Since MG Rover‘s recent UK launch of a wide range of MG-badged models, ranging from a 1.4-litre three-door hatchback to (eventually) a rip-snorting 375bhp five-litre V8 rear drive musclecar sufficient to send a loud wake-up call to BMW‘s mighty M5, cloth-capped MG purists in pubs across the UK have probably been muttering “badge engineering” into their warm dark ales, writes deputy editor Graeme Roberts.

However, to do so is to pay the independent-for-a-year fledgling British car maker’s car-nut engineers and marketers a great disservice.

True, hard-line MG enthusiasts, such as the anorak bore who once spent 20 minutes at a classic car show telling me his superbly restored MGA roadster was the only one on the planet you could still call factory-original because he alone had found a supply of the ‘correct’ brass hood eyelets, will probably lump the new cars into the same “not a real MG, old boy” badge-engineered category as the 1980s Metro, MAESTRO and Montego MGs.

The MG ZS is based on the Rover 45

Ah, how the rose-tinted glasses do descend with the passage of time. Have we, perchance, forgotten that one Cecil Kimber and a number of other mechanical magicians made the name MG (as in Morris Garages) what it is today by making William Morris’ mundane products look nicer, go faster and handle better? And, before we get too horrified at again being offered MG-badged saloons, do we need reminding that the car maker which has long built great roadsters has also been at times acclaimed for such cars?

Visit the Heritage Motor Centre in Gaydon, Warwickshire, a car museum that preserves fine examples of many famous British marques, and rest your eyes on the gorgeous mini-Jaguar curves of the SA saloon, with Wolseley-derived 2.3-litre straight-six engine whose promising career was ended by the outbreak of war in ’39. Or the 2.6-litre WA. Or the 1950s Magnette, which shared its styling and, again, some mechanicals with a Wolseley but nevertheless had something unique which makes it one of today’s sought-after ‘modern’ classics.

In short, MG has long been about making other brands’ bits into a decent car (the famous MGB had a modified Morris Oxford/Austin Cambridge engine, after all) and the 2001 range follows this familiar pattern.

The new MG cars, including the ZR above, have been styled under the supervision of Peter Stevens

So MG Rover has high hopes for its sporty new line-up, and points out that even those MG badge-engineered Metro, Maestro and Montego versions sold surprisingly well at home and abroad in their day – 142,000 compared with 780,000 MGBs and Midgets and the 70,000-odd MGFs to date.

At first glance, the Rover 25-based MG ZR, 45-based ZS and 75-based ZT could leave the impression of mutton dressed as lamb. True, the 75, launched late in ’98, is still a new enough sight but the 45 has been around since 1995 and the 25, much of which is based on the platform of the 1989 Rover 200/Honda Concerto model, dates from only a year later.

But it’s amazing what a styling studio headed by someone of the calibre of MG Rover’s Peter Stevens, whose portfolio includes Aston Martin and McLaren, can do with bright paint colours, stylish alloy wheels that properly fill their arches, restyled front and rear bumpers and lower aprons, an adjusted ride height and some tidily crafted sill extensions and rear spoilers.

The new MGs all have revised interiors, with sports seats as standard

Inside, the grey velour or leather, chrome, wood and big button stereo that appeals to, er, older Rover buyers is given the heave-ho in favour of grippy new sports seats trimmed with black cloth with bright yellow, red or blue inserts, aluminium inserts brighten the white-face instrumented dashboard and a Kenwood stereo with blue lighting and about a hundred microscopic buttons replaces the low-rent Rover unit. Except on the MG ZT, whose integrated audio system with optional sat-nav passed muster with the marketers intent on luring buyers somewhat younger than those who buy Rovers.

Given the relatively small size of the now-independent MG Rover company, and its stated aim to stay out of multi-variant, low-margin UK fleet business, the variety of these new MG models is amazing.

The all-important, lure-young-buyer sub-£10,000 ($US14,300) entry level model target price is met with the three-door £9,995 ZR105 (bhp, more or less) which comes with a 1.4-litre 16-valve K-series engine (still one of the industry’s best little fours), five-speed shift, lowered, stiffened and sharpened suspension, a nice set of 16-inch alloy wheels with 205/50 tyres and a wide-bore exhaust with chrome tail pipe.

Aluminium inserts brighten
the white-face instrumented dashboards

This base model is also available with five doors and/or the MGF‘s 1.8-litre K-series engine with optional six-speed CVT automatic transmission and even, egad, a two-litre turbodiesel. While that might have the purists spluttering even more into their warm beer, it does confirm that (a) MG Rover has all bases covered and (b) that, without a sporty diesel for most of your European markets, your new range of any size of car is as good as dead.

The entry-level cars can all be enhanced with a ZR+ package that adds various power toys, extra lighting and leather wheel and gearknob but the piece de resistance is a stand-alone ZR160 version with the MGF’s variable valve timing 160bhp engine, twin exhausts, close-ratio manual ‘box, larger wheels and brakes, part-leather upholstery and air-con.

