MG launches the third model of its Chinese-owned era: a family-sized 'soft-roader' crossover that faces increasingly tough competition, even at the affordable end of the segment

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While it’s still some way from making waves that’ll be felt in Paris, Cologne, Wolfsburg and Turin, MG Motor UK Ltd – the modern inheritor of Herbert Austin’s once-great Longbridge plant – has been growing fast since it emerged from the chrysalis of not one but two apparent Far Eastern takeover bids five years ago.

Now Chinese-owned but British-crewed and operated, with more than 500 staff at the Birmingham facility where it completes final assembly from knockdown kits shipped from SAIC in China, MG Motors is one of the greatest self-proclaimed success stories of modern manufacturing in Britain.

GS’s new scalable platform has been developed exclusively for SUVs by MG Motor parent SAIC

There are questions about exactly how ‘British’ that story is, never mind how successful, but the business model’s potential stares you in the face.

Buy part-built cars at cost price in Chinese yuan, finish them in Britain to the right standard, sell them at a healthy profit but cheaply enough to undercut your rivals and then watch the competition fail to keep up.

If you were setting up a truly global and sustainable volume-selling car-making business in 2016, there’s a good chance that you might want it to operate exactly like this.

It’s been a testing business model to perfect, though. The market has been so sceptical about the MG 6 family hatchback that it has been axed in the UK, but the launch of the MG 3 supermini in 2013 has taken annual sales volume well into four figures, topping 3000 units last year.

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Now a further step-change in fortunes looks likely as MG introduces another of its attractive and attractively priced ‘Chinese takeaways’ – this time into the booming crossover segment.

Meet the MG GS – a family-sized soft-roader designed in Birmingham, launched in China last year, refined in the UK and available to order from less than £15,000.

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MG GS rear

Rounded corners, raked pillars, a high beltline and a relatively shallow glasshouse are all well deployed here, making the GS distinctive and dynamic-looking – and not at all, on first acquaintance, like a plain budget option.

That must have been a primary goal of its designers, and they have succeeded at it.

Why spend on leather for interior surfaces rather than on nicer door handles or column stalks? It’s on areas like this that MG has the most to prove

Most testers reacted positively to the styling from almost every angle, with the notable exception of the

rear, where the expanse of sheet metal between badge and bumper (broken up by a pronounced lateral crease) makes the car look like two hatchbacks that have been married vertically – and from a great height.

Look closely at the bodywork and you’ll find signs of questionable finishing that betray the car’s budget roots.

The shutlines and panel gaps vary from millimetre-tight to big enough to fit a pound coin into. Our Arctic White test car also showed a perceptible difference in paint shade between the plastics of its bumpers and the steel of its wings.

These flaws don’t condemn the GS, but if MG is aiming to reproduce European build quality at a reduced price, it’ll need to be addressed before more discerning customers will be convinced.

The raked looks disguise the GS’s size well. At 4500mm long, 1855mm wide and 1665mm high, it’s markedly longer, wider and taller than a Nissan Qashqai and within touching distance on all three counts of a Ford Kuga.

It has a longer wheelbase than a Honda CR-V and yet it’s priced to undercut most supermini-based crossovers: the Renault Capturs and Mazda CX-3s of the burgeoning SUV set. By any measure, it represents a lot of metal for your money.

The GS is based on a new scalable SUV platform, accessed by MG Motor via parent company SAIC, and is entirely conventional, featuring a transversely front-mounted four-cylinder engine, a choice of six-speed manual and seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearboxes and, for now, front-wheel drive only.

Power comes from an all-aluminium turbocharged 1.5-litre petrol engine that has been co-developed by SAIC and General Motors and is closely related to the 1.4-litre unit in the Vauxhall Adam and Vauxhall Corsa.

It makes an ample 164bhp and 184lb ft but is currently the only engine on offer. MG’s 1.9-litre diesel is mooted to follow later.


MG GS interior

MG improved its cabin quality significantly somewhere between the time the 2011 MG 6 was designed and when the 3 that followed it was made.

The GS’s cabin doesn’t represent quite as much progress – partly because the comparison with what came immediately before isn’t so stark.

The array of buttons on the centre stack requires you to learn where each function is if you don’t want to spend vital seconds deciphering which of the 20-odd symbols you’re after

Overall, this is only a partly successful effort at matching the material sophistication and fit and finish of a European crossover, although it’s a better one at levelling with its more expensive rivals on comfort, equipment and practicality.

