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This is one of the more important tests of recent times. The MG Hector is a brand new car from a brand new manufacturer; one that is a complete unknown! We always go into a test with some perspective. The Wrangler had properly sensitised us to the Jeep brand and laid down expectations for the Compass. With the Tata Harrier and its Land Rover platform we knew things would take a big jump forward over the Hexa. But in the Hector’s case we have no prior experience of the brand. MG was all about small and affordable sporty cars but what does the MG of today stand for? What platform is it built on? Who are the people behind its engineering? Where was it engineered? Does MG have an SUV back story?
We’re still not absolutely sure who the Hector’s rivals even are. That depends on its pricing and we will only know that in the last week of June. This, then, is a clean sheet of paper if ever there was one. And MG parent SAIC’s huge bet on India, following on from their short-lived partnership when they bought half of GM’s Indian ops in 2010 following the global meltdown, depends on the Hector making it big, on the Hector drawing footfalls to MG’s 120 new dealership. So should you write that check?
As you are well aware, MG is owned by SAIC. It is China’s largest and the world’s 12th largest car manufacturer. And in China the Hector is sold as the Baojun 530, a joint venture brand between GM and SAIC. In some markets the Hector carries Wuling badging. In South America it is even sold as the second generation Chevrolet Captiva. Of course in India great lengths have been gone through to blow bagpipes and emphasise the Britishness of the MG brand, with a miniature Big Ben alongside a London phone booth in MG dealerships, both under a big Union Jack emblazoned with a Keep Calm pun.
But, you know what, why should any of us have a problem with a Chinese car? My iPhone is made in China. I just bought a massive TV that is made in China. Half of everything that we import comes from China. In a country that worships cricket, if a billion don’t have a problem with a Chinese mobile phone emblazoned across the national jersey, why should we have a problem with owning and driving a Chinese car? The Hector is made in India. It has 75 per cent localisation and its success or otherwise should purely rest on the way it drives, its quality and of course the pricing and after sales. So let’s get on with what really matters.
The MG Hector is bold and distinctive, that’s for sure. On the road it turns heads and even though the Harrier and Venue both have the headlamps in the bumpers topped by slim eyebrows there is still a novelty factor to this layout that makes the Hector unmistakable. The MG Hector doesn’t lack for chrome. This is an SUV that majors on bling and the shiny stuff. Even the wheels are glitzy, and adding to the razzmatazz is the all-LED lighting and Audi-style floating turn indicators. Styling, as I’ve always maintained, is a very personal thing and you are free to draw your own conclusions. On social media we had an equal number of up and down thumbs. What is clear is that this a love-it-or-hate-it car. Which is better than a bland and unremarkable design, if you ask me.
This is a big SUV, measuring 4655mm in length, much longer than any of its rivals. It runs on 17-inch wheels which are way too small for the Jeep-like squared-off wheel arches. It leaves a rather large gap between the wheels and the arches while also not filling the wheel wells completely. On the rear there are LED taillamps and while it looks like a full width taillamp the middle portion is just a reflector. The bumper has a silver/chrome-finished garnish on the bottom that tries to mimic a 4×4-ish skid plate effect and the right side has a blanked-off exhaust cutout.
The 10.4 inch high-definition vertically oriented screen dominates the cabin of the MG Hector. It is massive! And unlike the exterior that polarises, the touchscreen makes for a very nice interior. The screen eliminates all clutter. There are just 7 buttons near the screen and it all looks rather premium and sophisticated. It is a high-quality screen too, sharp and clear both in the day and night. I had no problems viewing it through polarised sunglasses, and the touch works without a hassle. It is a finger print magnet but so too is my iPhone so just keep a wiping cloth and use it often.
What can you do on the screen? Watch movies! It’d be a shame if you couldn’t, and in the interest of safety it stops playing when you start moving. Air-con controls are only via the screen. There are Tom Tom maps that are actually pretty good, a premium Gana account for music, an app to call road side assistance, you can adjust mood lighting, and there is a first-in-class 360 degree camera. The stereo with Infinity speakers are very good with solid bass and depth. There is Android Auto and Apple Car Play. The latter is the only give away to the origin of the Hector with the icon to take you back to the home screen having SAIC printed under the MG logo. And the sunroof is as massive as the screen itself, stretching almost the entire length of the car.
On the way back after driving the Hector I met a friend who works for Volvo.I told him the vertically oriented screen reminds me of Volvos. He pointed out their screens are 9 inches. The Hector, then, has the biggest (single) screen you will find in any car, at any price, at least until Tesla come to India! For sure that will be a big selling point, though I am curious to see what the base spec Hector has in place of this screen.
