A look at the MG3 and the growing Chinese car market

Posted on October 29th, 2013 by Rob Marshall

Unlike many of the country’s other products, Chinese cars have yet to make an impression on the British car market. One reason might be the perilous state of the European new car scene and, despite the UK’s modest growth, the figures are trivial, compared to the hefty demands in developing markets.

An alternative reason is that Chinese cars have not passed muster in the western world. Who can forget the Brilliance B6’s disastrous crash-test footage in 2007, which highlighted that the Chinese motor industry was far from producing a credible European and Stateside export? Since then, much has changed. The bastion of car safety, Volvo, is under Chinese ownership and the nation’s car industry has been learning fast from its rivals. Late last month, the medium family-sized Qoros 3 made history, by being the first Chinese car to earn five stars in Euro NCAP’s crash evaluation.

Currently, MG is the UK’s primary Chinese private car brand but its sales figures are disappointing. A 117% increase in registrations were noted in August, compared to the same month in 2012, but, bringing credibility to the old chestnut about statistics, that equated to only 13 cars in total. Still, its sole model, the MG6, has now been joined by the smaller MG3 and I was permitted to spend 20 minutes with a launch example, to investigate how far this element of the Chinese motor industry has come.

??Since it has been available in China for three years already, describing the MG3 as a ‘new’ model is as true as claiming that it is a British car. Its styling is not unattractive but influences from European models, including the Fiat Grande Punto and the Skoda Fabia, are plain to see in the MG3’s tail and flanks. Yet, that is not a bad thing. Mechanically, the 1.5-litre petrol may be the only engine option but it delivers more power than rivals in the car’s price bracket. Yet, the unit has to be revved hard through its gears, to deliver moderate overtaking performance. While it sounds neither rough, nor harsh, it is not an especially clean power-plant either, which means that a 12-months tax disc will cost £135.00. Fortunately, the high VED can be offset by its low insurance group rating of 4E.

Inside, the majority of trim materials and controls look and feel budget but, at least, it lacks the stench of plastic that overpowers the cabins of the new Chinese market cars that I have already sampled. Thankfully, the MG3 is cheap; it needs to be. Inventively, MG Motors UK is promoting a maximum £9,999 price-tag, for its top-of-the-range example. The basic version, incidentally, starts at £8,399. Sneakily, the test car’s price rose to £11,231, once MG’s options list had been raided. The leather seat trim (£500), metallic paint (expensive at £395), exterior graphics (£199), piano black centre console trim (£99) and decorative wing mirror caps (£39), demonstrates that MG is looking to mirror the levels of personalisation, including the somewhat ironic union-jack painted roof, that MINI brought to its market over a decade ago and other brands have adopted for their small ‘trendy’ models.

While I shall leave a more detailed on-road evaluation to Good Motoring’s Road Test Editor, the MG3 is a low-tech old-comer. Its sales success will depend entirely on its marketing and whether, or not, its price and PCP costs (at only £99 per month) can be pegged low in the longer-term. While the MG3’s fuel economy figure looks high on paper, I suspect that its real-world MPG figures will be close to its rivals, because the ‘3’ does not come laden with complicated ‘eco’ technology that, in everyday use, has little relevance. Similarly, I welcomed some of the MG’s features that are almost obsolete on other cars. On the majority of the MG’s rivals, the power steering is driven by an electric motor, which brings cost, fuel economy and emissions benefits, albeit with lifeless steering. This is not so with the MG3’s responses arising from older technology. While not especially sporting, the steering is linear, predictable and far more communicative than electro-steer systems. An odd downside is that it becomes unusually heavy at parking speeds.

While I would say that the MG3 is, overall, inferior to most cars that languish even in its lowly price bracket, it demonstrates that the Chinese car industry is catching up with its rivals from other nations and fast.