MG Motor’s first supermini has price on its side, but the segment is filled with quality offerings for little more money - does the MG3 have anything else to offer?

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You might not have seen MG Motor’s previous effort, the 6, around your way much, but rest assured, the Chinese/British hybrid badge is not going away, although the brand has subsquently done away with the C-segment vehicle.

Sizeable investment in Longbridge has put some genuine meat back on the manufacturer’s borrowed bones and the second model to be (re)built on the fledgling line has the potential to generate far more public attention than the initial offering.

The vastly different company may be called MG Motor, but its venerable badge hasn't changed a bit

Aside from crossovers, B-segment superminis are a downsizing decade’s sweet spot, and with four doors, snappy styling and a remarkably affordable sticker price, the MG 3 appears perfectly positioned to make respectable waves. Although MG Motor has dipped its toe in the crossover market with the emergence of the large GS.

There’s also a whole heap of heritage here if you feel inclined to trace the MG 3’s line back through the extended family tree. Distressingly, for those who recall it, the closest relative (by virtue of it being sold in China in rebadged guise) is the Rover Streetwise, a big-bumpered version of the Rover 25.

By extension, that puts it in the Rover 200-series bloodline, a lineage that can be reverse-engineered all the way back, via the Acclaim and the Dolomite, to the Triumph Herald, another snappily dressed dinky Brit.

In order to be competitive, however, MG Motor will have had to learn very quickly from the easily identified limitations that pigeonholed its MG 6 as a likeable novelty rather than a serious contender.

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The small hatch market is, if anything, even tougher ground than the C-segment, because of the proliferation of household names, ever-rising standards and seriously high-volume sales figures.

In short, if MG Motor can hold its head high here, it might just signal the difference between surviving and thriving.

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MG3 badging

The MG 3 was dreamed up and developed at the SAIC Design Centre at Longbridge. The pen strokes and proficiency of about 60 designers and 300 engineers vault the first critical hurdle with room to spare: the 3 looks good.

Unencumbered by a direct forebear to tediously reference, the company has sought (and found) a clean, snappy look. At 2520mm, the car gets a slightly longer wheelbase than the class norm, but it doesn’t render an oversized presence in the flesh. From the outside, the 3 appears every bit the modern supermini.

The designers have done well to make the MG's daytime running lights stand out for the right reasons

Underneath, it’s more indebted to conventionalism. Like most small cars built to a strict budget, the MG is stock-standard hatchback fare. The all-new front-drive platform is underpinned by MacPherson struts at the front and a torsion bar at the rear, with different, sportier damper and spring settings applied for the UK.

Likewise, the throwback hydraulic rack has been tuned for a little less assistance than would be found on the Chinese-spec model, and the disc front/drum rear brakes benefit from uprated components.

Continuing the rather rudimentary theme is the imaginatively named four-cylinder VTi-Tech petrol engine. The chain-driven 1.5-litre unit, tuned for Euro 5 compliance, is the sole choice and produces a modest 105bhp of naturally aspirated power at 6000rpm and 101lb ft of peak twist at 4750rpm.

A five-speed manual gearbox is the only transmission yet offered with the motor. Bolting the engine to the car is done at Longbridge as well, but it would be stretching matters to describe the 3 as British built.

At the moment, each example arrives in the hallowed halls direct from China as a knocked-down kit to be reassembled by a smaller workforce. Although it might seem a somewhat convoluted process to an outsider, the current MG Motor system of building 3s allows it the flexibility to build a European-spec model without the need to replicate the really expensive parts of the construction process.

This primary phase of production occurs at SAIC’s facility in Lingang, China, on a line capable of producing both fully built cars and the semi-knocked-down versions of the sort that are shipped to the UK at approximately 65 percent of final assembly.

At Longbridge, the final 35 percent is completed on a duplication of the remaining production line, with the engine, gearbox, front assembly, rear assembly, wheels and all optional parts yet to be added to the painted shell.

Depending on the specification, MG Motor allows two months for shipping, plus another month for completion in the UK.


MG3 dashboard

Familiarity with the MG 6 gave us low expectations of the 3’s interior, but the smaller car exceeds the standards of its bigger sibling by a distance. Between material quality, space, equipment and even a peppy sort of style, there is very little to find serious fault with here and quite a lot to like.

With its black and grey seats, red stitching and matching red fascia highlights, our test car did a lot to conjure the memory of the MG ZR, and even the MG Metro and Maestro before it. Dubious reference points they may be, but they’re about all that Longbridge has got to refer back to.

