Ignoring the unusual rear-drive V8-engined Rover 75 ‘core’ and ‘ultimate’ versions of the X10, not due until next year, MG Rover has followed a well-trodden path when turning mainstream Rover hatchbacks and saloons into desirable ‘sporting’ MG derivatives, writes Graeme Roberts.

The company expects to produce around 40,000 of the new models each year. Add 10,000 MGF models from a newly expanded range that now includes a 160bhp limited-edition Trophy 160 version and a 1.6-litre entry-level car, and the MG brand will account for a quarter of MG Rover Group output, all produced at the company’s Longbridge site on the outskirts of Birmingham.

MG range will account for a quarter of MG Rover Group’s 200,000-unit annual production

Although final specifications and model names are still secret, MG Rover revealed bright yellow and metallic blue prototypes to an international press gathering on January 30, with the Robbie Williams hit ‘Let Me Entertain You’ belting out at full volume.

Based on MG Rover’s current 25 hatchback, 45 hatchback and saloon and 75 saloon models, the new ‘X-rated’ MG models “have been engineered and styled to achieve a radically different driving experience and image,” according to their maker.

Better yet, the new MGS will mostly be affordable, in the time-honoured tradition of a company that began by offering souped-up versions of the cars produced by one William Morris in Oxford.

While the V8 sedan might well end up pecking its way into top BMW sport sedan territory in the British market sub-£50,000 ($US73,000) luxury sports bracket, the little entry-level X30 hatchback, with Rover’s ‘cooking’ 1.4 and 1.8-litre petrol engines and even a two-litre turbodiesel (an important option for European markets), will cost as little as £10,000 ($US14,500) in MG’s home territory, no more than a £1,500 ($US2,200) premium over a starter model in the Rover range.

Entry-level MG X30 ‘hot hatchback’ will cost little more than standard Rover 25

MG is also cleverly offering each model range with three levels of performance enhancement and sporty looks, presently dubbed base, core and ultimate.

Most car companies turn a car into a sports model by tuning the engine, tautening the suspension, lowering the ride height, re-shaping the seats and making the exterior and interior more gaudy with bright paint, black upholstery and metal-look dash and door inserts. MG Rover is no different.

The entry-level X30, based on the Rover 25, will be built in 3- and 5-door forms and the core version will have a 160hp, 1.8-litre VVC engine, also used to power a new limited-edition MGF Trophy 160 SE model.

Consistent with the other ‘X’ project cars, the chassis is uprated, including 17-inch wheels, powerful braking systems and improved steering and there are new front and rear spoilers. At the front is a neat interpretation of the body-coloured MG grille with bright mesh intakes. The sports exhaust tailpipes, housed within a heat shield, fit into the rear bumper for good ground clearance plus a ‘racy’ look. Inside, the X30 has form-hugging sports front seats and special trim and white-faced instruments.

The ‘ultimate’ X30 will be based on the works rally car specification, offering extra power and lower weight, and will be moderately priced to encourage its use in competition by privateer entrants. Other owners may simply enjoy it as a stimulating road car, MG Rover says.

Based on the now old-looking 45, which is based on the earlier 400 in turn derived from an early 1990s Honda sedan, the X20 stands to benefit most from the MG treatment. One version will be MG’s entry into the British TOCA Tour race series, and the competition design and engineering that is going into this exercise will form the basis of the ‘Ultimate’ road car version.

MG treatment transforms staid 45 saloon into more stylish X20

Cheaper versions will combine the MG styling and chassis treatment with regular 1.6-litre and 1.8-litre K Series petrol engines and a 2.0-litre turbodiesel unit.

The core version has a 2.5-litre V6 engine and manual transmission producing 177bhp, and comes with 17-inch wheels, uprated suspension, brakes and steering. Exterior styling includes body-coloured MG grille, bright mesh air intakes and black or body colour features in place of chrome.

Heading up the new MG saloon range, the X10 is based on Rover’s newest saloon, the 75. Though a modern front drive car, about the size of BMW’s 5-series, the 75 has extensive exterior chrome and an ‘olde world’ look to the interior reminiscent of the popular ‘doctor’s car’ Rovers sold around the world in the 1950s and 1960s.

Making this retro-look Rover into an MG has involved stripping off most of the exterior chromework and replacing wood and creamy leather interior trim with alloy-look inserts and black cloth.

Retro-look Rover 75 has potential to rival BMW M5 in top V8, rear-drive form

The entry model will feature an uprated version of the 2.5-litre KV6 quad-cam alloy engine, developing 195hp.

All the chassis elements which influence handling qualities have been radically changed; from subframe mounts, through springs and dampers, to suspension bushes and anti-roll bars – all have been firmed up, in some cases with rate increases approaching 100%.

Unique 18-inch diameter alloy wheels combine with lowered suspension to fill the wheel arches and give a road-hugging stance. Massive 325mm diameter front brake discs have been added, backed by uprated hydraulic and ABS systems. A higher-geared steering rack with revised power valving sharpens steering response and feel.

MG X10 cabin replaces Rover 75’s wood and creamy leather with metal-look inserts and dark cloth.

A rear deck spoiler and deep front air-dam enhances the aerodynamics of the car with reduced lift, while also handling increased cooling air intake. New body styling includes a colour-matched radiator grille, with bright stone-guard mesh matching that in the large lower air intake while ‘sports’ exhaust pipes, housed within a heat shield, fit into the rear bumper.

An additional variant features a special 160bhp version of the KV6 engine, with a similar chassis and styling package and will provide a competitive entry priced model.

One core model will feature a 190bhp V6 engine with front drive and a second core version will have a 260bhp V8 with rear wheel drive.

For the ‘ultimate’ derivative of the X10, a radically re-engineered car is being developed, with a potential ‘ground-shaking’ 375bhp V8 and the possibility of a four-wheel drive chassis.

According to MG Rover’s director of product development, Rob Oldaker: “These are uncompromising driver’s cars. They have taut handling and steering. They sit low and ride firmly. Uprated brakes can shrug off the hardest driving. Short-throw gear levers give snappy changes. Throttle response is sharp. There are tuned induction and exhaust systems to optimise power and give all the right sound effects. The seats locate you securely against higher cornering forces.”

Despite the fact that former owner BMW apparently feared some of the ideas percolating away in their UK arm’s design and engineering HQ, MG Rover confirmed at the press preview that the roots of the MG saloon programme actually dated back before the formation of MG Rover Group to the early summer of 2000.

“The enthusiasm for sporting cars was latent in the product development areas, and considerable exploratory work was done in this direction during the BMW Group era,” communications director Gordon Poynter said.

“Therefore a sound development base already existed, allowing a really fast start. This has resulted in MG Rover Group announcing a wholehearted development of a range of sports saloons under the MG brand.”

The cars will be exported to all major MG Rover markets, mostly in Europe though some will find their way as far as Australia. Japan comes back on stream in May 2003, following a two-year stay-out deal negotiated with BMW but the USA will have to wait at least until 2003 when the all-new ‘medium car’ replacement for the existing 25 (X30) and 45 (X20) models is first rolled out.

Author: Graeme Roberts is deputy editor of just-auto.com.