We’ve been here before. Butlins in Bognor Regis, I mean, not the MG3 (though, with memories of the MG Metro’s snappy red seatbelts still taking the occasional drunken slash in some dark, fetid alleyway of the cerebellum, you’d be forgiven for suspecting otherwise).
It was a ’70s revival weekend at Butlins, the two decades that have since passed discourteously diluting the line-ups from MGB GT to MG F status. There was Mud (not including Les Gray); The Bay City Rollers (not including taste); Abba (not including Abba) and Showaddywaddy (not including the way Jimmy Savile pronounced it). You know the sort of thing.
We took along a clutch of cars from the ’70s – which would have been great if the missus and I hadn’t copped the knackered Allegro that had to be Quartic-helmed all the way from Birmingham. Childhood memories of Butlins in Skegness left her refusing to get out of the car on arrival.
Trapped behind a sea wall, the invigorating tang of oceanic ozone obliterated by the scalding froth of deep-fat fryers on permanent red alert, cruising ducks forced to periscope depth by an all-chip diet and plastic wrapped mattresses leaving us sweating the night away like cream cheese in an old sock.
I recall apologising, mid-Brotherhood of Man, for kicking over what turned out to be my comatose neighbour’s freshly-drawn pint of puke. Butlins in the early ’90s certainly lived up to her expectations.
Happily, however, new ownership has now dragged this very British institution somewhat more upmarket in almost every department. Although there are, inevitably, other synergies – chequered history, shifting sands of ownership and subsequent resurgence among them – it seems that what actually attracted MG to Butlins as a launch venue for the new MG3 is that the former considers the latter to be now largely infested by its core customer demographic.
Judging by the number of Bognor punters today wolfing down all-you-can-eat-breakfasts, before waddling off to the local all-the-pain-you-can-stand tattoo parlour clutching a photo of Cheryl Cole’s new arse, said demographic includes thousands who clearly embrace the notion of customisation wholeheartedly enough to indelibly impose it on their own dermis.
Is it not, then, a potential master-stroke to pitch a new car into the busy B-segment fray which combines Mini, DS3 and Fiat 500-confronting levels of customisation, along with a Dacia-dusting price?
Mostly built in China by MG’s owners, SAIC, but with Longbridge’s 300 engineers and 60 designers responsible for styling, the fettling of ride and handling as well as its final assembly, the five-door, five-seat, 1.5-litre MG3 can be yours for just £8399. Rifle through the four-model range in the quest for air-con, Bluetooth, audio streaming and DAB radio and the bill will still only come to £9549. The range-topping MG3 3Style will lob you a quid in change from ten grand and the indulgence of every exterior colour, graphic pack and wheel whim will still leave you struggling to break a budget of £11,000.
Mercifully, moreover, the MG3 3Form Sport I sampled proves somewhat more than just a bright box at a tight price. Exuding viewing angle-dependent whiffs of Clio, Fabia and Punto, the exterior couture is entirely fit for purpose. And – excluding execrable stereo panel and steering wheel switchgear design – so is the comfortable, spacious interior.
Sadly, the only available engine to date – MG’s own, 1.5-litre, four-cylinder effort – is not so covetable. While 105bhp sounds sufficient, just 101lb ft of torque requires relentless five-speed stick stirring to elicit progress at anything faster than an amiable bumble.
And that’s a real shame because in the handling stakes, the MG3 verges on the amusing. The suspension has been thoughtfully tuned to offer a pleasing balance of comfort and obedience, the well-weighted steering is faithful to inputs and acceptably garrulous in feel, turn in is pretty sharp and all is surprisingly grippy and composed through corners.
Up to a point. Push it beyond speeds at which you recall having fun in your first car and, on anything lumpier than caviar, that composure collapses as abruptly as a bride jilted at the altar into a world of cacophonous, fidgety fuss. The true ignominy of this sudden surrender to the laws of physics is the length of time that it takes the wretched powerplant to get you there in the first place.
Still, with the amount of fun on offer entirely reflected by the price tag (even if the engine’s poor fuel and CO2 figures will mug your piggy bank over time), the MG3 argues its case with unexpected conviction and no little polish.
I’d love, nonetheless, to meet a youngster who can afford to spunk £9000 on a first car. I could barely afford acne.