I didn’t think I had OCD but the speedo and tachometer needles swinging in opposite ways drove me a little crazy. The speedo swings clockwise while the tacho swings anti-clockwise, the first time I’ve seen that in any car. Okay, BMW’s new virtual cockpit also has the tacho lighting up anti-clockwise. But that’s a graphic on the left edge of the screen, not a full dial, and the rpm numbers are displayed horizontally in the same manner as the speed. On the Hector you tilt your head left so your eyes align with the speedo numbers and tilt right to read the revs. Very odd.
The dials are the same for both the petrol and diesel with the same 6500rpm redline. Even though the diesel doesn’t rev above 5000rpm. In fact the only difference between the diesel and the petrol is that a big Hybrid badge pushes the Internet Inside badging from the tailgate to the left flank.
That badge is too much if you ask me. Not everything needs to be advertised! Anyway, what the Hector has is an Airtel e-SIM. So, as long as you have network, you can use the iSmart app on your phone to unlock it. Open the sunroof to let out hot air, on the automatic you can start the car and cool it down, locate it, turn on the horn and flashers to find it if you forgot the pillar number in the mall, geo fence it and check the health of the car, the fuel level, tyre pressure and the last trip log. The system is 5G ready and capable of over the air (OTA) updates. It works similar to how our iPhones periodically get a notification to update the OS.
Then there’s the ‘Hello MG’ business that Benedict Cumberbatch has been plugging — though he’s not doing it right. You say ‘Hello MG’ and then wait for the system to wake up and respond back. Only then can you command it to turn up the volume, turn down the air-con, open the window (only the driver), open the sunroof, close the sunroof (not shut, it has 100 specific commands it recognises) and even give voice inputs to the navigation. All of it worked well except for when I asked the Hector to navigate us to the Le Meridien in Coimbatore. After politely asking ‘pardon’ and making me repeat it twice the system gave up and said we were out of network coverage.
So many of you asked so I’m addressing this separately. The cabin feels very well put together. The screen looks, feels and works in a high quality manner. There is a similarly high-quality 7-inch screen between the dials. The steering wheel is a meaty leather clad item with a slightly flat bottom and the seats (while too soft) have a nice quality feel to the leather. The top of the dash has a soft-touch finish and the buttons have a good tactile feel to it. It’s all pretty good on the inside. You really do need to look closely to find things to complain about.
The power window switches don’t feel great and there’s one-touch-down only for the driver. The flap that covers the USB slots feel flimsy. The indicator and wiper stalks aren’t great. The button for the electric tailgate shut seems hastily cut into the plastic. Also, there’s no place to keep a phone (and thus no wireless charging). In terms of convenience the spare well (full size steel wheel) is located under the floor pan. That will prompt many to call the road side assistance to change a flat.
On the outside the panel gaps are larger than what we’ve come to expect in this day and age. Though that said they’re uniform for the most part. The taillamps swing up with the tailgate and when open it reveals a messy joint where the bumper meets the body panels. When shut there is a rather large gap between the tailgate and body with daylight squeezing through. The doors have a huge amount of plastic cladding at the bottom and so does the engine bay with motor sitting low down in a cavity surrounded by quite a lot of plastic shrouding. And on some cars the window chrome surrounds didn’t match.
Is quality an issue? No. It isn’t as good as a VW, Maruti Suzuki or Hyundai. But if you compare it to a Jeep, Tata or Mahindra — its rivals actually — it not only is in the same ball park but in some areas is slightly better too. There was a small rattle from behind my seat on the Hector, but the Compass Trailhawk I tested the same week had a louder rattle from the right side of the dashboard.
I started with the 1.5-litre turbo-petrol that is mated to a 48V mild-hybrid system, pumping out 141bhp of power and 250Nm of torque. The petrol is available with the option of a twin-clutch automatic though the homologation wasn’t complete in time for the media drives so only the manual was offered.
First impressions — the petrol is refined, smooth, and unobtrusive. This is a heavy SUV, 1554kg for the petrol. But the 141 horses are enough to move it in a bit of a hurry. You get a step up in power at around 3000rpm. And the bottom end is weak but there isn’t turbo lag in the traditional sense. The power delivery is quite linear.