The GS perches you upright in a broadly comfortable driver’s seat. Our mid-spec test car came with cloth upholstery, which looked and felt passably attractive but wasn’t very grippy.

Combined with a flat seat cushion, we found the seats slippery enough to allow their occupants to slide forwards during hard braking – a minor and unusual observation, but one worth noting.

The dashboard is clad in grained moulded plastic that lacks a soft-touch finish anywhere.

MG makes a token effort at compensating for it by fitting fillets of leather to the outer edges of the centre console, but it’s an ineffective gesture, because the places where your hands and elbows regularly come to rest (with the exception of the leather-faced controls) all feel hard.

Cheap-feeling fixtures and fittings abound – the seat adjuster levers offend notably and the column stalks are rubbery and imprecisely finished.

The gloss black foil on the dashboard panel and around the centre stack and gearlever consoles does add a note of decorative richness that neither the MG 6 nor 3 had, however, while the satin chrome trims around the car’s air vents and instruments are nicely executed.

Passenger space is a predictable selling point for the GS. You’ll find 30mm more head room and 70mm more leg room in the back seats than in a rival typical of what is available at the same price, namely the Suzuki Vitara.

That’s probably the difference between the space for a larger adult passenger to get comfortable or not.

Boot space beats that of the Suzuki by a fairly wide margin on loading length, although it’s slightly shallower and narrower.

But credit is due to MG for adding to the GS’s practicality with back seats that split 60/40, adjust for backrest angle and fold down completely flat.

The base model GS gets a 6.0in touchscreen infotainment system with a radio and aux-in and USB inputs — but it does without Bluetooth.

We’d question the wisdom of omitting the latter when it can clearly now be considered a safety feature and will be among many shoppers’ basic requirements.

Opt for a mid-spec Excite model —like our test car — and you’ll end up with plenty more for your money: a larger touchscreen, a DAB tuner, Bluetooth, MirrorLink for Android and Symbian smartphones and a reversing camera.

You don’t get fitted navigation until you hit full-house trim, but even so, there are rivals costing several thousand pounds more that don’t match that level of equipment.

The lack of a compatible phone prevented us from testing the system’s MirrorLink functionality, but its Bluetooth connection was mostly reliable and its audio output clear and powerful enough.

Graphically, the system looks a bit basic and its menus aren’t as intuitive as they might be. But, assuming the MirrorLink functionality works well, it should be a strong selling point at the car’s sub-£18,000 price.


1.5-litre MG GS petrol engine

The GS’s ‘more for your money’ sales proposition feeds directly and positively into the dynamic appeal of the car via its turbocharged 1.5-litre petrol engine, which gives you about 25% more power and torque than the going rate for a petrol-powered, £18,000 compact crossover.

That’s enough urge to make the GS a sub-nine-second car from standing to 60mph – and something MG itself may be interested to find out, given that it quotes a conservative 9.6sec to 62mph.

There’s enough power to make steeper inclines feel quite gentle. In normally aspirated petrol rivals, they wouldn’t

Few direct rivals manage the sprint in much less than 10.5sec, and the diesel-powered alternatives tend to be slower still, albeit usually more flexible.

You wouldn’t, however, expect that many crossover buyers shopping at the bargain end of the price spectrum to be motivated by an added-value performance selling point if it wasn’t delivered with good refinement, driveability and fuel economy.

The GS goes some of the way towards completing the picture; it’s quiet both at idle and at a relaxed urban and extra-urban cruise, and it accelerates assertively in higher gears through the lower reaches of the rev band, thanks to that 184lb ft plateau of torque being available from well under 2000rpm.

But that turbocharged 1.5-litre engine is no paragon of smooth, even operation.

When pulling from low revs and at full power, it fights its way through a flat spot at around 3000rpm that interrupts the car’s forward momentum notably.

It’s only for an instant, but it’s in every gear and at a point in the rev range through which you’ll pass repeatedly and routinely on every run up through the gearbox’s ratios.

You wouldn’t imagine that Ford, Volkswagen or even Hyundai would allow such an irritating quirk to slip through the development net.

