SKD assembly at Longbridge

SKD assembly at Longbridge

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There are lots of people out there who think most Chinese cars are poorly built and dull to drive. Glenn Brooks would advise them to try the MG3.

For now, the UK is MG’s only European market. Last year was a tricky one, with just 504 cars sold,  compared to 782 in 2012. But things began to look up from the second half of the year, following the addition of a second model, the MG3. December was a good month, with combined registrations rising to 120 units (up 30% year on year), but things were better still in January, reaching 138 - quite a surge compared to the 31 sold in January 2013.

The MG6 is unfairly overlooked by lots of potential buyers but its profile should rise with the brand building currently being undertaken by its smaller five-door hatchback brother, the MG3, plus an ongoing expansion of the national dealer network. In China, the 3 is a rival for the Skoda Fabia Jingrui and Hyundai Verna, whereas in Britain it can be thought of as a bargain-priced alternative to the Corsa, Fiesta, Polo and Clio.

This little car was first seen as the MG Zero concept at April 2010’s Beijing motor show. Eight months later, the covers were lifted on the production model at the Guangzhou show and the MG3 was in dealerships in larger Chinese cities from February 2011. There it’s available with the choice of 1.3 and 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engines, but in the UK, the larger of these two is standard. As yet there’s no word on diesel availability but that may come later, possibly timed to coincide with the relaunch of the brand in LHD European markets.

MG Cars has kept the model line up simple. There are four variants, and even the most expensive one still comes in under GBP10,000. The range starts with the 3Time at GBP8,399, then there’s the GBP9,299 3Form which adds a DAB radio, A/C and Bluetooth with audio streaming, with the next step up being the GBP9,549 3Form Sport with its side skirts, roof spoiler and 16-inch alloy wheels. The top-spec 3Style costs GBP9,999 and brings with it a different design of 16-inch rims, plus automatic lights and wipers, as well as cruise control.

The 3Form Sport press review car was the most surprising vehicle I’ve tested in some time. For a start, it looks the business, and then there’s way that it drives. There isn’t a huge amount of power, but this engine (developed by SAIC Motor Technical Centre UK) is a highly responsive unit. The car’s kerb weight, at 1,150kg, helps with performance too. From rest to 62mph takes 10.9 seconds, which is good considering the available power and torque (106PS @ 6,000rpm and 107Nm @ 4,750rpm).

Even though you’d hesitate to call its performance anything more than slightly better than class average, this car is way more fun than the similarly sized Kia Rio, Hyundai i20 and Citroen C3 plus one or two others. It feels like a bigger Volkswagen up! or Peugeot 107 - cars that were designed to appeal as low-cost transport but which in practice remind you of warm hatches from the 1990s thanks to their lack of mass, precise steering feel and skinny-but-grippy tyres.

Every variant has the same engine and gearbox, which incidentally has just five speeds. It’s a shame that a six-speeder couldn’t be fitted which would make motorway cruising a little quieter. Economy is very good, with a Combined average of 48.7mpg, and the CO2 average is 136g/km.

If you’re not aware of just how cheap the MG3 is, you might be tempted to criticise its interior, though having said that, apart from a steering wheel which doesn’t adjust for reach, there are no real disadvantages compared to the class leaders. Everything inside looks good, and for the money I could live with things such as the shiny boot carpet as a small price to pay for this car having a spare wheel (full marks to MG Cars, zero points to rivals which make you pay for one as an option).

What really made me warm to the car - apart from how much fun it is to drive - was an attention to detail which I hadn’t been expecting. The rear brakes are drums and you can see them through the glossy black alloy wheels but they’re painted silver so unless you look hard, they don’t look out of place compared to the visible front discs. Other small touches include the headlight bulb covers which, like those on the VW Golf Plus, have the brand’s logo - that there are people within SAIC who would decide that this level of detail matters gives you hope for the future of the MG brand.

So apart from an eventual return to LHD European markets, what’s ahead for MG? A facelifted 3 appeared at the Guangzhou motor show three months back, with the updated car going on sale in China in January. The SKD kits for UK market cars are sent to Longbridge from Linggang, the main plant in Shanghai, so you’d expect the revised model to start being assembled here later in the year.

It also seems as if more knocked down assembly will be carried out in other markets, having carried a report last July, which stated that three MG models would be assembled in Thailand. The plant will be controlled by SAIC Motor-CP Company, a joint venture established in 2012 in which SAIC controls 51% of the equity and the local Charoen Pokphand Group the remainder.

The Thai plant will be located in the Hemaraj Eastern Seaboard Industrial Estate in Rayong province and is scheduled to begin production in mid 2014. Initial production capacity will be 50,000 units per year, with a provision for this to rise to 200,000 units as demand increases. Initially the plant will assemble MG3, MG5 and MG6 kits but local content will be added as volumes rise.

Additional models are also under development to supplement the 3 and 6, as well as some others which we don't get in the UK: 3 SW, 3 Xross, 5 and 7/750. The MG4 is one supposed future model but apart from it being a C segment hatchback, little is known of this one at the moment.

SAIC is making no secret of its intention to launch at least crossovers/SUVs, having unveiled the Icon concept at April 2012's Beijing motor show. This sporty rival for the Nissan Juke should enter production later in 2014, to be followed in 2016 by a C segment SUV, possibly based on the CS concept from April 2013's Shanghai motor show.

Back in the UK, MG Cars has just announced its first London area dealership, so that alone should go some way towards building on the sales rises of recent months - expect more outlets in parts of the capital to be added as word about the MG3 grows.