MG Rover's models might look the business, but take a peek beyond the facelifts and their age becomes instantly apparent.
By Richard Bremner
Executive editor, Autocar magazine
The Rover 75 remains popular, seven years after it was launched
Its cars are ancient by the standards of an industry where models are getting ever younger in the quest to win over fussy customers.
The last time it launched a totally new product of its own was late in 1998, when the Rover 75 was announced.
The company was still owned by BMW at that point, the German firm providing the substantial resources necessary to launch a competitive and modern car.
Since 2000, when BMW dispensed with Rover, it has only launched two completely new models: the slow-selling CityRover, a sub-standard supermini based on the Indian-built Tata Indica, and the MG SV, a low volume, carbonfibre-bodied attempt at a supercar of which fewer than 50 have been sold.
Neither was totally new: the Italian-designed Indica first appeared in 1998, while the SV is based on the Qvale Mangusta, a (very) obscure Italian sports car.
New model army
Yet MG Rover has hardly been idle, launching hordes of variations on its core model range, several of which have met with decent success.
The Rover 25 is older than it looks
That core range consists of three models - the 25, 45 and 75 - together with the MG TF sports car.
The Rover range remains the company's most popular, despite a recent dip, and the 25 its biggest seller.
It's the smaller cars, the 25 and 45 hatchbacks, that are its most uncompetitive models.
The 45 is a vehicle from another era. It was launched as the Rover 400 in 1995, but was actually based on a Honda Civic several years older than that.
It has had two facelifts since, and though it is a pleasant enough drive, it is completely outmoded.
The only reasons to buy it would be price and loyalty to Rover, as well as reliability.
The 25 isn't much younger, but its exterior design, all Rover's work, was and is attractive, and is a key reason why the car has continued to sell in surprising numbers despite its antiquity.
Moreover, the 25 has converted well to an MG, though again, there is no older supermini out there.
We mustn't forget the cringingly-named Streetwise either - though most of the buying public have. A jacked up, faux four-wheel drive that, in truth, is a better effort than similar devices from VW (the execrable Polo Dune) and Citroen with its silly C3 XTR.
The ZR has helped MG Rover sales hold up
The Rover 75 is far and away the company's most competitive product, and despite being six years old - more than pensionable by Japanese standards - it is still competent, and much-liked by owners who appreciate its quiet charm, reliability and quality.
This car still does well in owner surveys. It's a well-engineered car, and that is why MG Rover has long dreamed of being able to develop further models from its platform.
Indeed, it is this strategy that it has been pursuing with Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC).
The 25, 45 and 75 are also available as more sporting MGs, confusingly labelled ZR, ZS and ZT.
While the decision to rebadge these Rovers as MGs might have seemed like cynical opportunism, their clever restyling and retuning won very favourable reviews when they were launched in 2001.
And as sales of the Rover versions of the cars declined, the MGs more than compensated.
For a while, the cheapest of them, the ZR, was even the best-selling hot hatch in the country. It still sells modestly well now.
The MG ZT is more modern than its parent, the Rover 75
And they're all fun to drive, an ingredient increasingly absent from modern cars - even supposedly sporting editions.
Yet the ZR and ZS feel ancient, despite the facelifts they received last year.
They lack modern features, modern finishes and modern styling - though the ZR still looks good - and only make sense if the price is right.
The ZT, being based on the 75, is more modern and can be had with a full complement of airbags and a few sophisticated features.
But it, too, is showing its age, and the introduction of an extreme V8 version - whose creation involved converting the car from front- to rear-wheel drive - has done little to boost sales, even though it's an amusing drive.
The company also facelifted the popular MGF sports car and with impressive speed - enabling it to maintain its position as Britain's most popular roadster as the MG TF.
Though dated, it's not a bad car, and has recently received modest upgrades.
That said, it's a decade old, not marvellously finished and faces strong competition from a brand new Mazda MX-5. Like the rest of the range, it needs replacing.
