We’ve seen how new MG ZS is shaping up... Now, Chinese take the wraps off Ford Focus rival – and Auto Express is first behind the wheel.
With some rough edges and no diesel engine option, the Roewe 550 is far from perfect. However, it does prove that the Chinese can produce a car which could succeed in Europe. It’s good to drive, comfortable, nicely made and well specced. And we can expect even more from the forthcoming MG ZS hatchback version.
Rover has returned at last! Ever since Chinese firm Shanghai Automotive (SAIC) bought the bankrupt British company back in 2005, legions of enthusiasts have been waiting with baited breath for a comeback.
And here it is. Carrying an all-new badge, the Roewe 550 is a fresh rival for Ford’s Focus and VW’s Golf. It is the first of a range of models set to emerge from China over the next few years – and Auto Express is the only magazine in the world to drive it.
Purists might not like the fact that the British firm is now in Chinese hands, but the new machine has been largely designed and developed by UK engineering consultancy Ricardo. It’s set to be built at the marque’s old home of Longbridge, W Mids, alongside the new MG ZS. While it will be the sportier new MG brand that spearheads China’s onslaught in Europe, the Roewe 550 will be available in small numbers.
The sleek body is far more attractive than most Chinese models, and at the rear it bears a close resemblance to the Citroen C5. Under the skin is a development of the platform of the old Rover 75. This model has been reincarnated in the shape of the Roewe 750.
But the smaller 550 is a vast improvement over that car, with tight panel gaps and doors that close with a reassuring thud.
Inside, the dashboard gets a sporty digital display and a red rev counter, plus an LCD screen which controls the sat-nav, reversing camera and DVD player/entertainment system. Below is a slot for an SD card, along with Bluetooth mobile connection. It’s all well made, and very BMW-like in its design.
Driver and passenger chairs adjust electrically and the seating position is comfortable. Rear space isn’t very generous and headroom is limited, but the middle passenger gets a full seatbelt – rare in a Chinese car. Add six airbags and stability control, and this is likely to be the first model from the country to gain a maximum five-star Euro NCAP crash test rating.
Two 1.8-litre petrol-powered engines have been carried over from the Rover 75 – and we tried the 160bhp turbocharged version. Start the car and the first thing you notice is how quiet it is. Indeed, refinement is one of the 550’s strong points, with soft suspension soaking up potholes well, too.
While the steering is light and lacks feedback, it is accurate and the car generally handles well and gives good levels of grip. Yet although performance from the gutsy turbo engine is strong, the five-speed auto box takes the edge off response. Its shifts aren’t very smooth either.
There is a standard manual transmission, too, but while it slashes the 0-62mph time from 10.8 to 9.3 seconds, it has only five ratios in a class where six-speed boxes are the norm.
Neither do the 550’s green credentials impress: the auto emits 223g/km of CO2, while the manual puts out 203g/km.
Rival: Volkswagen Golf The Roewe is a decent car, but it’s not up to the standard of the latest Golf. With its wide engine range, slick driving experience and spacious cabin, the MkVI hatchback proves how far the Chinese firm needs to come.