MG is back! Actually, cancel that exclamation mark because local importer, British Motor Distributors (BMD), would argue it never really went away.
BMD took over MG/Rover distribution for New Zealand when BMW gave up on the brand in 2002. The company went bust in 2005 and passed into Chinese ownership (two companies argued about it quite a bit) but BMD kept going, supporting its customers on warranty and parts/service, all the time talking to the brand's new owners about how and when it could reintroduce new models back into New Zealand. Clearly, they're glass-half-full people.
That time is now, with the launch of the MG6 from the factory of Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC). SAIC bought the MG brand and everything needed to build a Rover 75 (except the Rover name, which BMW retained and later sold to Tata, Indian owner of Jaguar/Land Rover). It created its own version of the 75, under the Roewe brand, and followed it up with the smaller Roewe 550, which also owed a lot to that same 75 underneath.
The MG6 is essentially an export version of the 550, available in both sedan and hatchback bodystyles and the first of a wave of new models that will include (in 2013) the small MG5, supermini-size MG3 and even a crossover.
Naturally, there's a strong bid to capitalise on the glorious (well, to some) past of MG: the sedan revives the Magnette name and the hatch is called GT, in homage to the fastback MGB GT. BMD also emphasises that while MG is owned by a Chinese company and our cars are built there, head office remains in Britain and there are 300 people working there, including a research and development team. You can make up your own minds about that.
The MG6 is a bit Chinese (or what we tend to perceive as Chinese) in some respects: it's not cutting-edge and it's not expensive. But it's not a bad car, either.
The MG6 is larger than a Ford Focus, smaller than a Mondeo. Prices are yet to be announced, but there are three versions: S, SE and TSE. The entry car will definitely open below $30,000, while the top one (with leather and all the bells and whistles) is unlikely to be more than $35,000. So already, you can see that you're getting a lot of metal (and passenger/cargo space) for your money, which is what you'd expect from an 'emerging' brand.
You also expect recycled core components. The sole engine, a 118kW/215Nm 1.8-litre turbo, is a version of the venerable Rover K-series powerplant, which has been kicking around for nearly a quarter of a century. The sole transmission for now is a clunky five-speed manual.
For all that, it's a likeable machine. The engine is smooth and serviceable, and would be absolutely fine in this application were it not for the dreadful manual gearbox. There's a dual-clutch six-speed automatic on the way for 2013. A better engine will be here even before that, with a 350Nm diesel developed by SAIC expected to join the range by the end of this year.
The chassis is decent – one of the most obvious signs that this car has its roots in a mature carmaker, rather than one struggling to come up to international standards. It steers well and the suspension strikes a good balance between safe progress and responsiveness, although it's not in the least bit sporty, which might surprise some who are keen on the car's MG badge.
There are some quality elements in the cabin (nice, soft plastics on the dashboard, for example) and a few disappointing bits, such as low-grade/inconsistent materials in less obvious places and a curiously configured information screen – albeit a large, colour one in the top-specification TSE we drove.
Based on first impressions, there are reasons to consider the MG6. It's a fundamentally decent car at a sharp price and it's also something a bit outside the mainstream. It's likely to be well-screwed together – certainly better than any MG or Rover was under the old regime, because SAIC is China's largest carmaker. Let's face it, 'old' MG/Rover was never a byword for quality.
But the 6 is still not a real MG, of course. Nothing to do with the company's ownership, but because it's simply a modest family car at a bargain price. Where's all the sporting flavour? If the car really does have its roots in Britain, you'd think it would have a bit more verve. Maybe that'll come later, when SAIC has established MG as a value proposition.
One thing's for certain: you can count on backup from BMD. They've proved their loyalty to the brand and its customers over the past decade