Review: MG ZS suits the current SUV fashion to a T
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MG ZST Essence
- Three-pot engines packed with character
- Big boot for a baby SUV
- Lots of driver-assist kit
- Unresolved ride
- Grabby transmission at low speed
- Lack of adjustment for wheel and seat
This is a tale of two MG ZS SUVs. And we’re going to start at the finish, which is to say with the flagship-petrol ZST model (not forgetting the ZS EV, which is another thing entirely).
The ZST is a relatively new addition to the lineup, so it makes sense to kick off here anyway. It’s technically a facelift for the ZS, although the previous shape continues; we’ll get to that in a minute.
It’s got a new front fascia, much less brightwork and quite a bit of blacked-out detail. More importantly, behind that grille is a larger-capacity 1.3-litre three-cylinder engine – a big step up from the 1.0-litre mill in the ZS.
The ZS is known for being cheap and cheerful. The ZST is a little less so and in fact the top Essence version tested here is $33,990, which is still great value for a small-medium SUV but not exactly low budget.
That’s balanced by a wealth of standard equipment. All ZSTs get the full MG Pilot suite of driver-assistance features, including adaptive cruise and 360-degree camera, LED lights front/rear, keyless entry/start and “synthetic leather” upholstery. The Essence adds six-way power driver’s seat with heating, full digital instrument cluster and a “panoramic stargazer sunroof”.
It comes from a humble base, but the ZST Essence actually carries off its luxury aspirations pretty well. The cabin is nicely finished, the digital cluster looks sharp and the infotainment screen is large (10.1in) and colourful.
SAIC Motor is China’s largest automotive group, but it’s especially proud of the British heritage of the MG brand it has owned since 2007. The MG octagon is prominent all over the car (the ZST Essence also gets it in red on the front-seat head restraints), the daytime running-light design is called “London Eye” and our test car’s vibrant colour is Brighton Blue. All you need is a hanky on your head and poke of chips and you’re set.
Point is, it’s supposed to make you smile. And yes, it’s fun to drive in its own way. The three-pot engine is bursting with character and the 115kW/230Nm outputs are a big step up from the 1.0l model’s 82kW/160Nm. The steering is firm (if not feelsome) and the chassis is grippy. The base ingredients are there.
But there are also foibles that remind you the MG isn’t as polished overall as, say, a Toyota Yaris Cross. The ride is fussy in city driving and lacks control at higher speeds. The six-speed gearbox is smooth enough when you’re pressing on, but can be disconcertingly grabby in urban driving. In what’s perhaps a related problem, the adaptive cruise is a full stop/go system, but it often “surges” in gridlock traffic in a way that really gets your attention.
Inside, the ZST offers a nice cabin environment but it’s hard to get the driving position just-so with no reach adjustment for the steering wheel and no height adjustment for the driver’s seat. And that soft “synthetic leather” does feel awfully clammy.
So the ZST has a few “can do better” boxes ticked on its report card. But a few rough edges seem to matter a whole lot less when you’re shopping in the sub-$30k zone with the ZS.
Our ZS test car (pictured in Dover White) is the $27,990 Essence, although you can also have the 1.0l turbo-triple in the lower-spec Excite Plus for $25,990. The $22,990 entry-level ZS Excite (the one everybody talks about) has an older-tech 1.5l four with a four-speed automatic, which might be a step too far down.
But the 1.0l (still with a six-speed automatic) is a hoot. It’s no ball of fire, but it is eager and happy to hover around the redline as much as you like. Curiously, the six-speed automatic in our test car seemed a lot better sorted than the gearbox in the ZST for city driving.
The ZS has less chassis stiffening, softer suspension and cheaper rubber than the ZST, but it’s entertaining all the same. Lower limits plus lower expectations can equal an increase in entertainment value.
They might both be Essence models, but don’t expect anything like the ZST level of equipment in the ZS. It has standard cruise, fabric seats (although we’d argue they’re preferable) and the quality of materials is noticeably down on the ZST – partly because it’s a lower-spec model and partly because trim upgrades are also a part of the newer model’s facelift.
ENGINES: 1.5-litre four, 1.0l or 1.3l three-cylinder turbos
POWER: 84kW/150Nm, 82kW/160Nm, 115kW/230Nm
GEARBOX: 4-speed automatic (1.5l only) or 6-speed automatic, FWD