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June 15, 2010

UK: SAIC formally opens MG design centre

There's a new atmosphere at the MG Motor UK facility on the remaining portion of what was once the sprawling MG Rover (nee British Leyland, nee British Motor Corporation, nee 'The Austin') complex at Longbridge on the outskirts of Birmingham.

There’s a new atmosphere at the MG Motor UK facility on the remaining portion of what was once the sprawling MG Rover (nee British Leyland, nee British Motor Corporation, nee ‘The Austin’) complex at Longbridge on the outskirts of Birmingham.

In contrast to the phoney ‘start of production’ ceremony attended by seemingly the entire Chinese press corps and a vast lineup of Nanjing executives three years ago, today’s (Tuesday 15 June) ceremony to open the new SAIC Motor Design Centre was low key, attended almost solely by British media with very few Chinese nationals visible.

The post-lunch journalist gossip generally agreed this was due mainly to one thing: SAIC’s takeover of Nanjing a couple of years ago, bringing the glasnost due, perhaps, to that company’s wider experience in dealing with the West and its pernickety, less-compliant media – it has major joint ventures with GM and Volkswagen as well as its own brands. SAIC now appears to be following the Japanese conquest model used to such good effect in export markets in previous decades: keep a few of your own in key posts eyeing overall management and finance but let the in-country nationals handle the day to stuff and the media; they know best how things work locally.

After a few hundred MG TFs assembled from semi knocked-down (SKD) kits (body pressing, welding, painting and part-trimming done in China; the rest sent in the box for final assembly in England), around GBP5m has been invested in a full design and engineering facility that can handle the whole car from initial sketch to ready-for-production. Including the suspension and powertrain. The UK, employing 300, is one of three in the SAIC group – the others are in Nanjing (200 engineers) and Shanghai (1,200).

The spend at Longbridge included GBP3m on technical, data and design centres and another £1.7m is going on a new engine test cell facility which should be operational in the second half of this year.

Though the UK unit now has responsibility for designing and engineering the entire MG range, there’s considerable liaison with the masters at HQ. Clocks set to UK and Chinese time are evident throughout and there is much to and fro by computer and video conferencing.

Most of the bits that will go into UK assembled, European market MG6 hatchbacks, due for launch in mid-2011 with a sedan to follow about six months later, will initially come in the packs from China so there is considerable liaison between English engineer and Chinese supplier.

Of which interior trim director Ray Bench speaks highly. “Have you lifted it yet?” he asks, referring to the one-piece magnesium casting crossbeam from which hangs the MG6’s dashboard, air-con unit and so on. “Comes straight out of the mould, mounting holes all ready, just needs a quick de-burr and it’s ready for the line.” He cites China’s 60% share of global automotive magnesium output and the EUR15 premium such a part would command if sourced in Europe as one reason for looking east for components. And contrasts it with the multi-part, welded steel assembly taken from a Fiat Uno for comparison. “Too much risk of mounting points and holes becoming misaligned during the run.”

Many other parts come from Chinese-western JVs; the MG6 has safety parts from a TRW facility, interior trim from one with Johnson Controls; dashboard parts from a Visteon operation.

Suspension specialists told just-auto the one basic set-up is used for all markets and then tweaked by region. Softer ride and slightly reduced response for China, harder and sharper for Europe. They’re particularly proud of their complex yet compact new four-link rear suspension designed to leave room in the trunk for a full-size spare wheel (a Chinese market must) and went all coy when we suggested it would also allow for a handily shaped station wagon load area with minimal strut intrusion.

In the MG6’s C-segment class, there’s little need to cater for chauffeur-driven back seat owners and front seats are shaped and sized to suit a global audience which means seat cushion length is at the shorter end of the 95th percentile to accommodate differently proportioned (usually shorter) Asian legs.

Like most automakers, SAIC doesn’t go too much into forward model plans but this much was made clear: the Rover 75-based Roewe 750 (and its brand) and MG spinoff won’t make it outside China. But, as well, as the MG6, there will be a new, smaller MG model based on the China-only Roewe 350 and a new small car, targeted particularly at young people, that probably won’t look too much different from the UK-designed Zero concept car revealed at this year’s Shanghai motor show.

The ‘old’ 1.8-litre K-series engine Nanjing bought from MG Rover continues in much-updated form and there are also plans for sub-1.9-litre diesels (essential in Europe); a new two-litre-plus petrol line (big I4s are popular in markets like China, Australia and North America though the latter will be treated separately if and when the time comes) and a new, sub-1.5-litre petrol engine range.

Other powertrain plans include new manual and automated transmissions and an electric hybrid.

All will be developed primarily here in the UK. SAIC Motor European Engineering Technical Centre, to give it its full title, grew out of Leamington Spa-based Ricardo 2010 Consultants, formed to keep the considerable development and engineering expertise at MG Rover intact after the automaker went bust early in 2005. It played a key role establishing K-series engine production (both I4 and V6) at Nanjing, using tooling shipped from the UK, and getting the Roewe 750 evolution of the Rover 75 into production as well as the TF roadster, essentially a mid-90s design for which a replacement does not appear on the cards for now.

MG Motor UK has retained MG Rover’s paintshop, currently “mothballed”, a large vehicle assembly shop (contrary to popular rumour, this gear was not ‘lifted and shifted’ to China), sundry outbuildings and reused the former MGR sales and marketing office for the engineers and one-time quality centre for the design centre.

It’s unlikely anything they showed off today is unique but it is no less impressive to see things like the light reflection off a panel simulated entirely from data and electrical architecture mock-up rigs with every item functional down to the injectors clicking to simulate a running engine.

And, yes, they do still use clay in the design studio. For Tuesday’s show and tell, designers were sculpting a 40cm long Zero scale model, apparently from memory.

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