MG Rover has failed to launch a completely new model because that costs around £500m, a sum it cannot hope to raise independently.
Hence the search for a partner, which began on the first day of MG Rover's founding under Phoenix Venture Holdings, back in spring 2000.
To continue selling the current range in substantial numbers before new products arrive, in two to three years, is a huge task.
They need further costly facelifts, they need price cuts and they need determined selling.
Yet the Rover and MG brands are known across large tracts of the planet, unlike SAIC.
And that's why the Chinese giant may want the company.
Is Rover in desperate need of some new ideas? Or is there still life in the Rover brand? We'd like to hear from you.
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The following comments reflect the balance of opinion we have received so far:
I'm sorry to say but I think the writer is spot on. Rover are living in the 90's and cars have moved on. Of particular concern must be the diesel engined Rovers which sound dreadful compared to modern competitors and the MG "sports" cars that are awful to look and (bar the really big engined ones)unable to keep up with diesel sportsters like the Seat Leon. I'm not anti Rover, I'm in the MG owners club, but I think the management have failed both their customers and their workforce with such shortsightedness and their increasingly dull products.
Rick Hough, Knutsford, Cheshire, UK
Constant unjustified and ill-informed sniping by the British media has wrecked confidence in the brand.
Much responsibility for the current situation and those West Midlands livelihoods that are at stake must be born by those with the poison pen.
Andrew, Herts, UK
I am an owner of a 1972 MGB that I have had for 24 years. I am not the only person in the US to love, appreciate and most importantly, know what an MG is.
So, if I have said it once, I have said it a thousand times, MG needs to come back to America.
I realise that they do not have a distribution network, but how hard would it be to sell them through Jaguar and or Land Rover dealers?
The 75/ZT was designed from the outset to be sold in America. The V6 and (obviously) the V8 are federalised, the V6 in the Freelander and the V8 in Mustangs and others.
Federalise the TF, it could not be that hard, Lotus is doing it with the Elise. MGs are even sold in Mexico for crying out loud. I purchased a new 2003 SAAB 9-3 since I had no ZT as an option. Many others in my MG club would consider buying one if available. Several have even considered going to Mexico to get one.
BMW has done a good job selling the Mini here. The MG name had far more recognition than Mini. Imagine what could have been done with MG and what should be done with MG.
David, Dallas, Texas USA
The real villain of the piece in all this is BMW who took Rover when they were at the top of their game, raped them of their best assets and left the rest of the company for dead.
Those death throes have been protracted, but let's not lose sight of who's really to blame for the company's current predicament.
P Flint, UK
There's lots of life in the old dog yet. What Rover has always needed was the level of funding necessary to design totally new models. The expertise and spirit is there already. Do not forget, Rover engineers designed most of the new Mini.
Henry Oluwole, London
Rover cars are great and made in England. The cars are very reliable, its just a shame everyone in this country prefers to send their money abroad and buy French or German cars.
Michael Hargrave, London, UK
MG Rover has to survive, if not for the good of the Midland than for the good of British Workmanship. The 75 is one of the best value for money cars on the road today and well regarded throughout the motor industry.
If Rover are to start to move forward they should stop wasting money on stupid projects such as SV and Tata.
Aggie Weston, Solihull, West Mids.
It's dead - we might as well bury it now. I don't see the government giving me any money because of terrible business decisions I've made in the past.
Rover have utterly failed to advertise effectively and have suffered greatly from the fat cat antics of the Phoenix management.
The management also failed to capitalise on the successes of the 75, an elegant car that follows the old Rover principles of refined style and comfort, but have instead chosen to invest in the disastrous Streetwise, CityRover and the ugly V8 version that bastardises the design of the 75.
What are they doing? I could have done much better myself, even though I am neither an advertising exec nor an industrial manager. Shame on them for appalling choices and their destruction of the Rover brand.
