RICHARD TRUETT

Brit savvy makes this Chinese car a winner

COMMENTARY
Richard Truett covers engineering for Automotive News
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BIRMINGHAM, England -- The most credible car yet to emerge from China that I have seen wears an unlikely badge: MG.

Recently launched in Great Britain, the MG3 hatchback -- a five-door, Ford Focus-sized compact -- may be the first car made in China that is ready for prime time in North America.

But there's a surprise: MG has been recast. It's not the sporty/performance-oriented brand that was sold here from the late 1940s to 1980. There are no roadsters in the new MG lineup.

China's SAIC Motor Corp. ended up with the MG brand after MG Rover collapsed in 2005. MG is now an entry-level brand aimed at budget conscious, perhaps first-time buyers.

I sampled a blue MG3 briefly while in England, spending most of the day with a friend driving around MG's hometown of Birmingham, and then giving the car a brief spin by myself. I also had a look under the bonnet -- er, hood -- and all over.

The Detroit 3, Hyundai and Kia can start worrying about at least one Chinese automaker -- and I would say that even if I wasn't a fan of classic MGs.

The MG3: A few rough edges, but easily good enough to compete as an entry-level car in North America.

The MG3 is easily on par with the Kia Rio, Hyundai Accent and other entry-level vehicles such as the Toyota Yaris. It could be sold in North America and be competitive with other inexpensive imports -- not just on price, but on design, build quality and performance.The MG3 now is sold only in Britain, for the equivalent of about $14,000.

The MG3 has a smooth-running 1.5-liter engine and five-speed manual gearbox that sends the power to the front wheels efficiently. The car is not fast by any means, but its performance is equal to that of other small no-frills economy cars. The suspension, brakes and hydraulic power steering, calibrated by British engineers, have a solid, quality feel.

Gripes: Road noise from the Goodyear tires is a bit loud, and some of the interior plastics felt cheap -- but these things might be said about any car in the same class.

MG's headquarters

SAIC may have cracked the code and built a car that is competitive by Western standards, but the company still has much to learn.

It has done a poor job building a viable dealer network in Britain. Sales have been embarrassingly slow on some models, and early customers have complained of long waits for repair parts.

As an entry level brand, MG could easily take Suzuki's place in North America. In fact, MG will be launching its first SUV this year, a compact based on the Ssangyong Korando.

So why is this Chinese-brand car satisfying, in a way that virtually none of the others are?

The answer may lie in the banner on display at MG's corporate headquarters, proclaiming that the MG3 is "Designed, Engineered and Built in Britain." That's not completely true: The car is built in China -- with some minor assembly, tweaks and input from English engineers at MG's Birmingham plant.

It's a formula that works.

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com.

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