On one recent occasion, I was handed the keys to the new MG ZS small SUV so that it could make way for another car heading for a photo shoot. I looked at it suspiciously, maybe even made a joke about being forced to move a Chinese car that looked like something between a Mazda CX-5 and a Kia Sportage, but then I got in.
There’s no denying that there is a general preconceived dislike of Chinese cars in the automotive media. Most of this has been warranted due to previous safety issues and build quality, but as I was about to find out, much of that has changed.
It’s vital to understand that this is simply history repeating itself, as it was the same attitude many took towards the South Korean brands a decade or more ago (and some still hold that view today). Except that the Chinese are likely going to do what the South Koreans did in half the time.
One only needs to look at what Volvo has produced since being bought by the Chinese to understand that fact. This same thinking applies to Jaguar Land Rover since it was taken over by India’s Tata. It’s what happens when Chinese money meets established brands – it not only substantially improves those brands, but also advances China’s ability to catch up to its foreign rivals by decades.
Unlike the South Koreans, which went on a hiring spree for the best German engineers and European designers, the Chinese took it a step further and decided just to buy up company after company, from Volvo to Lotus, MG and London Taxis, and plenty of others in the automotive technology segment, whether that’s for electric cars or autonomous driving.
Back to the MG ZS, here’s the deal – the top-spec ZS that came to our office is priced at just $23,990, and when you get inside it doesn’t feel like a $24K car. It has leather upholstery, proper infotainment system with Apple CarPlay, plenty of space and – generally speaking – feels almost on the same level of build quality as, say, the CX-3 that it competes with.
There are no glaring build-quality issues that would make you go “oh, I am not sure about that”. It feels bloody solid, which is further backed up by the brand’s seven-year warranty (against Mazda’s three).
So at this point, the guys in the office were yelling at me to stop feeling up the MG’s interior and actually reverse out of the garage, but instead of doing the normal around-the-block run and park back in, I took the Chinese SUV for a proper drive and it only impressed further.
Okay, so the 81kW/160Nm 1.0-litre turbo petrol isn’t exactly a powerhouse mated to the six-speed auto, but around Sydney’s traffic-congested suburbs and a quick burst on the highway, it certainly proved to be more than adequate.
Then there is the ride quality, which for its intended purpose is far better suited to Australian roads than some of the Japanese offerings I’ve recently sampled. Did I mention it's $24,000 and comes with everything?
The glaring issue, and perhaps the only reason why it still can’t be at the top of our recommendation list, is the four-star ANCAP safety rating thanks to a lack of AEB and a less-than-perfect score for the frontal offset test. Although, it’s worth mentioning that the brand did manage five stars with the larger GS SUV early last year.
The point here isn’t to defend the MG ZS. It is that considering where MG was three to five years ago, to where it is now, only shows you where MG will be in another five to 10 years – and that’s more than likely on the same footing as the Koreans and Japanese.
It's companies like Mazda in Australia (and globally) that should be most worried about the entry and rise of the Chinese manufacturers. Because as the likes of Hyundai and Honda take market share away from Mazda at the slightly higher end of the mainstream market, the Chinese will be pushing from the bottom up. And with their seemingly unlimited funding capacity, they will out-invest and outmanoeuvre smaller companies like Mazda that will be unable to keep up in the long term.
Of course, it’s not just MG. Haval, Great Wall, LDV and other Chinese manufacturers have also produced some interesting and massively improved cars in recent times and continue to progress at a rapid rate.
Also, and perhaps a vital point to consider, the evolution to electric vehicles makes it much easier for new manufacturers to enter the market, because ultimately it’s easier to make an electric car than it is a conventional vehicle. Also, the Chinese government is investing heavily into an electric future to benefit not only its attempts at reducing air pollution, but also to give its national companies an advantage.
Call me crazy, but there is no doubt in my mind that the Chinese automotive manufacturers and Chinese-made cars (for non-Chinese brands) are set to dominate the future of the automobile. It might take another five or 10 years, or perhaps even longer, but they are coming and they are taking no prisoners.