However, this engine doesn’t feel like a turbo-charged motor in the way the VW Group TSI motors deliver that really strong surge of power when it comes on boost, spinning up the front tyres and putting a big smile on the face of the enthusiast. You have to work the 6-speed manual gearbox to get a proper move on. And the gearbox itself isn’t very slick and has long throws. The gearing too is extremely tall and going up the hills we rarely could use third gear. The engine also gets quite vocal post 3000rpm.
The mild-hybrid system, advertised via a big badge on the boot, adds 20Nm of torque to the mix and is claimed to improve fuel efficiency by 12 per cent and reduced CO2 emissions by 11 per cent. The claimed efficiency for the petrol hybrid is 15.81kmpl and without the mild hybrid it drops to 14.16kmpl with the manual transmission and 13.96kmpl with the twin-clutch automatic. The auto is not available with the mild hybrid. On our drive up the mountains the fuel efficiency readout showed between 6 to 7kmpl while on the way back, downhill, it went up to 14kmpl.
The mild hybrid comes with automatic start-stop and brake energy regeneration. The latter stores the recovered energy in a separate 48 volt Lithium Ion battery that is then deployed on hard acceleration. There are also two additional displays on the screen between the dials. They show the charge status of this battery as well as a diagram showing when regen is happening and when the hybrid system is adding to the power.
This turbo-petrol motor and both the transmissions are made by SAIC in China by a subsidiary that makes motors for both their GM and VW joint ventures. The mild-hybrid comes from Bosch. What is made in India though is the diesel motor.
The diesel engine in the MG Hector feels instantly familiar, sourced as it is from FCA. Made in Ranjangaon the Multijet II motor makes 167.6bhp of power and 350Nm of torque. It instantly feels more energetic, enthusiastic, flexible and capable than the petrol. It is of course more noisy, more audible than in the Compass and Harrier. But the added flexibility that the additional 100Nm of torque delivers is well worth it (also masking the increased weight of 1700kg). It is also quicker and the gearing is better suited to Indian driving conditions. And the running costs will be much lower than the petrol.
What I did notice, and this came as a big surprise to me, is the clutch action that is super-sharp. I almost stalled it the first time. After that I had to be careful, the bite is so sharp and there being very little progression in the pedal. The gearbox, also sourced from FCA, has a better shift action though the throws are still long and not very slick.
Unusually for a media drive in these days of YouTube videos (and the associated time required for filming) MG had a rather long drive laid out for us. From Coimbatore, up the Nilgiri Hills to Kodanad, back down and hang a right to Conoor and then all the way back to Coimbatore — a solid day of driving. We didn’t get enough time to film. But we did get enough and more time behind the wheel of both the petrol and diesel variants.
First impressions, the ride quality is excellent. The Hector is a softly sprung SUV and it delivers an excellent low speed ride that is very cushy and comfortable. Together with the soft seats and acres of space it makes for a very comfortable SUV for city commutes, ideally suited for being chauffeur driven.
The soft setup though is also evident in the hills where the Hector rolls quite alarmingly and understeers very enthusiastically. The body control is poor and it is a handful when throwing it around narrow mountain roads. The tyres squeal in protest when hustled round bends. The Hector could do with bigger and wider tyres, not only to make it visually more proportionate but also to deliver (much-needed) cornering grip.
The electrically assisted steering has poor feel and response, the lack of precision adding to the dynamic shortcomings. While the low speed ride is great the Hector can’t take sharp bumps or small sharp speedbreakers. Stuff that the Compass and Harrier both just fly over, the Hector’s rear torsion beam crashes into it, jolting driver and passengers when the rear wheels go over it. The high speed stability, again courtesy the soft setup, isn’t great. And at three digit speeds the MG floats and heaves over long-wave undulations. This, quite clearly, is an SUV that prefers the lower speeds and lesser demands of the city commute.
Both the diesel and petrol get all-round disc brakes and the stopping power is good. We didn’t experience any brake fade even when coming down the hills. There is no 4×4 on offer on any variant of the Hector, it is only front-wheel drive. The ground clearance is a good 198mm.
That’s what we are guessing, under Rs 20 lakh on the road after all taxes for the diesel manual and a lakh of rupees less for the petrol hybrid with the manual transmission. This is slightly more than the Harrier and slightly less than the Compass. What you do get for the price is that massive touchscreen, an equally massive sunroof, a whole load of features, plenty of space and great low speed ride quality. What you do not get is great body control, good steering or composed handling. And as for the styling, that’s a personal thing for you to decide what works or doesn’t. The success or otherwise ultimately depends on MG pricing the Hector aggressively and enticing buyers with more features at a lower price than any other SUV in this class.