Austin Healey, Triumph, Morris, Sunbeam, Wolseley. The British annals are littered with the names of once great car manufacturers that succumbed to the change of time. Not very long ago, MG seemed sentenced to the same sad fate, but now the company’s future could barely look sunnier.
After a three year production gap MG is back and boasts the financial support of multi-billion dollar Fortune 500 company, Shanghai Automobile Industry Corporation (SAIC). The model they chose to herald marque's return? A limited edition MG TF roadster, known as the MG TF LE500.
The LE500 looks virtually identical to the last MG TF that rolled off the production line in 2005, and you will have to look very closely to notice the differences which include a new bumper and grille. But MG is doing its best to make this model as attractive and special as possible in other ways.
For starters there is the exclusive production run of only 500 models – hence the model’s name – and each car boasts a unique production number as well as Limited Edition chrome and black MG badge.
The LE500 is also available in six special colours that will only be used on this model, and when you collect the keys for your new LE500 in Longbridge, MG will give you the red carpet treatment and have you sign a special register.
The deal-closer for the LE500, however, has to be its top-notch level of standard specification. “An equivalent MG TF in 2005, using the price list from April of that year, would have set you back around £24,000 (approximately R360 000),” says Steven Cox, Sales and Franchising Manager for the company. MG is asking only £16,399 (approximately R246 000) for the LE500.
Among the goodies that are included for this price are leather sport seats, 16-inch alloys, ABS brakes, rear park distance control, aircon and a hard top.
Small details impress
There are also a number of minor details that might just sway an enthusiast to haul out the cheque book.
Like the fact that the car has been entirely hand sprayed (because production numbers don’t yet warrant starting up the paint shop), ensuring an excellent coat of paint. Also, the inside of the bonnet has been given the full lacquer treatment that cleans really easy to help keep your LE500 in showroom condition.
MG has also tinkered with the engine to consolidate its parts with the production machinery in China where many of the components are manufactured, resulting in an engine that has essentially been completely reengineered. The cooling system has also been revised.
“The Chinese have done some of the work the original MG Rover never did,” says Cox, “like proper hot climate testing.” As a result the LE500 will be able to cope much better with hot summer days – a former shortcoming that had many local owners gritting their teeth in frustration.
This is all fine and dandy, but a tad of a problem if you’re not living anywhere near Longbridge.
Hang tight South Africa, MG will be unveiling a standard specification version of the new LE500 in the UK later this year, and according to Cox the company is already in talks with local importers to get MG back on South African roads as quickly as possible.
That version will also be “significantly cheaper” than the LE500 although the company is cagey to admit just how much. But it seems likely to be a real bargain for a British sports car.
Which brings us to the all-important question: Just how British is MG now? If you ask MG, very.
The company has its Research and Development Centre in Leamington Spa near Longbridge, and all models will be built at the traditional Longbridge plant to retain the “designed and built in UK” element.
Naturally, these models will rely heavily on components manufactured and sourced from China to keep costs down. For the LE500 that includes the bodies.
But according to MG’s Corporate Communications Manager, Eleanor De La Haye, the company’s new owners understand that Britain and Europe (and South Africa) have little interest in a “Chinese MG” – even if it would have been significantly cheaper to simply import fully assembled units from China.
According to De La Haye, MG owners Nanjing Automobile Company (NAC) and their parent company SAIC, are committed to retain the British heritage “because that is what makes MG tick”.
The LE500 might herald the return of an iconic British brand, but the company sees this as merely a foot in the door to a much brighter future. Four other models are scheduled between now and 2012 – including a supermini and an all-new sports car. The latter, however, has not progressed anywhere beyond the drawing board.
Same power, but better suspension balance
MG has always been known for its racy nature and entertaining ride and the LE500 doesn’t disappoint.
This model is powered by a 1,8-litre inline four cylinder engine that delivers the same amount of power (100 kW) and torque (165 Nm) as its predecessor.
It is quick with strong acceleration off the mark, but he LE500 doesn’t have the urgency and immediacy to secure the “fast” badge. Still, it is fun to drive.
On twisty roads it impresses with its sporty handling whilst managing an overall comfortable drive. A wrong turn down a farm road quickly proved that MG managed to strike a great balance between a stiff-as-an-ironing-board and excessively wallowy suspension.
On the inside the LE500 looks very different to its predecessor. An extensive use of black materials give it an elegant appeal, but the dated push buttons, high-gloss black plastic and poor finishing in places undermines an otherwise decent attempt.
Although the LE500 is essentially based on a car that has been around for 13 years, it still looks surprisingly fresh and attractive on the outside. MG would have done well to have spent more effort on creating an equally timeless and quality interior to complement the bodywork.
The MG TF LE500 is a great attempt at recovering some of MG’s lost glory and, bar a few substandard finishing touches, it is very likely to succeed in its conquest.
The fact that more than 80% of the limited edition LE500s already have homes, should be proof of that.