JETTA, Civic, Elantra, Focus, Cruze. Four-door saloons that each represent a compelling purchase argument for buyers with a budget of roughly R250 000. In the case of the VW, German thoroughness is combined with a rock-solid reputation; the Honda relies heavily on its reliability record; the Hyundai is a newcomer that, with its value proposition and refinement, has taken the market by surprise; the Ford is the dynamic standard in the C-saloon segment; and the Chevrolet majors on space and budget pricing.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Renault Fluence has been a relative sales hit since its local introduction last year. Currently, it’s the French carmaker’s third-best selling model after the Sandero and Mégane (on which it is largely based), and outsells the Clio most months. As we established in a comparative test between a Fluence 1,6 Expression and Honda Ballade (May 2011), the Renault offers good cabin space and comfort at a reasonable price. As such, it makes a strong case in this segment where value for money and practicality mostly outweigh badge appeal and dynamic talent. However, at R249 900, the Fluence 2,0 Privilege (the only 2,0-litre version) has more to prove to justify choosing it over the established vehicles mentioned at the head of this test.

If the Renault has to scale Thabana Ntlenyana, the other car in this comparative test, the MG6 1,8T four-door Luxury (a hatch is also available at identical pricing), stands at the foot of Kilimanjaro. The MG badge wears the scars of an illustrious and, in recent times, complicated history that creates both expectation of the now Chinese-owned (SAIC Motor Corporation Limited) brand and scepticism because of its chequered ownership in the past. However, SAIC is a large, long-established company, and assembly of the MG6 (after being shipped over from China in knock-down form) takes place in Longbridge in the United Kingdom under the direction of many of the engineers who worked on the well-received Rover 75 and MG ZT of the 2000s. On paper, the 6’s combination of 1,8-litre turbopetrol, multilink rear suspension, hydraulic steering setup and price of R239 900 for this mid-spec Luxury model promise to continue the MG tradition of producing accessibly priced, sporty vehicles.

So, putting practicality, value and specification front and centre in this test (while not ignoring driving appeal or performance), how does the Frenchman compare with the Chinese saloon?

The Renault administers the first substantial blow when you enter the cabin. In terms of standard spec, few vehicles under half-a-million rand can match it. Auto lights, wipers and dimming of the rear-view mirror, leather upholstery, climate and cruise control, hands-free entry and drive, electric windows and mirrors (heated and with an electric folding function), rear PDC, sat-nav, an uprated sound system with USB and aux inputs, and Bluetooth are standard. The MG6 can counter with only air-con, electric windows and mirrors, rear PDC, cruise control and a comprehensive sound system. Admittedly, the Deluxe model equals the Fluence Privilege’s spec, but it costs an eye-watering R269 900.

It’s not an auspicious start for the Chinese vehicle, but its woes don’t end there. Initially, the cabin architecture and finish seem on par with other vehicles in this class but, after some time behind the nice-to-hold steering wheel, some glaring faults become apparent. The dash and doors tops are covered in a plush, moulded material, the grab handles are smoothly damped and the rooflining is a quality item. However, lower your gaze and you notice iffy plastics on most surfaces (and an ill-fitting glove-box lid on our test vehicle). The controls for the air-conditioning work with a recalcitrant action and the buttons for the confusing sound system have too much play in their housings. Worse still are the controls mounted on the steering wheel – the thumb wheels especially make accurate use close-to impossible – and the overwrought handbrake release that had a habit of catching testers’ fingers along its bottom edge.

The MG redeems some favour with its space utilisation and seating comfort (most team members found the front seats very comfy). The driver’s chair remains a tad too high in its lowest setting but otherwise space front and rear is excellent for a car in the C-segment. It bests the Fluence for rear legroom and almost matches it on other measurements. Finally, at 432 dm3 with the rear bench in place and 1 096 dm3 with the backrest folded forward, the boot is large by class standards.

Compared with the MG, the Fluence’s cabin is a masterclass in understated style. All controls are where you’d expect to find them, most surfaces are either soft to the touch or rubberised and the cheaper, thinner surfaces (of which there are a few) are sited in areas that are rarely graced by touch or sight. The Arkamys 3D sound system provides excellent clarity, while the TomTom-developed sat-nav system is a peach to use.

