IAIN ROBERTSON 

When you consider the quality of Chinese motorcars imported to the UK, writes Iain Robertson, the few examples that have trickled-in have not exactly been of the highest merchantable quality and MG was among the first…

It was one of my masters at school, Derek ‘Dopey’ Dawson I believe, who was to Latin, what Paul Heaton (Beautiful South etc) is to pop-song lyrics…a true master of turn of phrase. Mr D., in one of his more generous moments, stated sagely: “Remember, Robertson, you are never too old to continue learning!” I seem to recall that, while I seldom boasted of ‘knowing-it-all’, at the ripe old age of thirteen years, it was advice that never left me.

When MG was a 1920’s privately-funded sideshow for the esteemed William Morris’s Oxford-based car manufacturing concern, nobody would have reckoned on Cecil Kimber, its ‘founder’, engraving its pair of initials so deeply in the motoring psyche that they would retain purchase today. Yet, they have, even though it is Chinese corporation, SAIC, that now owns the rights. Intriguingly, the brand also retains a small but essentially vital link to the UK, through its British design and management team, based at the brand’s sometime home near Longbridge, Birmingham.

Up to now, I have felt that a value-for-money stance, while well-intentioned, has left more questions unanswered than solutions provided. The first of the new generation MGs, the cruddy mid-size 6, has been dropped unceremoniously from its ranks, despite a couple of special examples achieving decent results in the British Touring Cars Championship. The 3 is a decent, typical Sino-conglomerate machine that has earned its stripes as a ‘value brand’, despite the fact that it looks like the ‘arch-copyists’ enjoyed a Euro-bean feast en-route to marketing it here. Yet, as essential as GS, the firm’s first SUV, might be, setting alight to the heather has not been its primary achievement, the car missing the quality remit by an indecent margin.

However, the fastest-growing of the SUV class, the compact sector, while a dangerous place to reside, as a relative minnow among some monster sharks, could harbour a new champion in the MG ZS, which will more than double the company’s UK sales. Be under no illusion, MG admits to having listened to its critics, positive and negative, and rather than producing more-of-the-same-thanks-a-bundle, it has learned that its best route to market is to adopt the most positive feedback.

To be in with a chance of survival, ZS needs to set fresh standards, while embodying established parameters for the category. To those holding questionable memories of the former MG-Rover Group, which launched its version of the booted Honda Civic (aka: Rover 45) as an MG ZS in 2001, the model-naming exercise might be regarded as an error of judgement. Yet, SUV is ‘it’ for the moment and, as long as the product is good, awkwardness can soon be set aside.

The bottom-line is that the new MG ZS is a car verging on excitement…it is right-sized…it looks the part…it drives very well…it is right-priced, starting from a lowly £12,495, with the ultimate example weighing in at £17,495, so what’s wrong with it? Truth is, nothing. Talk about hitting the road running, MG has listened to all criticisms, positive and negative, of its past models and pursued a route of markedly higher quality but presented with a value-brand pricing pitch. This could be called its ‘Why not?’ moment.

Place all of the ingredients for the SUV class into a blender and what results, after a suitable period of proving and baking, is what you see pictured here. It is actually quite hard to discern the myriad makes and models from each other. After all, a cherry cake is still a cherry cake but making it taste more desirable than the others demands greater unctuousness, extra contents and a soupcon of pleasantness. Yet, retail it for less-than-anticipated and you might have a winner on your hands.

MG achieves its consummate mix by introducing ‘slush-moulded’ plastics for its dashboard and some interior trimmings (a la VW). The quality is elevated accordingly. In fact, the combination of textured tactility aids MG’s case, with tasteful applications dotted across the dash-panel and a comfortable steering-wheel design aids the support of the optional hide (standard cloth) seats. ZS also offers tremendous space utilisation, with a huge boot (a class-leading 448-litres seats-up; 1,375-litre seats folded) and bags of kneeroom, shoulder space and foot-room for up to five occupants. Install Apple CarPlay, an 8.0-inch touch-screen, Bluetooth connectivity, sat-nav, climate control and three steering effort modes (Urban, Normal and Dynamic), dependent on choice of Explore, Excite, or Exclusive trim levels, and the ‘Why not?’ factor grows in relevance, even though the actual model line-up is small.

A fresh exterior design language that encompasses elements more familiar to high-end aspirants, like the radiator grille that looks very DS-ish, or the LED headlamp signature (Mazda-like), or a profile that owes more to Qashqai than outlandish Juke, suggests that MG, while not necessarily knowing its onions, is capable of assembling a satisfying mix of sweet tasting scallions, as it ‘learns’ its trade. ZS is a good looking and attractive car, further enhanced (on red examples) by a tri-coat finish that offers a depth that detailers will adore. Familiarity might breed contempt but design director, Carl Gotham’s UK-led styling stance is on-the-money.

Driving the ZS is where the magic sets-in. A substantial amount of time was spent improving the car’s dynamics on British roads. ZS is slick. It is fluent. Its ride quality is firm, yet never jarringly uncomfortable, riding out the worst of British road surface imperfections with a level of insouciant confidence. It steers beautifully and manages to feel connected, a factor that enhances driver involvement, without introducing feedback falsehood.

Two engine and gearbox choices exist for ZS: the familiar 103bhp, 1.5-litre, four cylinder engine mated to a 5-speed manual gearbox; or an all-new (GM-supplied) 1.0-litre ‘turbo-triple’ kicking out 108bhp but driving through a 6-speed automatic transmission. The manual is the more accelerative option (0-60mph in 10.4 vs. 12.1 seconds) but the auto-box has the higher top speed (112mph vs. 109mph). The 1.5i manual delivers better Official Combined fuel economy at 49.6mpg to the 1.0-litre’s 44.9mpg and, with 129g/km vs. 144g/km of CO2 emissions, it is also less costly in first year road tax terms (£160 vs £200), although both revert to £140 annually thereafter. Importantly, both engines feel lively, smooth, refined, modern and well up to class standards.

Conclusion:   MG is weighing into the most hectic sector of the new car scene with a ZS model that meets and exceeds all expectations. It is an exceptional, front-driven car that looks and behaves the part it needs to. Supported by a market-leading, comprehensive, seven years/80,000-miles warranty, MG is playing the zeitgeist like few of its rivals have. There is nothing of which to make negative critical appraisal; the ZS is a good car. A very good car and I believe that it will make an immense difference to the brand’s standing in the UK. It is worth highlighting that its original prototype name was XS but MG decided to rename it ZS, which might be the final ‘Why not?’ gesture in its suitably fired-up armoury.      

About Iain P W Robertson

Frequently being told to 'go forth and multiply', Iain P W Robertson's automotive wisdom is based on almost forty years in the business, across all aspects from sport to production, at the highest levels. He likes dogs and drives a Suzuki (not related).