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MG has had a fairly rocky start to its new start as a Chinese-owned company in the Australian market. So far the MG3 and MG6 have lagged behind mainstream rivals, not helped by the fact they launched globally around 2010 and haven't received a major update since.
Now under SAIC Motor, the brand has finally launched its first properly new model Down Under, the 2017 MG GS, which will compete in the medium SUV segment against the likes of the Hyundai Tucson, Mazda CX-5 and Toyota RAV4, though it's priced closer to smaller SUVs like the Mazda CX-3 and Nissan Qashqai.
Measuring 4500mm long and 1855mm wide, the GS is actually 25mm longer and 5mm wider than the Tucson, while its 2650mm wheelbase is 20mm short of the Hyundai.
In the flesh, the GS looks smaller than it actually is, though the interior feels airy and spacious, while the 483L boot – which expands to 1336L with the rear seats folded – is well ahead of competitors like the soon-to-be-replaced Mazda CX-5 (403L) and Ford Escape (406L).
At the GS's local launch at the Australian Automotive Research Centre in Victoria, we were able to test three of the four variants that are available locally – with only the manual-equipped entry-level Vivid absent on the day.
As a result, we only got a chance to sample dual-clutch versions of the GS, though both 1.5-litre and 2.0-litre models were available for testing – albeit under vastly different circumstances.
First up was the front-wheel drive 1.5-litre petrol with the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, which develops a healthy 119kW of power at 5600rpm and 250Nm of torque 4500rpm, which we were able to sample on a twisty gravel track.
Despite the mix of loose surfaces and the lack of all-wheel drive, the GS Core feels impressively stable. The cabin is also well-insulated from the dirt and stones being kicked up along the way.
Going through some corners at speeds up to 80km/h, the front-wheel drive GS feels sure-footed, with the traction control even allowing the tail to kick out ever so slightly – which excites the rally driver in all of us.
After our tame three or so laps of the dirt track, we're given the opportunity to ride shotgun with racing driver, Renato Loberto, who drives the GS like a rally car – even adding a Scandinavian flick on the tight final corner – demonstrating the GS's capabilities at the limit on loose surfaces.
While just about no SUV owners are ever going to try and get their car sideways like Loberto did, it's impressive just how well the front-wheel drive GS coped with the dirt, and how comfortable it is across those conditions.
The second session of driving is on the skidpan, where we are able to sample the all-wheel drive Essence X with the 162kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbo – outputs that, on paper at least, are on par with the Volkswagen Golf GTI hot hatch.
Wet and dry motorkhana courses are set up, and again the GS impresses with its handling capabilities – offering direct steering and plenty of grip in tight manoeuvres – though the 2.0-litre's performance doesn't feel as brisk as the outputs suggest on paper.
On launch, the six-speed dual-clutch transmission feels lazy and doesn't shift as sharply as units found in most Volkswagen models. However, once in the torque band, at 2500rpm, the 2.0-litre turbo pulls strongly.
What isn't so great is the engine note – it sounds stressed and thrashy, which doesn't match the sporty vibe MG is trying to achieve with this model. Additionally, the front-biased all-wheel drive system tends to understeer at the limit and a loud shudder transmits through the cabin, though you wouldn't experience this in normal driving.
There's a bit of body roll too, though it isn't excessive, and it's nothing out of the ordinary for a vehicle of this type.
During our time with the GS we are also able to get a good look and feel of the cabin when we aren't ripping up the dirt or tearing around the skidpan – and again, it's a pretty solid car.
A main complaint of the interior is the hard plastics across the dash and doors, though everything does feel well-screwed together. There are, however, softer faux leather trim adorning the centre console bin lid – which doubles up as an armrest up front – along with the elbow pads in the doors, giving you somewhere comfortable to rest your arms at a standstill or on longer drives.
The leather-like material on the steering wheel feels pretty good in the hand, while the leather-accented seats of the Soul and Essence X are comfy with good thigh support, though they could use a little more side bolstering. In terms of the material used, it looks like the real leather, and doesn't feel rubbery like the trims used by some other brands. Switching into the fabric pews of the Core, comfort is improved even further thanks to the softer characteristics of textile material.
Up front in the Core is a small multimedia screen, which looks pretty piddly compared to the larger 8.0-inch unit used in the Soul and Essence X – which also adds satellite navigation – though the base Vivid doesn't get a screen at all. The 8.0-inch unit is surprisingly snappy navigating through menus, offering customisable home screens while also doubling up as a secondary climate controller.
When in reverse, the rear-view camera (on the 8.0-inch screen at least) is very clear, while the static guidelines make parking that little bit easier.
In the back, the GS offers plenty of head- and legroom for taller passengers, though the seat base is positioned a little low, meaning six-foot-something travel buddies, like this reviewer, will have to push their knees up a little higher and may not get the full support of the seat.
A fold-out central armrest features dual cupholders, while the rear air vents – standard from Core up – are very rare at this price point and raise comfort levels for rear passengers significantly on hotter days.
Following the quick stints behind the wheel at the testing facility, we enjoy a quick road drive of the GS to the lunch venue, which gives us a taste of how the Chinese-made SUV copes with extra-urban roads.
Once again we are behind the wheel of the 2.0-litre Essence X, and while the effortless acceleration of the larger motor impresses in normal road conditions, there is quite a lot of tyre roar transmitted into the cabin. The GS's steering remains direct and well-weighted on public roads, and is light enough to make navigating car parks a simple task.
At higher speeds the MG feels solid and planted on the road, while the brakes are progressive and predictable.
Starting at $23,990 before on-road costs for the entry-level Vivd manual and topping out at $34,990 for the all-wheel drive Essence X with the dual-clutch transmission, the GS range offers a variety of options for different price points.
Couple its sharp pricing with the company's six year, unlimited warranty with roadside assistance, the GS offers compelling value for money, particularly for the $28,990 Soul which gets most of the Essence X's look and features minus the more powerful engine and all-wheel drive.
It's still a fair way behind segment leaders like the Volkswagen Tiguan and Mazda CX-5, but the MG GS is a sign that Chinese cars are heading in the right direction, and could soon challenge the Japanese and Koreans if they continue on this upward path.
We'll wait to get a GS through the CarAdvice garage for a full review and rating, but we will say it's a step in the right direction for the Chinese-owned British brand.