Only beaten by the MG in rear-seat legroom, the Fluence offers sufficient space for five adults (the rear bench is almost flat), and a widely adjustable driver’s seat and reach-and-rake-adjustable steering column. Its boot is slightly smaller when the rear seat is in place, but surpasses the MG’s figure when in full load-volume configuration.

Under their lightly sculpted bonnets, these two challengers take very different routes to reach a surprisingly similar conclusion. The MG has a 1,8-litre turbopetrol that delivers a class-best 118 kW and 215 N.m between 2 500 and 4 500 r/min through a five-speed manual gearbox. The Renault opts for a more conventional 2,0-litre naturally aspirated engine (shared with some Nissan products) that counters with 105 kW and 197 N.m at a fairly high 3 750 r/min. It has the advantage of a closely stacked six-speed gearbox with a tall final ratio to keep engine speed commendably low at highway speeds.

From these figures, the MG creates the impression that it would leave the Renault for dead in sprinting ability. We were therefore baffled when comparing their figures after performance testing had been completed. Yes, the MG did win the zero-to-100 km/h drag race, posting a time of 9,24 seconds, but this figure falls short of the manufacturer-claimed time of 8,4 seconds. The Renault wasn’t disgraced, reaching three-figure speeds in 9,67 seconds (0,73 seconds faster than the carmaker claims). In overtaking acceleration, however, the French vehicle turned the tables and over most increments posted a faster time. It was only after we lined them up on the scales that the performance-disparity dilemma was solved: the MG weighs a full 147 kg more than the Fluence, which is surprising given that they are so evenly matched in size. It seems the revived MG brand has a thing or two to learn about weight management.

The two vehicles deliver their power in divergent ways, too. Where the Renault’s easily modulated controls are light to the point of completely detaching the driver from the action and the engine remains smooth but anodyne all the way to the red line, the MG has a recalcitrant clutch and shift action (especially from first to second) that came close to spoiling the driving experience for some testers. Similarly, its engine shows a disappointing lack of enthusiasm to chase the upper reaches of its rev range; vibration and noise soon intrude to the extent that the driver has no choice but to hook the next gear.

It’s unfortunate that the Chinese vehicle’s drivetrain is ultimately such a disappointment because of one surprising and delightful aspect: its dynamic repertoire. It steers with fluency and directness, body control in corners and over undulations is very good and the ride, although firm, remains well damped so that road irregularities are shrugged off in brief, drama-free movements. It’s a commendable achievement and testament to prolonged development on the United Kingdom’s troubled road surfaces.

The Fluence, on the other hand, is no Renaultsport. Most of the time, it has that softly sprung, loping gait that French vehicles used to be known for before they became German-centric in their suspension calibration. However, hit a protruding surface imperfection and the rear especially (where it employs a simpler torsion-beam setup compared with the MG’s multilink arrangement) feels underdamped as the car bucks and weaves slightly before regaining composure. Driver enjoyment takes a further knock due to the wooden, lifeless steering action and roly-poly body control. It’s by no means poor, but feels somewhat off the pace in this segment and in comparison with the MG.
In terms of safety, both vehicles stopped fairly well during our 10-stop emergency braking test owing to their standard ABS with EBD and brake assist. The MG’s brakes are a touch grabby in day-to-day use, but otherwise its anchors work just fine. We encountered no such problems with the Fluence.
The French car bests its rival for standard safety features; whereas the Fluence has six airbags and ESP, the MG boasts the latter but has just four ‘bags, even on the top-spec Deluxe.

Test Summary

The MG is a sound product in need of further refining. It rides, handles and steers with the best in its class, but the manufacturer has to address its glaring shortcomings if its wants to convince buyers the 6 is worth consideration. Currently, the engine and cabin are off the pace. And, at R239 900 with a fairly limited spec level, this Luxury version is simply too expensive when there are far better vehicles that cost less and offer more. The final nails in its coffin are a small dealer footprint, unknown resale potential and an uncompetitive service plan of three years/90 000 km.

Therefore, the Renault wins this test fairly easily. It’s the product of a company that knows its customers and gives them what they want. The Fluence is by no means class-leading but, in terms of value for money, solid performance and standard specification, the MG is unable to answer the questions it raises. The fact that it boasts a five-year/150 000 km warranty and five-year/100 000 km service plan, and is backed by an established dealer network, sweetens the deal.