Neither would you imagine those better-established car makers signing off an engine quite as tremulous and buzzy as this at high revs – because above 4500rpm, the GS’s four-cylinder unit makes its presence both heard and felt through the seat and controls.

This is the biggest-capacity, longest-stroke version of the ‘Small Gasoline Engine’ that SAIC has developed jointly with General Motors, and at times it certainly feels like it.

The GS’s primary controls speak of closer attention to detail, being pleasant, usable and generally uniform in their weight.

Braking performance is powerful and consistent, aided by reliable ABS – although a pronounced pitch forward over the front wheels might affect high-speed stability if you needed to stop and steer to avoid an obstacle.


MG GS cornering

Arriving at the right dynamic compromise for the GS was always going to be a challenge.

The MG brand’s traditional strengths made it a no-brainer to tune its small and medium-size hatchbacks for greater agility and sporting zest than the next bargain-priced option.

Lack of damping sophistication is evident in pronounced pitch under heavy braking for downhill corners

With the original 6 and then the 3, MG UK executed that vision quite well.

But a taller, more utility-minded offering like a crossover needs much greater breadth of ability than its siblings.

It must also offer more rolling comfort and a greater sense of well-being to its passengers while being able to haul itself along a rutted track or out of a muddy car park (albeit very occasionally).

But MG’s interpretation of how a crossover ought to conduct itself leaves something to be desired – because it doesn’t ride very comfortably at all.

Unlike the 3 and 6 before it, the GS uses electromechanical rather than hydraulic power steering. It steers quite well, if not with the feedback of its range mates then at least with consistent weight, pace and a decent sense of precision.

Body control is moderately good, too, and the car handles with a strong sense of security, decent directional response and fair grip levels, and without any suggestion of a high roll axis.

But there is such a conspicuous lack of settled compliance in the suspension that even an averagely bumpy road reveals a side to the GS that few will be prepared to put up with.

At times the car feels over-damped – too aggressively checked in compression to deal with medium-sized disturbances without the struts maxing out and forcing the body to deflect – while at other times it feels hardly damped at all.


MG GS 1.5 TGI Excite

It’ll be fleet managers’ scepticism of the brand and the preference of the dealer network for private sales that keeps the GS off UK company car lists, not the 24% benefit-in-kind tax liability of its petrol engine – and probably not the car’s residual values.

Real-world economy was respectable but not good enough to give up a good diesel rival for it and not notice a penalty.

The MG GS isn’t expected to hold its value well — but it won’t be a disaster. Better than a Dacia Duster, worse than a Skoda Yeti

We returned a 38.4mpg average, which needed to be a bit closer to the official claim of 46.3mpg in order to make the ownership sums add up for a private buyer giving up diesel.

Plenty of buyers will plump for a £14,995 entry-level car. If they do, they’ll get manual air-con, cruise control, electric windows, automatic headlights, 60/40 split-folding rear seats, a radio with USB input, 17in alloys and a five-year warranty.

There’s no Bluetooth at this level, but most of the basics are covered.

If we were buying one we would opt for the mid-spec Excite trim, which if you have Mirrorlink on your phone will make it worthwhile, otherwise go for the basic Explore  - be warned it only comes in non-metallic black or white.

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3 star MG GS 1.5 TGI Excite

MG’s last new introduction, the 3 supermini of 2013, signalled progress and ambition from its maker, earning a three-and-a-half-star recommendation from us.

But while the GS offers similarly distinguishing performance, practicality and value, it feels like one step forward followed by two back.

Poor ride and patchy quality erode appeal of practical bargain crossover

It shows that continued growth isn’t a given for its maker and that if MG is in too great a hurry to expand, the battle to win new customers could rumble on for decades.

The potentially lucrative crossover segment is now populated by increasingly rounded and accomplished cars, and few buyers will be won over solely by aggressive pricing, a gutsy motor and a liberal helping of standard kit.

To be competitive, the GS would need a better ride, a better-finished cabin, a more economical engine, better systems sophistication and a greater breadth of ability.

If it were even eight or nine-tenths as capable as a Nissan Qashqai or Ford Kuga and as affordable as it is, it might make more of an impression.

But it’s plainly not that good. It means that it doesn’t make our top five with the GS falling behind the Suzuki Vitara, Honda HR-V, Mazda CX-3, Renault Captur and the king of the pile – the Skoda Yeti.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

MG Motor GS 2016-2019 First drives