Michael Kilpatrick, Cambridge UK
The ability of the British press to do MG Rover down defies belief.
The 25 and 45 are old, but many top sellers are too. This never gets mentioned.
The 75 and ZT are competitive with anything out there, and frequently rated above more trendy German rivals in surveys.
Whenever they are reviewed in markets where the anti-MG Rover prejudice is not rife, they come up smelling of roses. I drive a 75 and often entertain colleagues from America or Europe. They are all amazed when they look at and ride in my car.
Japanese cars need renewal every 5 years. They are so dull! German cars stay around longer. It's seen as a sign of classic design, not being old-fashioned.
Richard Wilton, Reading, Berks
I own a (now) 4-year-old top of the range Rover 75 diesel with well over 100,000 miles, all done with no faults or unwanted visits to the dealers.
Would I buy another one? Yes most definitely, It is a seriously under-rated motor car.
Rover deserve to survive, they can make very good cars when left alone to do so.
Adrian, Southam, Warwickshire
I have always liked the brand and only recently was in the market for a new car. The 75 Tourer appealed, but my concern being how long the company might remain in business and parts be available. High depreciation was my other concern.
Paul Penfold, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.
Why don't they come out with a hybrid car. Toyota did and have a three month back order.
The UK has the most expensive petrol. Oil prices are going through the roof. The government is trying to lower greenhouse emissions and there is talk of a £100m bridge loan.
Wouldn't getting them to make a hybrid 60mpg car kill about 4 birds with 1 stone!
Mark Yates, Berkshire
Rover are constantly having bad press and its a shame. Yes, they have old models but they also need a serious injection of money to develop new models in order to survive.
SAIC is exactly what it needs. I feel that this latest bout of publicity is purely speculation. Its worrying for the people of Rover and their suppliers.
Rover should have been put out of its misery years ago. How much longer will politicians try and swim against free market economics and keep the "English Patient" alive? It's pulse has been missing for a long time.
I think BMW should take some of the blame for the situation MG Rover is currently in.
After all, the two biggest cash cows in the old Rover Group (Land Rover and Mini) no longer form a part of the company.
If BMW hadn't selfishly held on to the Mini, that alone could have provided most of the funding for a 45 replacement.
Shame on BMW for leaving MG Rover with nothing but the 75 platform and a loan too small to allow new product development.
Were BMW worried that Rover might provide too great a competition?
Peter Richardson, Birmingham, UK
I bought a practically new Rover 200 6 years ago and it has been generally reliable and enjoyable to drive.
My wife likes it much better than the previous Peugeot 306. I would buy a new Rover 25 provided its refinement had kept pace with the march of time and provided there was confidence that the firm would survive.
David Ferguson, Ripon, N. Yorkshire
MG-Rover is still a very capable manufacturer. Most of the design staff currently working on the 45s' replacement are the same people who designed the new Mini.
The Rover K-series engine is advanced, so much so that Jaguar and Aston Martin licence the technologies used for use in their own supercar engines.
Rover is probably the most reliable of the mainstream manufacturers. You buy a Rover, and you are buying a car that is more reliable than a Renault, Peugeot, Citroen, or even a Mercedes-Benz. Don't just take my word for it, look at BBC Top Gears' reliability survey results.
Nick, Cardiff, UK
Its interesting to note if the police/local government etc. had all sourced their cars from Rover they would be a lot closer to the magic break even number of 180,000 cars per year sold. French and German police and government do this. Why do our services spend our tax money on foreign cars?
Rob Wilson, London England
Perhaps Rover's sales and reputation would be higher if the public services in this country (police especially) were to show a little more commitment to indigenous manufacturers. I do not enjoy seeing BMW and Volvo police cars, and Prince Charles stepping out of an Audi. This is a legitimate way for the government to support British industry without violating EU state aid rules. MG Rover must survive.
