MG is back and better than ever with the new Chinese-built MG 7
This corner of Nanjing in China was a farmer's field 18 months ago, but is now a clean, modern factory, capable of making 250,000 cars a year. The Chinese MG has not been without its critics, but its commitment and hard work has helped keep the firm afloat. The Phoenix Four, who bought MG Rover from BMW for £10 in 2000, failed to create a new MG from the ashes of the firm. Instead, they spent the £500million BMW dowry on commercial failures such as the MG SV, and drove the company into the ground. In the end, the taxpayer picked up much of the tab for the 6,000 workers' redundancy payments. The future for MG now looks much brighter in China.
MG is back! And standing in the firm's factory in China, it seemed scarcely believable that the two-year wait was nearly over.
As the robots whirred and soared above our heads, they were welding and assembling pressed-steel components into the body of what looked suspiciously like a ZT. The instructions on the safety fencing were in Chinese, yet the computer monitoring the robots' choreography was displaying English machine code, and had the word "Longbridge" written in the top corner.
All of this activity proves that MG is most definitely a force to be reckoned with again. To drive the message home, the brand's new owner invited Auto Express to be among the first magazines in the world to get behind the wheel of one of the first models off the line - the new MG 7.
As the newcomer rolled into view, initial impressions were good. Despite some early horror stories that suggested vehicle build quality was less than encouraging, we were pleased to see that the car's panel gaps are even, and the paint is both evenly applied and lustrous. A decent start, then.
Powering the model we tried is the 1.8-litre turbocharged K Series motor that Rover originally debuted in 2003. It's fitted neatly under the bonnet - there are no stray wires and pipes in the engine bay - and has been tuned to meet strict Euro IV emissions regulations. Work has also been done to boost reliability, and MG is promising an end to the head gasket failures that plagued earlier models.
Changes to the car's electrical system have also been made, both to improve the engine's ignition system, and to power the greater range of equipment on board. This includes features such as a reversing camera and DVD screens in the front headrests for back-seat passengers - kit that never appeared on the UK-built model.
So far, so good, but does the MG 7 hold up under closer inspection? Of course, there are some subtle, yet equally important changes to the styling compared to the original MG Rover cars, yet these are only obvious when the car is examined in detail.
The clearest difference has been made to the tail-lights, which now use LED lamps instead of conventional bulbs. The alloy wheels have also been changed - they're sourced from a local Chinese supplier - while the aggressive front spoiler is the MG sports version that used to be offered as an option.
Inside, the radio and CD player is revised, and there is now a central LCD display screen for sat-nav and to show the view from the reversing camera. Finally, the electric sunroof system and air-con units are different. MG proudly claims that quality is better than the cars that came out of the Longbridge factory. It also points out that in its latter stage of British ownership, the firm was cutting costs out of the car, such as the bonnet insulation and driver's-side grab handles. MG's new caretaker has put these items back, something that has restored at least a bit of the car's premium feel.
Fire up the four-cylinder engine, and it's clear that the results of this work have not been in vain. The engine is certainly quiet, and with 148bhp and 215Nm of torque, the 1.8T quickly makes a credible case for itself, blending brisk acceleration with the cruising economy of a turbo. Floor the throttle, and the K Series unit pulls smoothly and effortlessly, leaving the cabin quiet and relaxed, even under heavy acceleration. There's little in the way of turbo lag, although we couldn't help feeling that the powerplant is still a little rough around the edges.
That's particularly the case when you back off the accelerator, or are driving at low speed on smaller throttle openings. The unit is mated to a five-speed manual gearbox, and MG claims that the car manages the 0-60mph sprint in a respectable 9.5 seconds and has a top speed of 126mph. But of more concern to company car buyers will be the impressive 35.5mpg return and a CO2 emissions rating of 193g/km.
Another highlight is the MG 7's comfortable ride. It doesn't feel as sporty as the original ZT did, but MG is quick to point out that the car's suspension settings can be altered for markets such as the UK.
However, the comfortable driving experience makes complete sense when you consider that the company is aiming this model at a much broader market than before.
The steering and brakes inspire confidence, although MG is likely to carry out further development of some of the controls before it arrives in the UK this September. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of the MG 7 is not that our test car is neatly finished, or that it's so refined, but the fact that it is here at all.