You have to feel for MG. Once the embodiment of the sporty British runabout in the Fifties and Sixties, it has since been involved in a game of automotive hot potato that has seen its iconic octagonal badge welded onto British Leyland-built dogs such as the Metro and sporty, but nonetheless Rover-based, models as the ZR.

Now under the auspices of SAIC Motor, the MG brand has recently been given a new lease of life that the Chinese carmaker hopes will combine the marque’s heritage with a modern edge to entice younger buyers. The firm’s first foray into our market with the MG6 received a lukewarm reception, however. Will its little brother do the MG badge proud and capture a meaningful slice of the light-hatchback market?

Unlike its Rover-based predecessors, the MG3 is unencumbered by lineal styling cues and its designers were essentially given a clean sheet from which start. e result is crisp and visually appealing.

While the silhouette, with its wedge-shaped profile and short rear overhang, is pretty much standard hatch fare, there are myriad neat details that help the car cut a distinct gure the car cut a distinct figure (not least the vivid upward slashes of the bumper-mounted LED daytime-running lights).

The exterior design is further distinguished by a triangular drop-line motif present in the unbroken sweep from headlamp apex to the badge set in the slim radiator grille, and the lower edge of the rear windscreen. The whole aspect is studded with sporty touches, such as a faux rear diffuser with squared-off exhaust finisher, deep side sills and, in the case of the Style model tested here, a two-tone finish for the 16-inch alloy wheels. There is also a variety of decals available that allows owners to visually individualise their cars á la Mini or Fiat 500.

Although not as striking as the exterior, the cabin’s facia layout is not without its charm. As with the exterior’s drop-line theme, there’s a resounding oval motif evident from the rear-view mirror down to the instrument binnacle, central airvents, the housing for the function-rich audio system and the air-con controls at the bottom. The plastics are of the hard, patina-type fare expected in this class, but everything feels well bolted together and the leather that clads the steering wheel is of a decent standard. Good headroom and a longfor-the-segment 2 520 mm wheelbase lend the cabin a spacious feel and there’s enough legroom on offer for six-footers to comfortably sit behind one another, but at 200 dm3 the
boot is merely adequate.

As a daily driver, the MG3 is generally a pleasant partner, but the ride can become unsettled over pockmarked surfaces. Dynamically it’s no dullard and, thanks to a direct and feelsome hydraulically assisted steering setup, doesn’t suffer from the disconnectedness between driver input and car’s response that afflicts many Chinese vehicles.

Although the perched driving position initially lends the MG3 a slightly top-heavy feel, good levels of grip and that taut suspension keep excess body roll in check. In fact, the MG3 treads new ground for a Chinese car by being reasonably entertaining to drive. We say “reasonably” because, while the underpinnings are willing to play, the powertrain doesn’t follow suit.

On paper, the 78 kW and 137 N.m served up by the MG3’s 1,5-litre engine looks sufficient to give the 1 219 kg hatchback a reasonable, if not rocket-like, turn of pace, but the execution and manner of the delivery are found wanting.

The MG3’s unit gathers momentum in unsteady strides, being slow to spool up and rather flat-footed below the 3 500 to 4 000 r/min mark.

Things improve once the revs climb into the sweet spot, but getting there entails stirring a gearbox that, although not typically Chinese sloppy in its action, requires a measured hand to execute swift shifts until the engine ever so briefly finds its feet before becoming breathless at the top end (where mechanical coarseness raises its head).

But the engine note wasn’t the only noise that caught the attention of the CAR test team. During pull-away and braking, a series of groans and creaks emanated from the rear of the MG3. A mechanical inspection by an MG dealership didn’t unearth any obvious causes, but a second test unit was sent our  way. Unfortunately, the noises were again present under similar circumstances. After further mechanical inspection of the car, MG South Africa revealed that the source of the noise was not a failed part but rather the torsion bar, which required loosening and secure retightening.

Given that the locally available cars we tested are early units sourced from MG’s Chinese plant and consequent models will be imported from Thailand, we’ll reserve judgement on mechanical and structural build quality until such test units are available to us.

As a value-for-money proposition, the MG3’s near-R190 000 price sticker may be unpalatable to some, but it nets you a lot of standard kit, including auto lights and wipers, reverse parking sensors, an audio system with smartphone and iPod integration, hill-start assist and cruise control. But a glance at the model range reveals that better value resides with the mid-range Wired-spec model, which only omits such nondeal- braking items as the park sensors, auto cruise, lights and wipers, and the Style’s deeper side sills to shave R15 000 from the price.

While some may argue that the MG badge lends this car a spot of nostalgia tempered with a bit of the “Cool Britannia” colour, the yawning generation gap between those that affectionately remember and savoured the likes of the MGB means that such connotations are tenuous.

Were the MG3 a dreadful car, we wouldn’t feel quite so disappointed with it, but because it suffers from a similar case of unfulfilled potential that we all too often see with vehicles from China, we’re left lamenting what could have been. It’s got the looks to turn heads, as well as the packaging and kit required of its boutique bearing, but the engine and our nagging doubts regarding build quality mar what is otherwise a good little car. Hopefully the upcoming Thaibuilt models will go some way to making the MG3 a genuine contender in its segment.