Dan Lockton, Cambridge, UK
No mention ever gets made of the drastic lowering of losses, the top selling ZR, etc. In fact nothing is ever positive. It is all negative. The press have a lot to answer for, the BBC included. They constantly slag this country and its industries off . They will never be happy until all this country does is import goods and people.
No mention ever gets made that the Corsa is based on the Nova 1982 chassis, of the new Astra on the previous Astra chassis.
Keep going press. One day your turn will come and all the reporting will be done from abroad.
People should start to realise that a country without a manufacturing industry isn't a country anymore.
PS Bet you don't print this!
Robert, MG ZT 2004 driver, Leeds
The 75 and it's ZT spin-off are the only decent cars in Rover's current lineup, and with dwindling sales there is no decent prospect of new models, which are essential in the current fast-moving world of cars.
People buy foreign cars because of better perceived quality; and, in the case of the 25 & 45 (and ZR & ZS), these quality issues, and aged dynamics, are in fact a problem.
Given the choice of a Rover 75 or a BMW 3-series, I am afraid to say that I would choose the car with a proven track record in reliability and driver-involvement - the German car.
Also there is the not-too-minor detail of the BMW retaining far more of its original value over the years.
Sean Cotter, Edinburgh, UK
When you compare a new rover (like a 45) to similar models built by its competitors - Vauxhall Astra, Honda Civic, Ford Focus - the truth hits you: The Rover isn't quite as good and costs £2000 more.
I'm amazed they're still in business. Clearly the fault is with the designers, not the builders. Japanese cars built in Swindon or Sunderland are superbly constructed, run well and look good.
I run a business with 11 company cars. Most are Rovers and they are excellent value for money. Much cheaper to buy than other makes and very reliable in use. They might depreciate but so did my Mercedes as soon as it had higher than average mileage.
We'll miss them when they are gone.
John Garner, Nottingham
Rover is dead, I am sorry to say it but there is no way they can go on selling outdated (even facelifted) cars. The public are not that silly. RIP Rover
Mat Hammond, Brighton, UK
I have a V8 ZT 260, I have run a number of SAAB, BMW and Volvo's before and this is the best car I have ever had. It is fast comfortable and has bags of character, with its genuine Blue Collar Detroit Metal under the bonnet. It made in Britain and outperforms anything from Audi and BMW that cost 10K more.
A car Britain should be proud of.
Graham Ariss, Warwick UK
We've seen what MG Rover can do with very little (make a supercar, build a range of sporting saloons, with the ZS being regarded as the best handling Front wheel drive car of all time.
The rover range, despite the 45's and 25's age, are still competitive with a great range of engines. The British public who want to see MGR fail should be absolutely ashamed. In any other country this would just not happened.
Andrew Carr, Swansea, Wales
The vindictive battering MG Rover has taken from the press is a disgrace. Few facts, just innuendo and speculation. These people write as if there are no consequences of their actions.
MG Rover sells fast, well-made, reliable cars. You cannot but be impressed after driving one. But instead of trying one for themselves, most people accept the prejudices of others and don't make their minds up for themselves.
We the British aspire to driving just Audis, BMWs and Mercs. It's a disgrace. Shame on us.
Ian Flynn, Izumo, Japan
I fully support MG-Rover as the only remaining volume British motor maker, and hope the government does the same.
Although their products are old they are still good. Even today the 25 and ZR models look superb. If they had German badges everyone would be drooling over them. I've had a 216 and now a 25 and wouldn't hesitate to get another Rover if possible.
Simon Mellor, Huddersfield, W Yorks
I would suggest that Rover tries to take back a key market for big cruising cars. The police.
In the 80's the police drove big British cars, either Fords or Rovers. Nowawadays it is Volvos and BMWs that demonstrate this image of strength and power that the big police cars engender.
The question is whether Rover can make the 75 into a decent police car and then make it attractive to the police.
David, Basingstoke, Hants