Until the 550, both Roewe and MG had been churning out rehashes of the inherited designs from the collapsed MG-Rover. So at first glance, this new car seems a bold move by Roewe. But scratch the surface and the Rover underpinnings are obvious.
Based on a shortened version of the Rover 75 platform, it shares a heritage with the stillborn RDX60, which was meant to be the medium-sized car to save Rover. Much of the design work for the 550 was done by Ricardo 2010 in Britain, which is largely staffed by ex-MG Rover engineers.
Despite its British design, the Roewe 550 could pass for a premium effort by any number of manufacturers: its modern looks are a match for designs such as the VW Sagitar (Jetta MkV) and it could even be mistaken for a baby Lexus.
The modern theme is carried through to the interior. Sit in the driver's seat and you are struck by the largely red digital instruments clustered around the central rev counter. There's a centrally mounted LCD display, which in our top of the range 550G test car is linked to the GPS, rear reversing camera and DVD/entertainment system.
Unusually for a Chinese car, there is a choice of interior trim. Seats come in either black or tan leather. With the plastics there's a choice of black with chrome highlights or split black uppers and cream lowers accented with fake wood and chrome. Just below the split and nestled between the air vents is the control knob for the LCD information display. Further down are the controls for the entertainment system including a slot for an SD card.
Bristling with equipment, the 550G covers all bases. As expected, there are electric windows, wing mirrors and sunroof, along with air conditioning. Hidden in a hatch near the steering column is a connection for an MP3 player. There's also a Bluetooth mobile phone system and cruise control.
Attention to detail gives the car a premium feel. Both driver and passenger sun blinds feature a mirror with cover and light. A coin and pen holder tray is situated above the air-conditioning controls. Between the seats is a pop-up drinks holder and an air-conditioned storage compartment. Rear passengers are treated to their own air vents, light and a rear sun blind.
The seats are comfortable and supportive. In the G model the driver and front passenger seats are electronically adjustable for height as well as distance and pitch. A tilt-adjustable steering column makes for an even more flexible driving position. Taller rear passengers will have problems with head space, but legroom is generous. In a nod to safety, the middle passenger gets a full seatbelt. Boot space is a reasonable 452 litres with split folding seats, and although the boot floor cover is a bit flimsy, there is a side net for delicate items.
Materials are generally of good quality and the black trim will appeal to European tastes, with the added bonus of losing the imitation wood. But the interior is outclassed by the car's MG7 stablemate.
Start the car and one of the first things you notice is how quiet the engine is. If it wasn't for the rev counter you wouldn't realise that the engine is running until the turbo kicks in with a growl at around 45km/h. The 1.8 Turbo has more than enough power and at no point is it strained.
Pulling away from the Jinmao Tower into the heavy traffic on Shanghai's Century Avenue we're thankful for the five-speed Tiptronic automatic (lower-spec S and D models are also available with a five-speed manual). Due to the traffic, we're unable to test the wheel-mounted paddle shifts, but at higher speeds the gearbox has very pronounced shifts.
The leather-trimmed steering wheel looks small and is fully laden, with controls for the cruise control, trip computer and entertainment system. And although the steering is light and lacking in feedback, the car always goes where it's pointed and road-holding is good.
As can be expected with a car for the mainland market, the ride is soft, and it soaks up Pudong's pot holes. European versions of the car, which will probably be badged as an MG 6, will come with a stiffened and lowered suspension.
One problem that becomes obvious in the multi-lane traffic is visibility. It's very difficult for the driver to see what is happening on the passenger side of the vehicle, which makes dodging bicycles and scooters hair-raising.
Overall the 550 is an excellent first effort for a newly designed car, even though it's let down by a transmission inherited from Rover. Technology has moved on and drivers in the Roewe's target market expect six-speed manuals and more advanced automatics. Both the VW Sagitar and BMW 3 series offer six-speed auto boxes, and the BMW also comes with a six-speed manual.
And for the Roewe 550 to succeed in the European market, it will need to be offered with more engine choices than just a 1.8 and 1.8 turbo - and a diesel unit.
Yet in the Chinese market the 550 promises to give the Sagitar a run for its money and offer an economical alternative to the 320i for those not too sniffy about badges.AT A GLANCE: Roewe 550
What drives it? A choice of 1.8-litre or 1.8-litre turbo provides power to the front wheels.
How fast is it? Roewe claims a top speed of 205km/h for the 1.8T with a 0-100km/h time of 9.3 seconds for the manual and 10.8 seconds for the auto.
How safe is it? It has five stars under the China NCAP system and the G model, with stability control and six airbags is likely to achieve the same rating under Euro NCAP.
How thirsty is it? At 90km/h the manual drinks 5.6 litres per 100km and the automatic 6.8l/100km. How clean is it? Roewe says its CO2 emissions are 205 grams per kilometre for the manual and 223gpk for the automatic. The engine meets Euro IV standards. H
ow much is it? The turbo model ranges from 142,800 yuan to 189,800 yuan (HK$162,460-HK$215,935). Prices for the non-turbo 1.8 have yet to be announced.