New compact SUV goes big on luxury feel and metal for the money but covers its budget roots out on the road with mixed success

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The HS is Chinese import specialist MG Motor’s second crack at success in the compact SUV market.

The first one, the GS, was the kind of car that, had it been school homework rather than a Nissan Qashqai rival, might have been described as “unrepresentative of the company’s best efforts” by a disappointed teacher. Even compared with the MG 3 and 6 that came before, it was bad. And, as if to confirm that MG Motor well understood as much itself, the GS wasn’t even given a passing mention at the press introduction of its direct replacement.

The cabin’s brand of perceived quality, convincing as it is in some places, is very much of the German premium-brand idiom.

With an all-new model platform beneath it and a widely re-engineered 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol engine under the bonnet, the HS is intended to be a significant leap beyond the standards of its noisy, cumbersome-handling antecedent. Without really standing out from the current SUV crowd, it’s also a much more visually appealing design than the GS was and it has a surprisingly swish and quite materially ambitious interior – onto which we’ll come later.

Priced to pick up the bulk of its customers from the full-sized crossover hatchback segment, away from cars like the aforementioned Nissan, the Seat Ateca and the Kia Sportage, the HS is actually proportioned more like compact SUVs such as the Mazda CX-5, Volkswagen Tiguan and Honda CR-V.

It trades pretty squarely on the same ‘metal for the money’ ethos as the Hyundai Santa Fe once did, then, albeit one step further down on the SUV size chart. And it’s not unlike the big Hyundai to drive in some ways, being fairly softly sprung and feeling its size on the road, although stopping short of letting that bulk become a problem in most everyday scenarios.

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List prices on the car – which for several reasons make you wonder if you haven’t inadvertently time-travelled back to the turn of the century – are set to begin at a whisker under £18,000, rising to just under £25,000 for a fully laden car with a dual-clutch automatic gearbox. Depending on which of those aforementioned competitors you compare it with, that might represent as much as a £6000 saving on a like-for-like rival corrected for equipment.

There was no mention of monthly finance prices at the press launch, with which we might have made more meaningful comparisons with direct rivals – and, with residual values on the car unlikely to be great, they might well be slightly less favourable than those attractive sticker tags initially suggest.

Even so, the HS ought to have plenty of bargain-bucket value, without looking – or, in some ways, performing – like a car that necessarily belongs in one.

Is the HS a car that's built to a tight budget?

The HS interior is a comfortable, spacious and surprisingly materially lush place to sit. At least, it was in the case of our top-of-the-range, near-£25k test car. The car is sufficiently large and well packaged to have a boot that, at more than 450 litres seats up and below the window line, counts as pretty roomy compared with most cars of the price. It also offers passenger accommodation fit for one tall passenger to travel very comfortably behind another with knee room and head room to spare – even with a panoramic sunroof fitted. The front seats are generously sized and quite comfortable, although the padding of the cushions seems a bit thin and all-round adjustability could be better.

The cabin’s brand of perceived quality, convincing as it is in some places, is very much of the German premium-brand idiom. In fact, with so much use of piano black and satin chrome trim, as well as knurled-effect piano key switchgear and turbine-style air vents both in evidence, it seemed to this tester to get a bit too close for comfort to Mercedes’ approach to interior design in particular to be invulnerable to claims of plagiarism. Not that lifting ideas from the premium players and adapting them at a cut-down price is anything new for a budget car brand like MG, or for a Chinese car maker, to do.

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Whether you recognise the debt owed to Stuttgart here or not, you’ll likely be moderately impressed by the selection of soft stitched leathers and fairly solid-feeling, ritzy-looking button consoles in top-end versions of the HS. There are much cheaper fittings on show, too, of course, such as the plasticky indicator stalks and the low-rent upper fascia pad – and the difference in apparent quality between the two ends of the spectrum is undoubtedly jarring.

Still, the overall ambience remains one of a car that looks and feels considerably more plush and luxurious than you expect it to; and one that isn’t blessed with digital infotainment and instrumentation technology that you’d ever find on a premium-branded car, but whose appeal isn’t totally undermined by what it does have, either.

How does the HS perform on the road?

The HS’s 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol engine starts fairly quietly and runs smoothly at low revs, and with plenty of accessible torque moving the car’s mass easily from low speeds. The dual-clutch gearbox, meanwhile, acts almost as unobtrusively as any on the market in response to smaller pedal inputs, timing its shifts well and executing most of them smoothly enough.

The well-mannered demeanor of both engine and gearbox begins to deteriorate when your right foot goes looking for greater urgency out on the open road, though. Above 4000rpm, much of the old GS’s buzzing coarseness returns and hurried gearshifts executed under load are considerably less slickly handled by the gearbox than the ones performed under less pressure.

For those reasons, and also because of a gearbox calibration that manages the clutches quite abruptly when you’re looking to whisk the car into a gap and can all too easily exceed what traction there is under the driven front axle, the HS isn’t a car you’re likely to enjoy driving quickly. It has a fairly authoritative-feeling outright performance level but is a lot more uncouth when working hard than at other times; and if you want better than 35mpg from it as a real-world, day-to-day fuel economy return, you’ll be well advised to ration your experiments with full throttle.

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That’s equally good advice if you want to maintain a comfortable ride in the HS. The suspension does a creditable job at smothering longer-wave lumps and bumps and makes the car perfectly comfortable when moving at bog-standard, everyday-traffic sort of pace – except when sharper edges and potholes present, which the 18in alloy wheels of our test car didn’t deal with too well. (Smaller rims are available on lower-spec models.)

Quicken to a brisker stride, though, and the HS soon begins to run out of body control – much sooner, at any rate, than the better-sorted cars in this class would, and quite suddenly, too. It’s a shame since the car has well-paced, decently weighted steering and handles quite accurately, and so would otherwise cope with pacier driving well. It’s not a dynamic shortcoming serious enough to be likely to put off many SUV drivers, though, especially considering what else they’ll like about this car.

The MG HS’ combination of impressive comfort and practicality, more than respectable performance, refinement and drivability, passable ride and handling and fairly surprising interior richness should amount to quite a lot more than most reasonable customers will expect from it. They should also present a fairly convincing argument for what is, after all, a full-sized and pretty versatile family car that’s priced like an upmarket supermini – and that comes with a seven-year warranty and plenty of standard equipment.

It’ll be likely to suit lower-mileage private buyers much better than company car drivers, mind you – and its suitability to those will depend in part on MG’s delivery of some appealing finance deals and of competitive cost of insurance, both of which are still to be confirmed.

But if MG can do enough on both of those fronts to make the HS as affordable in practice as it promises to be, it’ll be worth more than a second thought from people who are looking for big on a small budget and who aren’t willing to accept more austere family transport that makes them feel like they’re missing out.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - MG HS

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

MG Motor HS First drives