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Does the MG Cyberster mark a return for the Great British Roadster? Time to find out... in China

Doesn't feel much like an MGB, but does feel enough to put the wind up European manufacturers

Published: 27 Jun 2024

It's the electric mopeds that want you dead. They bolt from pedestrian walkways, arbitrarily pelt across traffic lights, over and undertake in vicious little chattering packs. Some have metre wide boxes strapped to the back, delivering items too big for a top box and too heavy for their own good. One was carrying a small coppice of 2.5m lengths of bamboo strapped to the side, like some lumberjack knight ready to lance the unwary. Even for cars, rights of way are fickle, vague and open to interpretation. And beyond all reasonable expectation... it kind of works. But for a time dilated foreigner, downtown Shanghai in rush hour is still a throb of culture shock.

It doesn’t help that I’m in an MG Cyberster, the kind of two-seat convertible sports car that isn’t hugely common in Shanghai, or China in general, and you’ve never known fear until you’ve had a near disastrous head-on collision with a man in an extended wheelbase Passat who then points at the car and gives you a calm wave. The six hours I spent getting a – very – temporary driving licence was pointless. I’d have been better going straight to therapy. Or possibly basic training.

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But here we are in MG’s little disruptor, and it feels good. An electric two-seat convertible sports car out and about way in advance of offerings like Porsche’s EV Boxster or Polestar’s 6, never mind the Tesla Roadster. A car that, at a starting price of around £50k in the UK, will be multiples cheaper than any of them. First impressions? It’s comfy. It rides well. The interior quality is right up there and it has properly amazing graphics on the screens. The roof is super fast and laughably one touch simple. This is no joke, no matter how many people want it to be.

Before long, we end up in a little place called Thames Town in the Songjiang district about 20 miles from the centre of Shanghai. Possibly the weirdest place to take a new pseudo British MG-branded two seater, because it’s an insane photocopy of a UK market town. The church is copied from Christ Church Clifton near Bristol, the fish and chip shop is a clone from one in Lyme Regis in Dorset, and the pub from somewhere in Chester. Really. There are red phone boxes, cobbled streets, faux Tudor stapled to the view. It’s a Disney version of Stevenage.

Photography: Jonny Fleetwood

You’d think it would work... MG in the square, heavy on the Hànzì Mandarin signage. A nod to the classic MGB heritage, with a little bit of the national colour of the Chinese owner SAIC. But it doesn’t. Thames Town feels like a theme park, and the Cyberster doesn’t feel much like an MGB. Eventually, it shreds your nerves, so we identify a vague squiggle on the map down by Ningbo, and head out to the mountains to do some proper testing. Testing with corners, and far fewer cameras – of which there are a lot. Turns out Shanghai is likely one of the most surveilled cities in the world, and that means cameras everywhere. There are traffic drones that can check if you’re using a mobile, cameras that flash every car through multiple junctions. It’s not the kind of place to test a fast car.

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Luckily, and like most things, one perspective is not the entire view. And China can be utterly stunning. It takes a few hours to extract yourself from the urban sprawl of Shanghai, rolling down the G15 motorway and over the 22.2-mile Hangzhou Bay bridge, a bridge that ghosts into sea fog like a road to nowhere, but you can get there. And when you do, the endless green is a balm. Oddly well surfaced roads that sweep up through 18m tall bamboo forests that seethe with potential myth. Hairpin bends, sweepers – the lot. OK, so the driving standards are largely similar to the city, but there’s 99 per cent less traffic, so it’s much easier to process. As is the Cyberster. Because by this point we have spent time looking at it, driving it, charging it. And I am impressed.

Designed by a team led by Carl Gotham (European advanced design director for SAIC) from a studio in Marylebone, the Cyberster is good looking rather than stunning. Easy to assimilate. There’s a long bonnet with some nice feature lines, slightly generic headlights. It’s an easy one on which to press comparison – various people mentioned Alpine, Porsche, BMW, Jaguar – basically any two-seat convertible. But the profile is strong – aided by a black belt line under the roof that helps slim things down, and the rear looks wide and settled, with a full width light bar. The arrow shaped rear lights are a bit on the nose – and are apparently supposed to gently resemble a union flag – but generally it’s a well proportioned and detailed car. Long, but neat. In fact, it’s a bit bigger than you imagine – bigger than a BMW Z4, more F-Type. It looks decent enough with the roof up, and there’s a useful boot too.

The electric scissor doors are a neat bit of theatre, and one that I assumed would start to chafe after a bit. But they don’t. Stand too close and sensors prevent them from slapping you in the face, and the Cyberster is easy to get in and out of, no matter how tight the parking space – amiable mention to the van that parked 20cm from the side when charging, and I could still open the door. And once you’re in, there are more surprises. Quality, fit and finish are excellent, general layout and ergonomics traditional but useful.

