MG is the prodigal son of British motoring. It left our shores a penniless husk, sold to its current Chinese owners after the collapse of MG Rover in 2005, and returned home five years later with the MG 6 family car, hoping to be welcomed with open arms. It hasn’t quite worked out that way, however, with the 6 and the more recent 3 hatchback failing to create more than a Chinese whisper among British buyers. Are the brand's fortunes about to change with the MG GS, its entry into the exploding small SUV market?
Well, if you go for one of the cheaper versions, the GS certainly gives you a lot of car for your money; it’s quite a bit bigger than the class-leading Nissan Qashqai, but costs from just £14,995. Until now, we’ve only driven the manual version, which proved good value but was let down by its firm ride and basic interior plastics.
So at a much steeper £20,995 (including £1500 for the fancy seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox), how does the range-topping model shape up? The auto 'box can only be had in this Exclusive specification – uppermost among the GS’s three trim levels – which adds the likes of 18in alloys, sat-nav, electrically operated heated front seats and leather upholstery to the air-con, cruise control, reversing camera, DAB radio and Bluetooth of the mid-range Excite model.
Like all GS variants, it has a 164bhp 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol engine and front-wheel drive. It’s claimed to reach 62mph in a relatively swift 9.6sec, which is exactly the same as the manual version, although average fuel economy drops from 46.3mpg to 45.5mpg for the auto, and emissions are slightly higher, too.
What is the 2016 MG GS Exclusive DCT like to drive?
The engine is certainly strong enough, pulling well at higher revs to give more punch than most petrol rivals can muster. But while it’s easy to access the power in the smooth-shifting manual version, the automatic makes heavy weather of getting the best from the engine. The small, steering wheel-mounted gearshift paddles don’t work when the gear selector is in Drive, and even strong presses of the accelerator pedal don’t bring much acceleration.
Instead, you have to pull the shifter across into Sport mode to make the DCT gearbox keener to change down, but even then it will frequently try a couple of gears before settling on one, which is frustrating if you’re trying to overtake. It’s better to use the quick-shifting paddles to choose gears for yourself, although progress can be a bit jerky when accelerating hard from low speed.
Fortunately, the gearbox is better when you're negotiating traffic, and the engine isn’t too noisy during this kind of driving, either. The steering is light enough for easy manoeuvring through urban streets, and while the backwards view is limited by a small rear window, the large door mirrors and reversing camera help. The GS’s low-speed ride is problematic, though, with drains and Tarmac ridges sending a disruptive clatter through the bodywork.
On the motorway you have to put up with quite a lot of road noise, especially over coarser stretches, and there's a muted but audible drone from the engine at all times. True, the steering is nicely relaxed, but anything other than a perfectly flat surface causes the GS to jostle about, inhibiting comfort.
Despite this firm ride, there’s a fair amount of body roll when you tackle corners at speed, and the front tyres struggle for traction if you round a tight bend too aggressively. The GS’s unusually tall stance and this particular model’s relatively high weight contribute to this behaviour, and also bring significant dive from the front end under hard braking, although the brakes are powerful and easy to control.
The engine performs well on brisk countryside drives, but it also becomes vocal at high revs, blaring loudly towards the red line. And while the steering is accurate, it’s not overly responsive when turning in to corners.
What is the 2016 MG GS Exclusive DCT like inside?
The upgraded upholstery on Exclusive trim lifts the GS’s interior a bit, but the leather itself isn’t especially plush, and although there are further patches on the gear selector and around the centre console, the vast majority of interior surfaces are hard, cheap-feeling, textured plastic.
More impressive is the dashboard layout. The switches might look basic, but they're easy to reach and use once you know what’s where, and although the iGO sat-nav in the central infotainment screen is slow to load, it’s impressively responsive thereafter, with passable graphics.
There’s plenty of space for four tall occupants, with generous head and leg room all round, while a fifth person can sit in the middle of the rear bench in reasonable comfort, too. The GS a little darker than you might like in the back, however, because of the small side windows.
Boot space is another strong suit, with the GS offering more space than a Qashqai and no loading lip to heave luggage over. You can split and fold the rear seatbacks 60/40 to give a long, flat maximum load space, although the boot aperture is a bit narrow between the wheel arches and the Qashqai offers more space in this configuration.
Should I buy one?
You'll pay more for an automatic Qashqai, but Skoda will sell you a front-wheel-drive auto Yeti for £18,310, while the equivalent Suzuki Vitara is available from £19,849. True, both are slower than the MG GS and come with less equipment, but they're more efficient, better to drive and have higher-quality interiors, so are much better choices.
If you are going to buy a GS, go for the entry-level manual version. It gives you the same impressive space and five-year, 80,000-mile warranty as this range-topping car for a full £6000 less.
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MG GS Exclusive DCT
Engine size 1.5-litre, petrol
Price from £20,995
Torque 184lb ft
Top speed 112mph
Fuel economy (official combined) 45.5mpg
CO2/BIK band 141g/km/25%