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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Chinese-owned British car brand MG is unrecognisable from its past

Budget models from a marque once famed for its sports cars leave us frustrated

When William Morris lent his surname to Morris Garages almost a century ago, he probably did not envisage the fate that would befall his subsequently abbreviated brand, MG.

Founded in England in 1924, MG went on to produce some of the country’s most enduring two-seater sports cars, from the MGA in the mid-1950s onwards. One of the best-known, the MGB, was among the first cars to feature crumple zones to protect occupants in the event of an accident. Ironic, then, that the rights to those two famous letters are now owned by SAIC from China – a country whose cars have become synonymous with bombing out on crash tests.

As the architect of so many beautiful motors, Morris would doubtless be spinning in his grave when it comes to the styling of the two new MG models that I get my hands on – the 360 saloon and the ZS compact SUV. The ZS still comes off like a cross-eyed Mazda; the 360, you could argue, is titled appropriately, given it looks anonymous from every angle. If a Toyota Corolla had a personality removal, this would more or less be the result. Several times during a weekend with the 360, I leave it in mall car parks and have to make a concerted effort to recognise it on my return.

But what the two cars have on their side is a rather major plus point: bargain-basement pricing. The 360 costs from Dh37,500; the ZS from Dh47,000. Those are not misprints.

The shield-like MG logo retains a superhero feel to it, which makes the ZS’s rear badge doubling as boot-release handle a smart move. Its interior finishes are closer to premium, compared to the basic 360, and they’re easy on the eye for the cash outlay, with the colourful touchscreen replete with Apple CarPlay.

The ZS is by far the more agreeable car of the two from behind the wheel, too. Well, until you get out on the open road, when the lack of acceleration is so terrifyingly acute that the first couple of times I put my foot down, I’m worried that something has physically broken or a floor mat is somehow obstructing the pedal. Thankfully, shifting the gearstick right into Sport just about boosts the ZS into some semblance of gentle life.

The 360’s struggles are even more epic, presumably on account of it being about 80 kilograms heavier than the ZS, and in all honesty it is a total pig to pilot until you get up to highway speeds. An egg timer would suffice for testing 0-to-100kph splits, with a measly 105hp on offer; both cars have 1.5-litre engines. The ZS is unfussy to drive, yet the 360’s handling is horrible – one slightly last-minute manoeuvre on Sheikh Zayed Road results in it swerving dangerously, so I shudder to think what might happen in the event of full emergency avoidance action.

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It does gain kudos, however, for the retro dash display that evokes Tron crossed with a 1980s digital watch – even if, troublingly, it’s tricky to tell the exact mark you have hit on the speedometer. You will also be distracted by the cruise control, which is hard to operate thanks to the borders of the four cruise-control buttons being indistinguishable from each other. Its reversing camera struggles in the dark. Oh, and the interior door handles stick.

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There is still a question mark regarding safety. The ZS’s Euro NCAP report last year expressed concerns about the safety of child passengers, as well as adults in the rear of the car. And there are other gripes: neither car has automatic headlamps; the ZS has a central cubby hole so tiny that you have to wonder who MG thinks is buying this car – presumably not families with junk to stash away; in both cars, the office-chair-esque seats make longer drives uncomfortable; and in my ZS, the air conditioning is hit and miss.

For the price, however, and with favourable fuel-consumption figures, MG is working comparative miracles. Keep your expectations as modest as your budget, and the chances are you will get more than you bargained for.