Last November, we published two articles about the modern Chinese auto industry. They covered brands from China, Japan, Europe and the United States, but in the interest of time and space, we purposely left out MG and Rover. Their story is long and complicated, and we felt that these once-iconic British brands deserved their own article.
The idea that China owns the Rover brand is frequently tossed around in automotive circles, but it is not true.
Rover’s involvement with China goes back to before its parent company MG Rover went bankrupt. The brand was in dire need of cash and sold the design rights to the 25, to the 75, and to the K-Series engine to Shanghai Automotive Company (SAIC from this point on) for £67 million in 2004. SAIC was free to do whatever it wanted with the cars, but they legally couldn’t be sold under the Rover name.
A year later, a small manufacturer called Nanjing Automobile Company bought what remained of MG Rover, including intellectual property such as the Rover 45’s design. It also signed a 33-year lease agreement on the historic Longbridge factory.
This led to a cruel battle between the two Chinese brands for control of what was once a jewel of the British auto industry’s crown. The war came to an end in December of 2007 when SAIC bought out Nanjing and consequently acquired all of MG Rover’s assets. The company was now owned by a single Chinese owner, but there was still the issue of the Rover name.
When BMW sold Land Rover to Ford in 2000, there was a clause in the contract that gave Ford first refusal rights to the Rover name. In 2006, BMW tried to sell the name to SAIC, but Ford blocked the sale and purchased it in September of that year. One of the main reasons for that action is that Ford didn’t want Chinese consumers to confuse Land Rover and Chinese-built Rovers.
That left SAIC with Rover designs that couldn’t be called that, so in 2007 it launched a new brand called Roewe and a new logo that is very similar to the old Rover logo. The Rover 25 became the Roewe 250, and the Rover 75 became the Roewe 750.
India’s Tata motors acquired the Rover name when it purchased Land Rover from Ford, though it currently has no plans to use it.
The 250 has since been phased out of the Roewe lineup but the 750 is still going. It is marketed as a British luxury sedan and is essentially the same car as the Rover 75, down to the 160 horsepower 1.8 turbo four-cylinder and the 183 horsepower 2.5 V6. Hybrid and electric versions are reportedly in the works, though the former’s launch has been pushed back several times.
SAIC sells the 750 as an MG in several countries around the world, including Chile, Belarus and Algeria.
When SAIC took complete control of MG Rover, it inherited a project that came to life in 2002 as a successor to the Rover 45. It was internally called the RDX60 but it had been judged aesthetically challenged and was abandoned by the brand. SAIC pulled it out of the drawers and moved ahead with its development.
The end product is called the Roewe 550, introduced at the 2008 Beijing Motor Show. It sits on the same platform as the MG6 and slots under the 750. It is only available with the 1.8 turbocharged engine, though buyers can opt for variable valve timing, a technology that is appreciated by Chinese consumers.
Much like the 750, it is sold in various global markets as an MG.
With the 550 and the 750, Roewe had the top end of the market taken care of, but it did not have an entry-level offering. This changed at the 2009 Shanghai Auto Show when it displayed the N1 concept.
A slightly modified version of it dubbed the 350 bowed at the 2010 Beijing Motor Show and went on sale shortly after. The 350 was entirely developed by SAIC and is powered by a new 1.5 four-cylinder engine that puts out 105 horsepower.
Roewe markets the 350 as a car that packs the technology found in a 5-Series into a Jetta-sized package that cost about as much as a Fiat Panda. It is also sold globally as an MG.
The last model in the Roewe lineup is the W5. It is an SUV based on South Korean’s SsangYong Kyron. It was introduced at the 2011 Shanghai Motor Show and it is powered by the same 1.8 turbo found in the 550 and the 750.
It is not currently sold globally and was a rather half-hearted attempt to capture a part of China’s booming SUV market.
Following SAIC’s takeover of Nanjing, several Rover models were added to the MG lineup. These included the Rover 25, which became the MG 3, the Rover 25 Streetwise, which was christened the MG 3SW, and the TF, which kept the same name.
The Rover-based 3 was phased out not long ago and it was replaced by an entirely new compact hatchback also called the 3. It was developed by SAIC and it made its debut in China last year. MG claims that it will sell the 3 in the UK, but it has not been able to reliably predict when that will happen.
The 3 is primarily aimed at a young audience and it is marketed as a premium small car similar to the Citroën DS3, the Fiat 500, and the MINI. It can be customized in a variety of ways; one can even order a 3 with Union Jack painted on the roof.
In China, the 3 is available with two engines. The first is a 1.5 four-cylinder also found in the Roewe 350, and the second is a new turbocharged 1.3 four-cylinder unit that puts out 87 horsepower. Both engines can be matched to either a manual or an automatic gearbox.
A more rugged version of the 3 called the 3 Xross recently replaced the 3SW, putting an end to the Rover 25’s long career.
MG’s flagship sedan is the 7. In standard form, it is little more than a rebadged, pre-facelift Rover 75. The only engine offered is the 1.8 turbo four-cylinder, mated to either a five-speed manual or a five-speed automatic.
MG also builds a long-wheelbase version of the 7 dubbed the MG 7L. It is an optimistic attempt to compete against Germany heavyweights such as the Audi A6L. The 7L is available with both the 1.8 four-banger and the 2.6 V6, though no manual transmission is offered.
The last car in MG’s lineup is the 6. It fills the wide gap between the 3 and the 7 and is available as both a five-door hatchback and a four-door sedan.
The 6 made its Chinese debut in 2009 at the Guangzhou International Auto Show, and MG immediately announced that it would build and sell the car in the UK. The brand kept its word and in April of 2011, workers in Longbridge started assembling 6s sent over from China as CKD kits.
MG’s UK operations also imports the TF from China, but it is slowly being phased out. The TF was already given the axe from the brand’s Chinese lineup several months ago.
SAIC hoped that the excitement of a new MG sedan mixed with the nostalgia triggered by the TF would relaunch the brand in its home country, but sales have been disappointing month after month. A report released last November by Britain’s Society of Motor Manufacturers and Trades indicated that from January to November of 2011, only 249 MGs had been sold in the UK. Seven of them were sold in November: four 6s, and three TFs.
By comparison, November’s best-selling car in the UK was the Ford Fiesta, with 6,195 units sold. The Vauxhall Corsa and the Volkswagen Golf took second and third place, with 5,234 and 4,924 sales respectively.
SAIC was wise enough to bring both versions of the 6 to the UK. The five-door is called the MG 6GT, and the four-door is called the MG 6 Magnette. Both cars gathered a fair amount of positive publicity when the EuroNCAP gave them a four-star crash test rating, yet sales still failed to climb.
The 6 is plagued by the fact that it is not available with an oil-burning engine or with an automatic transmission, two musts in the UK. The first issue is almost understandable; neither MG nor Roewe has a diesel in its portfolio. The second issue is a bit of an enigma: why wasn’t the five-speed tiptronic-style automatic available in China and other markets such as Algeria sent over to the UK?
Some have argued that it was to retain the sports car image that MG fans have of the brand, but that logic is flawed. The 6 is not a sports car, it doesn’t really have any sporting pretensions, and it likely won’t appeal to the enthusiast who has a herd of Midgets and Bs in his yard. That doesn’t necessarily make it a bad car, it just means that MG’s target audience is very different today than it was in the 1970s.
In 2012, MG UK is expected to offer a diesel on the 6, and it will reportedly start importing the 3. The brand is also working on a hatchback called the MG 5 that will fight in the same arena as the Volkswagen Golf and the Renault Clio. Time will tell if these changes will help keep the brand afloat in Great Britain, but the battle is far from won.