And they’re all pukka British to the core (pretend you didn’t see the Honda-designed steering column stalks), right down to the little Union Jack badge alongside ‘MG’ and a chequered flag on the tailgate. Maybe the purists will like that.

The MG ZS sports saloon has a powerful 180bhp V6 engine

Turning the dowdy Rover 45 into an MG ZS sports saloon was never going to be an easy job, but plonking a stonking 2.5-litre, 24-valve 180bhp V6 into something the size of a Honda Civic was a good start. The top 45 is already built with a bent-six tied to a CVT autobox so the hard work is long out of the way though the MG recipe substitutes a five-speed shifter with sporting ratios and adds revised suspension, sharper steering, painted instead of chromed body trim and a sportier interior with part-leather upholstery.

To allow some sane price points in a £12,495 to £16,395 spread, the ZS also comes in ZS120 1.8-litre forms with manual or CVT transmissions and a choice of four or five doors. Standard equipment on the cheaper models is a bit higher than for the ZR hatchbacks so the optional ZS+ pack needs to add only a/c and power front windows for something marketing folk in America would call ‘nicely equipped’.

Making an MG ZT sporting saloon (wagon to follow) from the sole Rover model designed completely under BMW’s direction (not to be a 5-series rival) also took some thought. BMW played the British saloon heritage card to the full, giving the 75 acres of exterior chrome, upholstery materials and colours like a 1950s ‘Auntie’ Rover model and a retro-look dashboard with cream-faced dials from a 1930s Austin.

Handling is transformed with crisper response, and better steering feedback

Not surprisingly, the stylists have given the biggest MG since those WA and SA saloons of 60 years ago a surprisingly different nose with a more aggressively shaped bumper and apron assembly, banished all chrome bar the door handles, added some sill flares and a tidy boot spoiler and bolted on alloy wheels and tyres that just fit the wheel openings and complement the lower ride height.

Inside, beige leather and London club levels of wood panelling are gone, replaced by black cloth or leather and aluminium-look inserts. And the dials now have a satin finish and much more modern-looking graphics.

Rover’s own 2.5-litre KV6 engine (bet you didn’t know some of its technology was licensed to KIA) is in the ZT in tweaked 160bhp and 190bhp forms with a five-speed GETRAG manual priced from £18,995 to £21,095 in the UK; the word ‘automatic’ has so far not been uttered.

The ZT packs a 2.5-litre KV6 engine with up to 190bhp to play with; rear-drive V8s are coming

It’s useful for a car company when senior people are truly ‘car guys’. Just ask old Chrysler hands about who did most of the rescuing during one of the company’s previous basket-case eras.

MG Rover product development director Rob Oldaker is a former rally and sprint racing competitor and runs MG Rover’s new race ‘n’ rally operations on the side. Large car chief engineer John Turner cackles with boyish glee as he blips the throttle to show you how the future V8 versions will sound before lifting the bonnet and making it obvious he knows every tweak, bolt, rivet and sweat drop that brought the prototype to fruition.

Both say the 75 body is a great base for a flagship MG sports saloon because of its class-leading torsional stiffness; an exceptionally rigid foundation for the all-independent suspension the springs, dampers, bushes and mounts the engineers comprehensively re-worked along with the steering rack, front and rear anti-roll bars and all-round disc brakes. Then they added 18-inch wheels shod with 225/45R Michelin Pilot Sport tyres.

Entry-level ZR cars can all be enhanced with a ZR+ package, which adds various toys plus leather wheel and gearknob

At this level you expect, and get, most creature comforts and power items with an optional ZT+ pack adding automatic climate control to the standard a/c, rear electric windows, a boot lid spoiler and a CD stacker.

Driving each of the selection wheeled out for a press preview in Wales revealed what a difference a series of detail changes can make, particularly to the smaller ZR and ZS, which are by no means the leaders of their respective classes when wearing Rover badges.

Across the board, freer breathing and a less obstructive exhaust gives a punchier mid-range, quicker response and, best of all, a sportier, throatier exhaust note, which we thought was at its best in the K-series engined ZRs sampled.

Handling is transformed with crisper response, better steering feedback, reduced understeer and greater throttle controllability – yet the stiffened ride remains comfortablea nd the grippier seats in all models are among the most supportive and well-shaped we’ve ever sat in.

The best is, however, yet to come. Anyone brought up on the magical karubba-karubba-karubba engine note of a big 1960s Australian or American V8 will have tears in their eyes should they get to hear the 5.7-litre Mustang-engined V8, rear-drive prototype, with near-factory under-bonnet finish, chief engineer Turner was showing off on a look-but-no-drive-yet basis at the press launch. Roll on Spring 2002 when 260bhp and 375bhp production versions join the range.

“So,” just-auto asked Turner, “did you set out to beat BMW’s M5?” “No,” he replied. “We intend to annihilate it.”

David and Goliath rematch, anyone?

To view related research reports, please follow the links below:-

The world’s car manufacturers: A financial and operating review

Global market for automotive turbochargers and superchargers: Forecasts to 2005

MG Rover Corporate Profile