MG 3

Debut: 2011
Maker: SAIC
Predecessor: No

 Published on 23 May 2013
All rights reserved. 

To foreign car makers, China's car market seems like a new gold rush. They can virtually sell as many cars as they can build. In contrast, local brands struggle to persuade customers that their cars are as good as foreign brand ones, even though they might be built under the same roof and with much the same sources of components. Just like how they chase foreign milk powders, Chinese people do not have much faith in their own products. One example is Shanghai Automotive (SAIC). Last year, the country's largest car maker built an astonishing 4.5 million vehicles, but the majority of them were sold under the various brands of GM and Volkswagen, whereas its own brands Roewe and MG contributed only 200,000 units. Among them, the best selling model was the smallest MG 3 hatchback, but even this car registered only 40,764 units of local sales, no kidding!

If you inspect the actual car, you won't find the MG 3 as poor as its sales number suggested. In fact, it looks even quite stylish. Like the larger MG 6 and Roewe 350, it was designed by a British team led by Tony Williams located at the ex-Rover site (Longbridge) in the United Kingdom. The majority of the engineering was also carried out there. Its shape has some traces of Skoda Fabia or Suzuki Swift, but it is by no means a copycat. Its front and rear ends have enough character. The body shell looks quite well put together, too, with narrow panel gaps and proper paint finish.

The MG 3 is about as long as Skoda Fabia, but it is wider, taller and runs a considerably longer wheelbase at 2520 mm. This gives its cabin remarkable space among B-segment superminis. Six footers will find plenty of room both front and back. Only the fifth passenger will be denied of long-distance comfort, blame to the protruding central tunnel. The seats and driving position are decent. The instruments are clear. The dashboard is just as stylish as the exterior, thanks to the clever use of gloss white oval decors at various places and an iPod-style audio control interface. What it fails to match European rivals is the hard plastic used throughout the cabin, although adequate graining means it is not as cheap as other Chinese local rivals. It also lacks the touchscreen infotainment system that is becoming popular in Western countries. The cabin provides a lot of storage cubbies but many are too small to be useful. At the back, the boot size is okay, but usability is hampered by a high load sill and a rear seat that fails to fold completely flat. Overall, the MG 3 is still a fairly practical small car in terms of packaging.

The MG follows the class norm to employ the combination of MacPherson struts and torsion-beam suspensions. Unsurprisingly, it lags behind the latest development in more advanced countries, such as electrical power steering (it still employs hydraulic assistance), high-strength steel monocoque or advanced crash protection. Its structure doesn't feel as solid as it looks, and the hollow door thunk reveals the lack of sound deadening. Still, its European-tuned suspension resulted in decent body control, stability and grip. As long as you don't push it too hard in corners, its high center of gravity is not going to hamper the driving impression. The ride is firm and it crashes over ridges, but the damping is good enough to overcome speed bumps. The steering is quick (it is geared to 2.8 turns lock to lock) but too light and inaccurate to inspire driving thrills.

The engine is carried over from Roewe 350, i.e. a 1.5-liter 16-valver with intake variable valve timing. Its 109 horsepower is sufficient for the class, but it needs at least 3000 rpm to deliver its promise. Meanwhile, the soundtrack gets noticed from 2000 rpm and really harsh above 5000 rpm, ruining refinement. Fuel consumption and emission should fall well behind modern standards. That's why SAIC plans to add Volkswagen-sourced 1.0TSI and 1.2TSI motors next year. The 5-speed transmission does the job well, despite of a long-travel clutch, but those opting for the 5-speed automated manual by Magneti Marelli will find the gearshift frustratingly slow and disobedient. It is definitely the worst element of the car.

No wonder it sells badly at home. The MG 3 does have a lot of showroom appeal thanks to its smart looks and accommodative cabin, but once you drive it on road you will be put off by its lack of refinement and driving pleasure. Its problems seem to be deep-rooted. It needs a better chassis, modern engines and gearbox, or simply more commitments into its planning, development and production. The Korean succeeded because not only they set the targets high but also they committed to the targets with serious investment, efforts and time. If SAIC wants only to make profit in a safe way, it should stick to the existing joint-ventures with GM and VW. If it wants to upgrade its own brands to world-class, it should think all over again the scale of investment that it takes instead of just buying a British brand and hire a few dozen British guys. Chinese people are not easy to be cheated. If you cheat them once, they will never believe you again.

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MG3 1.5 VTi
Front-engined, FWD
Steel monocoque
Mainly steel
3999 / 1728 / 1517 mm
2520 mm
1498 cc
DOHC 16 valves, VVT
109 hp
100 lbft
5-speed manual
F: strut
R: torsion-beam
1165 kg
113 mph (c)

Performance tested by: *Autocar

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