CCT’s Scottish Safari Part 1 MG’s Northern Exposure

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Was it really as long ago as September 2008, when MG Motor UK invited us to join them on “A New Journey”, with the launch of the TF LE500?

Four and a half years of global turmoil later, MG are still selling cars in the UK, and in January reported annual registrations for 2012 of just over two cars per day.  To British motor industry watchers, MG has become a convenient shorthand for an unsuccessful brand launch.  To the broad mass of the British people, the company and its products have simply flown below the radar.

In order to achieve a – somewhat regional – insight into what’s going on, I decided to tour MG’s entire dealer network in Scotland, with searching questions at the ready.  That’s not as onerous a task as it might seem.  MG presently have but one outlet, in a small city in the centre of the central belt, in what used to be called Central Region.  So at least it’s central…

The lucky dealership has had associations with some of MG’s predecessors for over three quarters of a century, and now majors on Land Rover, with Fiat and Seat franchises sharing the campus.  No flagship “solus outlet” for MG then.  The catchment area is a mere 78,837 square kilometres, with a population of only 5.3 million people, so hard-up that we could only afford to buy 181,785 new cars last year.

A lone MG6 GT TSE is given a prominent enclave in the Seat showroom – old loyalties die hard, the display has the aura of a shrine, rather than a display of trade goods.  A bit of method acting is called for. I assumed the role of a moderately knowledgeable punter, who may be interested in the idea of owning an MG6, but only if the figures are right.  The salesman tells me their MG specialist has taken the day off, and the Magnette TSE with him.  Nonetheless, he’s genuinely helpful and enthusiastic. Prices start from £15,500 for petrols, £17,000 for the diesels.  I ask about second-hand stock.  There’s none, but if I was interested, their 18 month old demonstrator might be available for £14-15,000.

I ask how the MG6 has been selling.  The answer was that “we’ve sold quite a few”.  More interesting is that distance hasn’t deterred the customers, who have come from as far as Inverness and Aberdeen, as well as Glasgow and Edinburgh.

The “sticker price” on the petrol-engined GT TSE is £19,350 My thoughts go back to the question of whether this makes any sense financially?  The answer to the question is sitting right beside, a new Seat Exeo SE Tech TDi Sports Tourer, on special offer at a round £20,000.  It might be a mildly re-worked old-series Audi A4, but it’s a size larger than the MG6, beats it hollow for equipment, and has a well-proven diesel engine with a sub-130 g/km CO2 rating.  There are probably better ways of spending £20K on a new car, but it puts the MG6’s pricing into harsh perspective.

That said, the MG6 deserves to be given a chance to compete.  There’s nothing dated, or awkward about the styling, and the BMW manqué interior is the equal of most mainstream offerings.  The problem is that SAIC seem to be unaware of the competitiveness of the market they have entered, and the deals which are on offer.

My salesman has sold Seat cars for sixteen years, and his enthusiasm for the marque is infectious.  In the difficult last couple of years, VW’s Spanish wing have been providing a constant stream of new products to keep up interest.  Last year it was the Mii, this year the new Toledo with an all new Leon in March.  The last, I was told, is outstandingly good.  I don’t doubt it, given that it shares the VW MQB platform with the latest Golf.  The important point is that the parent company realises that no part of the product offering can be allowed to fall behind in the efficiency and technology race.

The Seat comparison with MG is highly pertinent.  It’s a relative newcomer to the UK market, and cannot rely on the kind of unthinking “default choice” loyalty which Ford, Vauxhall, Volkswagen and BMW enjoy.  Survival depends on offering products which need no excuses, always having something new on offer.  I’d asked about the MG3.  MG, it seems have yet to confirm a launch date.  The MG5, I was told has been “shelved”.

I’d enjoyed my chat, to the point of feeling guilt about the deception behind my true purpose.  Note to self, go back and try a Leon.  The MG position seems grimmer than imagined. They’re caught in the crossfire of the European motor industry’s battle for survival, and have no strategy for defence.  Why aren’t the ex-Avis cars being cascaded on to dealer forecourts?  I was told that SAIC are “playing a long game” as far as the UK and Europe are concerned, but my impression is that as far as selling the products in the UK, the project has been all but “parked”.  Are SAIC afraid of digging themselves into a deeper hole if they set out to increase volume at any cost?   It seems possible.  I left feeling sorry for the loyal and enterprising MG dealers, who signed up and paid up with high hopes.  They deserve far better.

About the author  ⁄ Robert Leitch

Robert is a British national with a deep interest in the automotive industry, over the past few years he has been watching with baited breath as several Chinese automotive manufacturers enter into his fair lands. Follow his commentary on the development of Chinese brands in his area.

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