MG Rover’s sporting chance

A year after the Phoenix takeover, fledgling independent Rover has unveiled the models it hopes will inject some élan back into its range.

Last week MG Rover faced a moment of truth in its quest to survive as an independent car maker. A crucial element in its short-term plan to inject more excitement into its range was the introduction of MG variants of the existing 25, 45, and 75 models.

And little more than a year after the Phoenix consortium bought Rover from BMW, journalists last week got the chance to drive the new cars, which go on sale later this month.

‘Badge engineering’ MG Rover knew from the start it would have to fend off accusations of ‘badge engineering’. Critics invoked memories of the MG Metro, Maestro and Montego – though the MG Metro did sell a respectable 142,000.

This time, the company says, things are different. ‘For people who’ve driven the cars, badge engineering is no longer an issue,’ said MG Rover chief executive Kevin Howe. At last week’s press launch the consensus of opinion was that the £100m MG Rover has spent on modifying the looks, powertrain and suspension of the cars has achieved a transformation in their character.

‘We’ve unlocked the hidden sporting potential in underrated platforms,’ said Dr Chris Millard, MG Rover large car platform director. ‘We knew what our hardware was capable of and put engineering resources into tangible changes.’

Moreover, MG is launching a complete range, from the entry-level 105 bhp version of the ZR hatchback (the Rover 25 derivative) through the 45-based ZS to the 190bhp ZT (75 derivative).

Each model comes with up to four engine options and two body styles, including, in the ZT’s case, a tourer or estate. Still to come, next spring, are two even more powerful versions of the ZT with Ford V8 power (up to 385bhp) and rear wheel drive.

Within the limitations of not changing any sheet metal the cars have been given a new look with a new ‘face’ and less chrome, sporting design cues such as spoilers and mesh grilles, and a lowered stance with bigger wheels.

Additionally, there has been extensive re-engineering of chassis and powertrain to improve handling and performance, with suspension settings and more direct steering. Improved breathing has released extra power from the K-series engines.As in pre-BMW days, MG Rover augmented its own capabilities by working closely with suppliers. ‘By working with some of the best suppliers we’ve produced a range of credible cars,’ said Millard.

MG Rover’s roster of collaborators includes Delphi on springs and dampers, Bosch on brakes, Prodrive on powertrain, and Mayflower on bodywork. Local firm Petford Tools of Dudley produced the tooling for the ZT’s new front bumper, which Polytec Holden of Bromyard manufactures.

Though the new MGs should appeal to a considerably different audience from their Rover siblings, and are expected to account for 25% of production overall, the company has not factored in any extra sales. ‘The MG Rover sales plan is prudent and conservative,’ says Howe. ‘If we only sell 200,000 vehicles a year we will make a profit. We’ve not planned for any incrementality: if you do you inevitably build in extra costs in so that you then need that growth.’

In fact, sales are slightly behind target for this year, but with the new range the company expects to catch up in the second half.

Turning tides

With the launch of the new MGs, following a credible performance at Le Mans and the acquisition of the Qvale Mangusta as the basis of a new top-of-the-range sports car, sentiment about MG Rover is beginning to turn.

Asked whether the company’s long-term plan is to sell itself to a big car maker, or about reports that one or more larger manufacturers has already shown significant interest, Howe said: ‘Nine months ago we were going to be out of business within a year. Now we’re a target for Ford or we’re going to float for £1bn on the stockmarket.

‘We have one ambition: to turn the business into a financial success. I’m not wasting a nanosecond thinking about people wanting to buy us.’

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