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MG poised for Aussie comeback

High five: The just-revealed VW Golf-sized MG5 sits between the MG3 light car and MG6 sedan.

Chinese giant SAIC confirms it is on the lookout for an Australian MG distributor

MG logo20 Mar 2012

By RON HAMMERTON

VENERABLE British brand MG is set to ride again in Australia, this time propelled by China’s biggest motor manufacturer, Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC).

Negotiations are underway with prospective local distributors for the Chinese-made range of sporty passenger sedans and hatchbacks – in light, small and medium classes – with a mid-sized SUV and a hybrid car likely to be added within a couple of years.

MG’s return to Australia after an absence of seven years – and counting – was confirmed to GoAuto by SAIC Motor representatives last week in Melbourne where they formally revealed plans to enter the local market with the company’s Maxus-brand range of V80 vans in the fourth quarter of this year.

However, timing for the launch of the new-look MG range in Australia remains up in the air, dependent on the speed with which a distributor is locked in and how quickly it can put down the necessary foundations, including a dealer network.

GoAuto understands that a distributor has been pencilled in for the job, but at least one other still has its hand up. The comment by SAIC executives that a distributor was still to be appointed suggests it is not yet a done deal.

49 center imageFrom top: MG5 interior, MG6, MG3.

The Maxus van distribution is being handled by Sydney-based importer WMC Group, which said in its press release announcing the deal that it had no agreement in place for SAIC passenger cars “at this stage”.

State-owned SAIC and its joint-venture partners General Motors and Volkswagen pumped out about 3.6 million vehicles in China last year, with most sold on the Chinese domestic market under brands such as Chevrolet, Buick, Volkswagen, Skoda, Iveco, Baojun, Yuejin and Wuling.

Maxus, MG and another of SAIC’s Chinese domestic brands Roewe (Rover) all have their origins in Britain where SAIC and its merger partner Nanjing Automobile bought up the remnants of the dying UK companies MG Rover and LDV (Leyland DAF Vehicles) between 2005 and 2010.

SAIC maintains a strong design and engineering presence at the traditional home of MG, in Longbridge, near Birmingham, where – since 2011 – it also has assembled cars from Chinese-made CKD (completely knocked down) packs of parts for the European market.

MG Motor UK has been selling the Cruze-sized MG6 sedan and five-door liftback range since mid-2011 – a year after it debuted in China – and is planning to add the new MG3 light hatchback and just-revealed VW Golf-sized MG5 next year.

The British-engineered MG6 impressed pundits when it turned in a four-star crash test performance in the European New Car Assessment Program (ENCAP) last year, dispelling the impression that Chinese cars struggle to meet western standards.

Because MG vehicles are already engineered for right-hand drive and European safety and emissions standards from the beginning, they should be relatively painless to homologate under Australian Design Rules (ADRs), unlike many other Chinese-based models finding their way to Australia.

As GoAuto reported in January, SAIC has started its MG rollout in South Africa and New Zealand, with the latter already getting a batch of MG6 dealer demonstrators and test cars.

The latest addition to the MG range is the MG5 which was shown to Chinese journalists last week ahead of its expected public unveiling at the Beijing motor show in April – a year after it was shown in concept form at the 2011 Shanghai show.

The MG5 reportedly is built on the same platform as the Roewe 350 small sedan, but contrary to some reports it is not an old Rover hand-me-down, but a fresh development launched in China in 2010.

The Chinese version of the MG5 is set to be launched with a normally aspirated 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, but a 117kW turbocharged four-cylinder that is in the pipeline is the most likely export powerplant.

According to Autocar in the UK, SAIC’s British engineers are working on new range of small and large four-cylinder engines to replace the current Rover-based units, along with a hybrid powertrain.

As well, says Autocar, a Land Rover Freelander-sized SUV is under development for release within a couple of years.

However, there is no sign yet of a rumoured open-top sportscar to follow in the wheel tracks of MG’s legendary sportscars, such as the MGTC, MGA and MGB.

The most recent MG sportscar was the MG TF, which had a checkered history, plagued by company bankruptcy and quality problems.

It was rescued by Nanjing Automobile when the Chinese company took over MG Rover in 2005, ahead of its merger with SAIC in 2007.

MG TFs are still on sale in the UK, although they are only built in batches at Longbridge when sufficient orders are received. It is unlikely to be included in any revival plan for Australia.

Vehicles destined for Australia are likely to come direct from China, from SAIC’s Nanjing factory.

There is no suggestion that Roewe – a brand invented by SAIC when it could not use the Rover name held by BMW at the time – will follow MG to Australia, as it is earmarked to remain a Chinese domestic luxury range.

Apart from its sheer size that places it among the world’s top eight motor manufacturers, SAIC’s major strength is its enduring relationship with the likes of VW, with which it has been building cars since the 1980s.

This has given the Chinese company years to study world’s best practice in car engineering and manufacturing to aid its own-brand operations that are now coming to the fore.

As well, it has recognised the benefit of nurturing the British engineering operation, pouring millions of dollars into the Longbridge technical centre to develop ground-up platforms and engines.

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