The best Chinese car ever made? We drive MG's giant-killing SUV
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It started with Japan, then Korea, and for seemingly the last decade the world has waited with baited breath for China to also stamp its authority on the mainstream western car market.
It seems a mere formality that the world's second largest economy will get its head around the motoring world sooner rather than later. And yet, progress outside of its borders has been slow. It's been 10 years since Chinese firm Geely was introduced to little old New Zealand, but very little has changed in the time since.
But, I've got an inkling about born-again brand MG. It returned to the Kiwi market last year, and aims to ramp things up in 2020 with the introduction of its MG ZS EV (which is set to be the cheapest electric car in New Zealand) and the pictured HS — its competitor against the mid-size Toyota RAV4, Mazda CX-5.
While the notion of a cheap EV is an interesting one, it’s the HS that probably holds more importance. This is the brand’s aspiring volume seller. It's also, by a reasonably decent margin, the best Chinese vehicle I've driven to date.
The one-day launch drive for the HS took place late last week in a gloomy Melbourne. Starting the day at Melbourne Airport, we'd loop through a string of winding, narrow patchily surfaced backroads to the trendy wine country of Yarra Valley. Big open plains to the horizon, grass recently returned green by the wet weather.
The young, house proud, two-wines-with-dinner type couple is where MG is hoping to see showroom success with the HS, as well as with financially savvy older buyers. The HS has been on offer in Australia for a few months now, where it’s been a very successful seller. Dealers have been selling them as fast as they’ve been getting them, to the point that the vehicles designated as media cars originally had to be sold off.
And from the go it’s clear to see why it holds such attraction. The HS’s pricing starts at a mere $31,990 for the entry-level Vibe, with the range-topping Excite positioned at $34,990. That means the top spec model is $1,000 cheaper than the base Toyota RAV4, but comes packed with monstrous amounts of standard equipment.
There's no all-wheel drive model just yet, but an AWD 2.0-litre turbo and plug-in hybrid are likely to join the line-up by the end of the year.
The jewel in the HS’s equipment crown is the MG Pilot safety suite that’s standard across the board. It includes radar cruise, active lane assist, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, autonomous emergency braking, automatic high-beams, a system that flags drivers of cyclists that are coming so that they don’t cause a danger by opening their doors … it’s very comprehensive, and its complemented by a standard 10.1in touchscreen, a digital cluster, a chilled centre console compartment, and more.
But, we’ve all seen this story before — Chinese manufacturers targeting sharp pricing and huge equipment levels. What makes the MG HS any different?
There’s a few things. MG, unlike most of its local contemporaries, brings with it a lengthy history and brand cache (just how much of which is relevant to the HS is ... err ... open for interpretation). And, more to the point, the HS is far more ‘together’ than any other Chinese car I’ve come across.
At MG’s ‘show and tell’ event last November its build quality was very impressive, as was the level of practicality. A boot capacity of 463L/1287L paired it nicely up against the opposition, as did all the well-executed patches of soft-touch surfaces, red stitching, and faux-brushed aluminium.
Given the strength of that first impression, the natural view would be to assume that the HS would disappoint in other areas like its driving experience. On paper, the HS’s turbocharged 1.5-litre petrol four seems adequate; bringing 124kW/250Nm to the party via a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic. And in practice it’s a combination that works well. Mostly.
The engine is loud when pinned, but settles into a surprisingly quiet and refined rhythm once it’s up to operating speed. In fact the whole HS cabin is rather calm and silent, indicative of a decent amount of effort made on insulation. The dual-clutch is the weak link, particularly in the Vibe where upshifts occasionally feel harsh and downshifts frequently feel slow.
The Excite adds paddles and a ‘Super Sport’ mode (activated via the comedy big red button on the steering wheel, just like on a Ferrari). Along with adding an extra element of control to the dual-clutch, the Excite’s transmission also feels like it might have a better tune given that it seemed happier most of the time in standard drive modes.
Steering is nice and light, and visibility all the way around is above par for this kind of SUV. The standard Maxxis tyres have quite a low grip threshold, and trading them for the Excite's much stickier Michelins on the Excite's 18in wheels transforms the HS into a rather decent drive.
The Michelins are one of a stack of reasons why the Excite shapes up as a better deal than its cheaper Vibe sibling. The seemingly better DCT tune, satnav, leather, electric tailgate, sport mode, and dual-climate make the $3,000 leap seem like more of a gentle skip.
It's at the point where there is almost no 'catch' at all with the MG HS. There's ample head, knee, and foot room in the back for adults, equipment levels border on the astonishing, it's got a five star ANCAP safety rating, and it comes with a five year unlimited kilometre warranty. But, before you sign on the dotted line, there are a few issues worth considering.
For one, ergonomics and usability still sit in the MG's 'could do better' basket. The 10.1in screen's menu layout is sound (as are its excellent black levels and frame rates, for any nerds that are wondering), but the way certain features like lane keep cross over from being controlled by the wheel and by the primary screen are an oddity.
For instance the lane keep will remain passive via the steering wheel or column stalk. It's only when you activate 'lane keep' in the lane assist 'Driving Assistance' menu in the touch screen that it will become 'active' — where it functions rather well when used on a clearly marked traditional motorway.
The radar cruise does a good job, too, particularly in braking to a stop. But it struggles with following vehicles at low speeds and, annoyingly, adjustment of cruise control functions doesn't automatically pop up on the digital cluster unless you have the cruise control menu up. This means the driver doesn't know what speed they'll have adjusted the system to until they manually access the dedicated cruise control menu.
In short, it can be quite fiddly. But these are the sorts of issues that are easy to iron out.
And yes, there's also that tiny detail that it looks like MG's design team copied the homework of a raft of other manufacturers in the HS's creation. Certainly there's a lot to be learned parking an HS next to a Mazda CX-5 and counting the similarities.
But when the outcome is so comprehensively executed — from price to space to equipment — it's easy to let go of the little things. The MG HS is a more-than-competent entrant in an already busy class, with pricing that's simply unrivalled.
More of this, and MG will be a household name again in no time.