The MG's steering wheel adjusts for both reach and rake

The 3 is sufficiently stylish and well turned out to feel connected with those cars but, more important, also to look and feel like a typical modern European supermini.

The car’s driving position is sound, its seats providing good lateral support and long-distance comfort. There are no ergonomic howlers to report: plenty of adjustment on the steering wheel, well sited secondary controls and readable instruments.

The cupholders are a bit small, but if MG commits any more serious crime in here, it’s only in making an interior that looks slightly dated. It’s still quite racy and appealing in its own way. A few of the materials aren’t up to prevailing class standards, but only a few. There’s certainly no austerity feel.

It’s also a spacious cabin. The maximum headroom and legroom measurements that we took beat those of plenty of much more expensive superminis, and the boot is wider and taller than that of a Dacia Sandero, which – aside from being another budget supermini – is also one of the most accommodating small hatchbacks of its kind.

There are four trims to choose from - 3Time, 3Form, 3Form Sport and 3Style. The entry-level trim includes LED day-running-lights, electric windows, USB connectivity, hill hold assist, cupholders and sports seats as standard, while upgrading to 3Form adds a rear spoiler, a chrome square exhaust, DAB radio, smartphone integration, Bluetooth, air conditioning, electrically adjustable and heated wing mirrors, and remote central locking.

The mid-range 3Form Sport models gain a sporty bodykit, and the range-topping 3Style trim adorns the MG with automatic lights and wipers, cruise control and rear parking sensors. 

No fitted navigation system is offered, but if you have your own TomTom or Garmin, MG will sell you a mounting kit for the roller-covered connectivity cubby for £15. Likewise, MG will do you one for an iPhone or offer you a universal smartphone mount.

The same cubby is also where the USB and aux-in jacks are, potentially providing power for your phone while it’s navigating. The 3Time model gets a simple four-speaker audio system with an AM/FM CD tuner and USB and 3.5mm inputs.

The six-speaker set-up on the other models gains extra tweeters, DAB, Bluetooth audio streaming and steering wheel-mounted controls. Which seems a lot for under £10k. The audio quality is more than passable, too.


MG3 rear quarter

Fifty feet’s worth of interaction with the 3 is enough to find out where the car is most vulnerable to criticism.

Its 105bhp and 101lb ft are both a lot for a package priced from £4000 less than a 59bhp Ford Fiesta five-door, but they are maximum outputs delivered in such a way as to make this budget supermini feel ‘budget’. Decidedly 20th century, in fact.

The MG's 16v engine drives the front wheels through a five-speed manual transmission

The MG’s engine feels thin and slow to pick up from low revs, although it hauls from close to tickover cleanly enough. It also finds its feet in slightly uneven strides as the revs rise. By the time you’re getting the benefit of peak torque, at about 4500rpm, you’re also feeling quite a lot of buzzing vibration and harshness from the engine.

The ruckus is entirely bearable – and it’s far less noisy than a Sandero 1.2 in the same circumstances – but it wouldn’t make it past sign-off on anything from the big European brands.

It’s a pity that the angry buzz isn’t part of a more sporting crescendo. The engine pulls averagely well past 4000rpm but runs out of breath quickly after 5500rpm. It’s as if that 105bhp appears for the blink of an eye.

Below 4000rpm, you miss the likes of variable valve lift technology, light-pressure turbocharging and direct injection – advances that hit supermini engine bays long after SAIC acquired MG Rover’s assets – because the 3’s low-range performance is quite pedestrian. A 79bhp 1.2-litre Nissan Micra is faster from 30-70mph in fourth gear.

On top of that, the drivetrain feels underdeveloped in a tactile sense. The gearchange is a little limp and imprecise and the clutch has an unpleasant dead fraction of travel right at the top of the pedal. It’s enough to make you wonder, for the first few miles, if you’ve engaged the clutch fully every time you come off the pedal.


MG3 cornering

The primitive feel of the 3’s driveline contrasts with the responses of its highly tuned chassis as starkly as the bright red of its cabin stands out against the black fascia to which it is fixed.

No £9000 car has any right to handle as keenly as this. For that price, simple dynamic adequacy is what you hope for – and it’s what you get in the likes of the Dacia Sandero and, just about, in a Proton Savvy.

The intelligent stability control won't stop you from powering out of a slide, satisfyingly

Compared with those cars, the MG offers something genuinely remarkable. The car has body control to burn, generates plenty of grip in dry conditions and is as clean, direct and precise in its responses to your control inputs as many a warm hatchback. It also has consistent, perfectly judged steering weight and real feedback through the rim. Thank the old-fashioned hydraulic power assistance.

