one significant asset, though. Alongside the smaller Rover 25 and 45 that were based on licenced Honda platforms, MG-Rover had the Rover 75 saloon. This car had been developed under the watch and management of BMW, who enforced BMW standards of thoroughness on Rover, alongside access to technology like modern diesel engines and the rear Z axle. This resulted in a car that was let down only by the marketing and positioning, as a sort of Buick for Europe, expected age of buyer 75, with an arguably overdone wood’n’leather gentlemen’s club interior and soft, though perfectly competent, dynamics. Pitched against the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Volvo S60 and top model Mondeos and Accords it was basically overwhelmed, and never reached expectations.
In 2005, MG-Rover failed, and the assets were ultimately purchased by SAIC, who had already purchased much of MG-Rover’s intellectual property as part of an unfulfilled joint venture, including that of the BMW funded Rover 75. All the production equipment for the 25 and 75, and the K series engine, was shipped to Shanghai, and Longbridge was gutted and has subsequently been mostly demolished.
Alongside the 75, MG-Rover had been trying, as much as they could afford, to develop a replacement for the 25 and 45. The raw material available was the 75, and the plan was to cut down the 75 in wheelbase and rear overhang to create a more compact hatchback design. Something similar had just been completed by Alfa Romeo, building the 147 hatchback out of the 156 saloon. I guess we can see this as a model of what MG-Rover hoped to achieve, through utilising the services of various third party contract engineering businesses.
It’s a long story, but ultimately the MG-Rover RDX60 project seemingly came to nought. There were various prototypes and development cars coming from the contract design work, but nothing reached anything like production or pre-production. This is perhaps the final version in hatchback form. Given its ancestry from the 75, the knowledge behind it ended up with SAIC, along with the links to the outside design agencies, principally Ricardo.
By April 2007, two years after the demise of MG-Rover, SAIC showed the Roewe W2 concept at the Shanghai Motor Show. This was a four door saloon concept, in line with Chinese market tastes, but even so the style is clearly linked to preliminary work being done in MG-Rover, if not the assembled prototypes.
Roewe as a name is a creation of SAIC, and has not been used outside China. The Roewe 550 went onto the market in 2008, and in certain markets as the MG550. A hatchback version came in 2009.
For Europe, which really means in context Britain, SAIC initially sold the hatchback variant under the MG name. Badged as the MG6GT, it arrived in the UK in the summer of 2011. Mechanically, there was a lot of Rover 75 in the car, although the wheelbase had been shortened to 106.5 inches from 108 inches, and the engine was a thoroughly reworked (by Ricardo) version of the K series. Design and engineering were led by the UK based SAIC Technical Centre, originally based at Leamington Spa, near Coventry, and subsequently moved to the Longbridge site. This facility is still there, and now fully integrated into the SAIC engineering network, along with a central London design studio.
The original plan called for the car to be built at Longbridge, and if you accept putting an assembled drivetrain into a painted and trimmed body is building car, then for a period it was. But in pretty small numbers.
In terms of ability and value, the MG6 was an unusual car. Here was a car half a size bigger than a Focus for run of the mill Focus money. But there were issues, from the start.
One immediate difficulty was that car was only available, at launch, with just one engine option, a 1.8 litre turbocharged petrol engine, linked to a five speed gearbox. This was as development of the Rover K series, which was originally seen in the 1989 Rover 200 series. It was a twin cam, 16V four cylinder and power was 158bhp, torque was 159lbft, so this was no sluggard, but fuel economy was poor, compared with rivals, and even poorer against diesel engine rivals. With the modifications to get it past modern emissions legislation, economy suffered. Users would be lucky to 30 mpg in regular use. Yes, it was competitively powerful, but the poor economy and emissions rating impacted not just running costs but also vehicle taxation in the UK market.
The next issue was the interior. Yes, it was well equipped for the price, showing in paper great value for money. But the interior quality was at best patchy, and often poor. Hard plastics, insubstantial controls, poor graphics on the screen, an unusually shaped and cheaply finished handbrake. Having viewed one when I was car hunting, I can relate to that, and the cheap feeling interior as being the biggest let down of the car.
The style of the interior is perfectly fine, and the space generous compared with a Focus or Golf, but the contact point impressions are not. Neither is the impression of any long term durability truly there either.
Driving was normally judged to be OK (I’ve sat in one but not driven it) although some reports dwell on imprecise and oddly calibrated steering. The Rover 75 and later MG ZT both had pretty decent road manners, and by most accounts this car drives in very similar manner. On road handling may well be the best part of the package.
In the late summer of 2011, the saloon version arrived in the UK, marketed as the MG Magnette, picking up an old MG saloon name last used in the 1960s. You can debate the looks but personally I find the hatchback more cohesive than the saloon, which looks little awkward around the rear deck, as often happens on hatch and saloon pairings. But that’s just me.
The Magnette naming trick was a bit odd – it’s not like everyone can remember a MG Magnette or that the last ones were actually much to behold – a twin carburettor BMC Farina saloon with an old fashioned grille and interior.
Sales of this car were slow, even by MG 6 standards. Indeed, over 6 years, fewer than 6000 were sold in the UK of all variants.
There was a facelift in 2015, adding new headlamps, bumper profiles and lower grilles. To be honest, until I was doing the research for this piece, I had missed this event, and looking at the post facelift black car (above) I think I can be excused for that, but the net result was probably positive. At the same time, the petrol engine was discontinued, leaving just the 1.9 litre 148bhp, 258lbft diesel. Prices were also cut, by around £3000 in some cases. This was not the most refined engine installation ever – CAR said “it vibrates like a pneumatic drill, setting the whole subframe buzzing like a giant mobile phone, and filling the cabin with the sound of the bloke next door cutting his lawn”. Maybe those 6000 sales make sense.
The other consistent factor is not just low perceived quality but actual faults on the road. Most reviews of these cars recall some untoward or noteworthy malfunction of an electrical nature – stop start systems not starting, strange warning light combinations, erratic stereo systems, that sort of thing. Was a bit of BL still in there, or are our expectations unreasonably high now?
But perhaps the most noteworthy finding around these cars is that the MG branding appeared to matter little and make little or no difference to the indifference with which the cars were received. Sales measured in the hundreds, not thousands, for a good value, spacious and well equipped car with a reasonable dose of style was not what MG were about, and maybe the market sensed that too. To many this wasn’t an MG, in either format or execution.
This wasn’t a sports car; it wasn’t truly a sporting car like earlier MG saloons and hatchbacks. It was a reheat of a car few remembered, of which little effort was really made to remind us, and if you’re going to use a brand that does not have a value image, then you need a product that has more to it than value.
And therein lies the issue. One car, a pure value product, presented as fitting a brand of cars which had a sporting pedigree and were holders of some national pride. It didn’t fit well with either the value or the sporting position, and arguably wasn’t good enough at either of them.
But there were some nice colours.