MG Motor India is all set to enter the midsize SUV segment in the Indian passenger vehicle market, which while offers tremendous sales potential, is also a space with cut-throat competition with highly successful products, including the Hyundai Creta and Kia Seltos reigning the market.
Moreover, the SAIC-owned British carmaker is adopting a petrol-only formula this time around to introduce its ZS EV-based Astor SUV. This strategy is a marked difference to the diesel engine option in the Hyundai Group siblings, which collectively see close to 60 percent of their total volumes coming from diesel-powered variants.
However, the MG Astor impresses with its clean, European looks at the first sight and touches like the ‘Celestial’ front grille, sharp LED headlamps, 17-inch alloy wheels and a panoramic sunroof add to the modern touches that are bound to attract buyers to this comfortably-sized crossover.
Step inside and the sangria red-and-black interior theme with dollops of soft-touch materials splashed across the dashboard and door pads elevate the cabin ambience, making the Astor punch above its weight and give a unique sense of plushness unseen in this mass-market segment. There is an all-black option as well as an ivory-and-black combination on offer too.
Premium interior with multiple colour options and generous use of soft-touch materials. AI assistant robot placed atop dashboard is a first in segment.
Adding to the uniqueness is the smart personal AI assistant robot positioned atop the centre of the dashboard and is continuously scanning the cabin for the wake-up call – ‘Hello Astor’. The assistant is a party trick, likely to be a hit among kids and youngsters, and can control vehicle functions through voice commands, or even search the Wikipedia to answer any question thrown at it.
Placed below is the 10-inch touch-screen infotainment system which feels slick to use and is powered by MG’s iSmart hub - a suite of app services that allow music streaming, navigation and also remotely reserving a parking slot, for instance, that in a shopping mall.
The steering wheel is chunky to hold and the instrument cluster too is a full-digital unit with clear fonts and plentiful data to keep the driver updated about the things going in and around the car, which is courtesy the flurry of Level-2 ADAS features offered in the crossover.
Radar for Level-2 autonomous driving features like lane-keep assist and adaptive cruise control placed in lower half of front bumper.
The Astor features a front radar and multiple sensors and cameras to offer adaptive cruise control, speed assist system, lane-departure warning and lane-keep assist among other convenience and active safety functions. There are a total of six airbags, all-four-disc brakes and ISOFIX child-seat mounts too.
While there is ample space inside the cabin for four adults, the Astor feels short on cabin width that could see three rear occupants brushing shoulders against each other. Moreover, since it’s based on the ZS platform that also holds the battery pack under the floor in the EV version, the Astor’s boot is wide but quite shallow.
Petrol power only
The Astor is offered with two petrol engine options – a 118hp, 1.5-litre, four-cylinder, naturally-aspirated engine mated to a five-speed manual or CVT drivetrain, and a 140hp, 1.3-litre, three-cylinder turbocharged petrol, mated to a six-speed torque convertor automatic transmission sourced from Aisin.
It’s the latter that we drove at the Buddh International Circuit (BIC) in Greater Noida, and came away impressed with the Astor’s demeanour at high-speeds. While the engine itself feels lacking low-end punch and only comes alive after 2400rpm, the mid-range will suffice the needs of most drivers. However, the three-cylinder mill becomes noisy after 4000rpm and is best enjoyed at a relaxed pace with the six-speed transmission shifting gears in a smooth fashion.
The steering offers good feedback from the road, but feels very artificial in its incremental heft when toggled between the three modes – urban, normal and dynamic. The resistance from the electric motor is quite evident at full lock in the dynamic setting.
On the other hand, the Astor’s suspension is well tuned for Indian conditions and offers a supple ride, absorbing most bumps and potholes. MG Motor India claims having reworked the springs and dampers for the Indian market.
The key USP of the Astor, however, is going to be its Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) suite which aims to enhance safety on the move. It gets functions such as lane-keep assist that could only be activated above speeds of 60kph as well as adaptive cruise control that needs a threshold of 30kph.
While engineers at MG Motor India have worked in close coordination with that of Bosch in India and China, as well as engineers from IDIADA, Spain, to adapt the ADAS for the Indian road conditions, there is scope of fine tuning still. The lane-keep assist function did not follow the lane markings and kept swerving towards the left in one of our tests conducted on a closed road inside the BIC complex.
The company, however, claims that it has fed the system with images of real-world road and traffic conditions in various scenarios on the Indian roads, as well as conducted extensive tests at NATRAX and an airstrip on the outskirts of Bangalore to fine tune the ADAS. But the process continues and it is expected that the system will further improve in its performance with continuous over-the-air (OTA) updates.
Optimising supply chain
The MG Astor will be positioned in the highly-competitive midsized SUV segment, but with a number of parts such as the powertrain, drivelines, head- and-tail-lamps, sunroof and electronics for ADAS being procured as direct imports from China, it could be tough for MG Motor India to aim for an aggressive price tag.
China-sourced LED headlamp gets integrated DRLs and diamond-like styling elements. MG is localising the Astor's lamps with Lumax Industries.
However, according to Gaurav Gupta, COO, MG Motor India, “The ultimate goal is to offer the product at the right value to the customer, be it with local sourcing or getting parts from overseas. Sometimes it is also possible that the landed cost of imported parts ends up being cheaper than what is locally procured.”
“There is work always on and we are also working in that direction - it’s a continuous journey and I wouldn’t categorise it as a localisation drive, it is rather more of an optimisation of the supply chain. We have to make sure that we have to optimise the supply chain, de-risk it and offer the right value to the customer on a sustained basis,” he added.
It is learnt that MG Motor India has already initiated the localisation of the LED headlamps and tail- lamps on the Astor, which are likely to be supplied by Indian Tier 1 Lumax Industries in the near future. But, with an electronics-intensive package, the Astor could face challenges due to the global chip shortage too.
Aiming for 3,000 unit sales a month
MG Motor India is targeting sales of around 3,000 units of the Astor every month, which would see it nearly maximising its 80,000-unit plant capacity at Halol, Gujarat. The company aims to optimise processes, set up a new body shop, and run the paint shop for three continuous shifts, to reach the 100,000-unit mark next year, before entering its next leg of expansion in India – investing into a new plant.
Until then, its 55 dealer partners who run 280 outlets (slated to grow to 300 by end-CY2021) would be delighted to scale along with the company, which is promising growth with its new range of products while offering a nice spread across different propulsion options.
While the Astor’s success will depend upon its pricing, the next big launch from MG Motor India will be a sub-Rs 20 lakh EV with a range of 500km. The company, which currently has a 1.37 percent share of the PV market, is putting its shoulder to the wheel to increase its foothold in India. It has a laser-sharp focus on offering the right value and new technologies, backed by its parent which is driving innovations at its home turf in China, which is the fastest-growing EV market in the world.