MG Rover is trying to do what no other mass-market auto manufacturer has done in the modern era: stay small and independent while surviving in a brutal marketplace dominated by giants.
An optimistic, "can-do" spirit is evident at the company's Longbridge, England, plant. An executive recruiter says it's difficult to lure engineers and managers from MG Rover because they really believe in what the company is doing. Either those people are deluding themselves, or MG Rover really has found a new industrial model that will prove its critics wrong.
Optimism alone won't make MG Rover a viable proposition long term. Too often its management team seems to be making up a strategy as it goes along rather than following a well-defined entrepreneurial vision.
The collapse of MG Rover's first Asian venture with Brilliance China left the company's English management looking naive about the complexities of doing joint ventures in a global economy. And it's not clear whether MG Rover's efforts to establish a base in eastern Europe will produce anything of value in today's rapidly changing market.
So far, MG Rover has survived on the legacy of its former owner, BMW. BMW developed the flexible and widely acclaimed Rover 75 platform. That and BMW's generous cash dowry have been the twin pillars that have kept the English company afloat.
Now it's up to the men in Longbridge to defy the cynics and make their own vision work.
If the company really is serious about not grooming itself for larger buyers, MG Rover badly needs alliances and money for new product development.
MG Rover executives have roamed the globe in search of potential partners, mostly in emerging markets. So far, the alliance with Indian carmaker Tata Motors has been the only real success.
The Tatas of the world can't offer MG Rover any new technology. But they can offer a manufacturing base and access to new markets that might give the English company the volume it needs to make a profit and pay for future product programs.
And MG Rover does need volume. Porsche, Europe's other major independent, sells sports cars that carry price tags that sometimes exceed E100,000. One, the new Carrera GT, is priced at nearly E500,000. When you can command prices like that, it's easier to make profits. While Porsche competes with the Ferraris and Lamborghinis of the world, MG Rover must battle with the Fords and Fiats in an environment where cutthroat pricing makes it tough for even the strongest to survive.
MG Rover's future hangs on its ability to develop its own products. The Rover 45 replacement is on track to appear in the second half of next year. By then, perhaps a partner will be found for the replacement of the next car, the Rover 25.
Until those programs bear fruit, the restructured dealer network must sell facelifted versions of the current model lineup.
They must reverse the continuous decline in market share since MG Rover was sold by BMW in 2000. Once the all-new replacement products arrive, profits are a possibility.
"The waves keep getting bigger, but we keep bobbing along," MG Rover CEO Kevin Howe says.
But an awful lot of things must go right if MG Rover is to remain afloat. This could be the year that determines whether this unusual company sinks or finds a whole new way to swim.
Bradford Wernle is a staff reporter at Automotive News Europe.