 

There’s a wide band of screens in front, separated into three. The left side deals with charge, tyre pressures and background info, centre deals with speed and modes, right deals with radio. It’s a bit TV showroom, but again, it works. There’s another screen in the centre console that deals with the aircon and next to that are the gear selector switches. But the screens are, frankly, brilliant. Powered by what are essentially gaming computer chips, the animations are next level. A bit distracting at times, cheesy at others – pop it into Sport mode and the wheels catch fire on the screen, Custom gets flashes of lightning and the like – but generally it’s a few levels above some of the European competition.

The Cyberster also isn’t based around huge electrical compromise, and that makes it practically attractive. There are a couple of versions: the one we have here is a single rear motor with a 64kWh battery, 335bhp and a 0–62mph time of 5.2 seconds, with roughly 250 miles of real world range. The other straps a second 201bhp motor to the front axle to give all-wheel drive, 536bhp and a sprint time of 3.2 seconds. That version has a big 77kWh set of cells, so we’re thinking more like 300 miles of range.

There have been bigger numbers bandied about, but most are based on the CLTC (China light-duty vehicle test cycle), which is very China specific – generally warm temperatures, urban driving. Think of the CLTC number more like the city or light duty ranges you get with European EVs, with the American EPA figure the most likely you’ll achieve in real life.

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But those numbers are still more than enough for a car to be useful day to day. And even with the smaller battery and a mix of motorway and spirited mountain roads, the 64kWh Cyberster really did just over 250 miles. No official charge rates have surfaced as yet, but charging from 30 per cent to well over 80 produced an average of 90-odd kW, meaning that DC charging is perfectly fast enough.

But the big news is that the Cyberster is a hoot to drive. Not stupid fast in this lower powered guise, but absolutely enough for a twisty loop of road. Some cars are grim, brutal work when you go fast. This is not that. It’s not the jab and catch of a racing car, more a longer, swooping slap of power. It’s easily read and defended against, and really kind of... jolly. It’s genuinely not stressful to drive quickly, which allows you to enjoy the experience. And enjoyment was king, here.

The roads are pretty good, with the occasional big lump. The Cyberster surfed it without complaint, kicking the back out slightly when pushed – although I couldn’t get the traction control all the way off (mainly because it was in Chinese and no one would tell me how to do it). Body control is good but slightly soft, ditto the steering. It’s gentle in town, but starts to feel a bit unfocused when you’re clipping along. The good thing is that this is a car that feels like there’s dynamic space in the setup. The basics are excellent, the foundations solid and well laid.

15 minutes 24 seconds

 

On the S33 out towards the Simingshan national forest and Xikou, it genuinely shone. Not the fastest or most precise, but damn good fun. You’re still working with or around weight – the dual motor Cyberster is nearly two tonnes, and yes, the smaller batteried single motor version is less fat and feels a good couple of hundred kilos lighter, but something like a chunky F-Type is about 1,600kg – so mass is always an issue.

Saying that, dynamic complexity is reduced with this single motor version, and you don’t get the dissonance that can surface in some dual motor (and usually high power) electric cars. Put simply, some very fast EVs have a front motor that feels like it’s out there doing its own thing while the rear motor has a solo party out back. With no physical connection and slightly unresolved calibration, there’s no relationship to exploit, so they end up doing different things at different times and the car feels unnatural. And unnatural is not confidence inspiring. Bluntly, I’m sure the dual motor version will be quicker – I’m not sure it’ll be better to drive.

The slightly geeky thing here is that even though this is a Chinese domestic market specification, those basics really are all in the right places. China might be keener on ride comfort than turn-in precision, but that’s the kind of thing that can be tweaked to suit. And springs, damper settings, bushings – they’re all fairly easy to adjust. It’s called ‘vehicle attribute integration’ – and it’s not silly to think that the Cyberster might well get a sharper tune for the steering rack and some slightly stiffer damping for European markets. So it depends on how MG wants the Cyberster to be engaged with.

One thing's for sure: this will put the wind up European manufacturers

But I know what we’re thinking – an electric convertible with no engine noise is apple pie without custard, and the driving experience versus a convertible with an internal combustion engine is, of course, different. But for this setup, not worse. There’s a faint whine when accelerating, but other than that you can actually hear the wind in your hair. And it’s closer to nature – you really can experience what’s going on around you, including the susurrations and singing of an ancient bamboo forest. Which was definitely not on my road test bingo card.

So what’s the verdict? Well, the MG Cyberster is a cracking effort. It takes the brand somewhere new, even if it has absolutely bob all to do with a classic MGB other than the vague layout. It’s a daft name, but at the moment, it’s unique in its sector, fun to drive, well made and relatively keenly priced. It’s not what I would describe wholeheartedly as a ‘sports car’ – it’s too soft edged for that – but as a convertible GT car, it’s a lovely thing. One thing’s for sure: this will put the wind up European manufacturers something rotten. And if competition improves the breed, then we’ll be better off – because there’s a lot of competition on the way.

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