On top of all that, the incisive front end of a junior performance machine adds something quietly compelling into the 3’s handling mix, and it’s absolutely the last thing that you expect to get from a car this cheap: driver reward. This isn’t what you’d call any proper sort of driver’s car, but only because the powertrain isn’t distinguished enough to justify the billing.

The MG 3 is an exceptional-handling car when you consider the budget that MG Motor must have had. The fact that we drove the doors off it on both MIRA’s wet and dry handling circuits without encountering so much as a hint of brake fade – never mind a disappointing stability control system or anything else that might betray a shortage of development spend – speaks volumes about it. And we had a ball every single lap.

Its cornering line remains admirably accurate as you up the pace. Its body control is very good and its balance of grip likewise, allowing you to attack apexes with the kind of gusto that you’d normally reserve for much more expensive specialist machinery. On the limit of grip, the car gently nudges into understeer, but its ESP is fully switchable and its cornering attitude is even a little adjustable if you’re smooth with your inputs.

In low-grip conditions, that chassis balance only makes for greater amusement, aided by the feelsome, honest steering system. The taut, engaging suspension tune – a credit to the skill of MG Motor's UK engineering outfit – is easily good enough for a junior hot hatch. It could handle another 50bhp as it is.

But as powerfully tempting as a half-price hot supermini will sound to many potential buyers, the 3’s chassis tune won’t suit everyone. Those sporting spring rates impose a jostling high-frequency ride on the car over less than perfect surfaces, as well as a slight shortage of low-speed compliance around town.

Those factors, combined with the engine noise, can make the 3 a wearing car after a while, when you’re not in the mood to take pleasure in its genuine handling verve.


MG 3

In a four-model line-up, starting at around £8400 for the lightly equipped 3Time, no 3 will set you back more than £10,500.

That makes the range-topping 3Style – a car with cruise control, automatic lights and wipers and reverse parking sensors – appear better at face value than not just the Volkswagen Polo, Renault Clio, Ford Fiesta, Seat Ibiza, Vauxhall Corsa et al but also much of the opposition in the city car segment below.

The 3 will shed at least £1000 more over three years than the class average

It is tempting, given the price, to opt for the range-topper. However, MG reckons the 3Form Sport will be the most popular option and, given the decent kit list, that's fine, too. Avoid the lairy graphics packs if you ever plan to resell the car, though.

If alloy wheels are important to you, it’s also worth noting that the MG 3 gets 16-inch examples at a cheaper price point than just about any car currently for sale.

Clearly, the rub is that buyers will not encounter quite the same standard across the board that they might expect from an established brand. Leaving aside the obvious differences in interior finish and sophistication already covered, the 3’s unsophisticated petrol motor is going to make it more expensive to run.

Where some of the opposition can offer a likely tax-free three-pot capable of keeping combined economy in the 60mpg region, the Chinese chugger is stuck fast at 48.7mpg (we managed just 41.4mpg on a gentle tour) and emits 136g/km of CO2 from the back – about the same as an entry-level petrol-powered Volkswagen Passat.

It’s quite possible that this fact, as much as the likely onerous depreciation and potential badge snobbery, will be the reason why some punters are put off the otherwise eminently affordable MG.

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3.5 star MG3

We’ve paid MG Motor the compliment of ranking its new supermini alongside the best in the class below – because, as it stands, there isn’t really a class to slot this car into.

The sub-£9000, full-sized supermini market consists of the Proton Satria Neo and Dacia Sandero – and neither offers anything like the sporting appeal of this car.

It's a good-looking car: subtly sporting, modern and anything but cheap

For the record, the MG 3 beats the Dacia in our book – and makes it look pretty ordinary in the process.

MG wouldn’t expect the 3 to rank higher than a Ford Fiesta, Renault Clio or Volkswagen Polo or probably even appear in a top five.

It would definitely make its way into the top 10, though. And it would be there on merit, not just because it’s five grand cheaper.

Its powertrain isn’t up to European standards, and it isn’t as refined as a volume-selling supermini must be, but it’s big enough, good-looking enough and seems sufficiently well built to stand comparison.

With a better engine, some upgraded interior materials and priced at the same point as it is now, the MG 3 would earn itself a place higher up the rankings.

On handling and driver engagement alone, however, it’s an outstanding buy.

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Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

MG Motor MG3-2013-2024 First drives