For a company that was bought for just $15, MG Rover is making a good show in its first year of newly independent life. Last week the company announced losses that were much lower than might have been expected in the dark days of BMW ownership, and there was even optimistic talk of a possible return to profit by 2002.
The harsh realities of life in a European market where oversupply is still a major consideration are still there, and there is a big question mark over MG Rover’s abilities to fund new model development. Nevertheless, there is a good spirit around the Longbridge factory that is, for the first time since 1952, once again standing on its own.
Longbridge was founded in 1906 by Herbert Austin, and it made cars bearing his name until the Austin company joined with Morris in 1952 to create the British Motor Corporation. In the 1950s and 1960s the factory prided itself on being the largest self-contained car factory in England, if not Europe, and it continued to make Austins until the brand was dropped by British Leyland in the 1980s.
Now Longbridge is standing on its own two feet again, and has the opportunity to regain some of the pride it had when it was referred to by the locals and all those who worked there as “The Austin.”
The cars that roll out of the gates today no longer bear Austin badges, but in Rover and particularly MG the workers have marques to be proud of. But pride is no good without good products, and from the evidence of two days hard road-testing last week, it seems that the new MG products can live up to expectations.
The first new MG when the brand was reintroduced under BMW was the MGF two-seater, which is now the best-selling sports car in Britain.
As soon as it became independent, MG Rover started on creating a range of MG sedans, something that BMW, keen to avoid competing with its own sporting sedan image, would never have done. The Longbridge engineers are strong on enthusiasm, and they have allowed their enthusiast side to have its way in converting three Rover sedans into three MG sportsters.
In a rare demonstration of faith in the product, MG Rover’s PR people allowed journalists not only to drive the cars on a variety of roads in Wales, but also to sample them on a race track. This is something most manufacturers try to avoid, given the enthusiastic driving habits of journalists — and the fact that their skill at the wheel is not always as good as it seems when translated to the page. Apart from the occasional example of journalistic over-enthusiasm, the cars coped easily with the test in terms of mechanical reliability, and they certainly showed up well when pushed to the limit in a place where corners could be cut and there was no oncoming traffic.
The three sedans are the ZR, the smallest, which offers sporting performance for the younger driver, the ZS, a midsize car (in European terms) that is the most electrifying of the trio, and the ZT. This is a performance version of the Rover 75, a fine sedan designed and built to BMW standards. In MG form, the ZT offers performance to go with the luxury the Rover already provides.
All three are available with more powerful engines than those that equip the Rovers, and they also benefit from chassis modifications to give them handling that will appeal to the more enthusiastic driver. The ZR is the entry-level car, and it is designed to appeal to the younger driver in terms of cost and low insurance payments. In its basic form, the ZR comes with a 1.5-liter four-cylinder power unit that produces 105 horsepower. At £10,000 ($14,000) the car is a strong contender for what Britain has always called the “boy-racer” market. For those with more money and an insurance record that allows it, the ZR also comes with a 160-horsepower engine that will push it to a top speed of 131 mph. The ZR is a small car (think sub-Focus size) and bigger drivers are a little squeezed behind the wheel, but the performance is great and the thrill-for-money quotient is high.
The real road-burner among the new cars is the ZS, a compact (think Focus) sedan that can be had with a 180-horsepower 2.5-liter V-6. This unit will blast it from zero to sixty mph in 7.3 seconds and then keep on going to a top speed just under 140 mph. This car was the most fun on the race track, and it’s no surprise that MG is planning to enter the car in British stock sedan racing later in the year. With wire-mesh air intake grilles, heat-shielded exhaust pipes and a Subaru rallycar style wing on the trunk, the ZS looks and feels great. It should be a big hit with those drivers whose idea of an enjoyable drive is 150 miles across uninhabited country on roads that twist like a snake on the make.
The biggest of the three, the ZT, could be the biggest seller. It should appeal to the buyer who wants something with power and comfort that’s just a little different from the run of the mill ‘executive’ (as we Brits call them) sedan. That’s a market that Jaguar has just attacked with the new X-Type, but the MG could create a bit of a stir there. Jaguar and the rest are selling to that indefinable ‘lifestyle’ market, while the MG is selling on something that used to be very big at Jaguar, the enthusiasm and skills of its engineers, let loose to create the kind of cars they would like to drive themselves.
The ZT and the ZTT, its station wagon version, not only have performance to spare, as the Welsh police, who had some very nice speeding-fine windfalls during MG Rover’s test period would confirm. They have comfortable and extremely stylish interiors – would you believe a European luxury sedan with no wood interior trim? And they undercut the prices of the cars from manufacturers who probably don’t – at least for the moment – consider them as competitors.
American readers may be forgiven for thinking: “But what does this mean to me?” Well there isn’t any chance that you will see the Z-cars on sale over there.
But on the first weekend in July, MG enthusiasts from all over the USA converged on Minneapolis/St Paul for a once-every-five-years event that brings MG clubs from across the U.S. together. MG Rover, who don’t sell in the USA, could be forgiven if they just sent a telegram of good wishes. But they didn’t. They sent a historic pre-war sedan, together with a ZT sedan and a ZTT wagon. So what do you read into that?