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Overview

Ta-dah! MG’s still here! The Chinese-backed rebirth of Longbridge’s beleaguered manufacturer has been a stuttering effort of uncompetitive machines so far, but the ZS is here to change that. It’s the car to double MG’s sales within a year, we’re told, from 4,500 in 2017 to (guess what?) 9,000 and climbing in 2018. As it’s a compact crossover that costs from a philanthropic £12,495, it’s smack in the best-selling car class crosshairs and has value on its side. Oh, and it’s also the least offensive-looking MG we’ve seen in about thirty years.

That’s because it’s also the most generic. A Mazda CX-5 front, Nissan Qashqai profile and Renault Kadjar rear collide to make the ZS thoroughly unnoticeable on the road. You can’t have a colour-contrast roof, a zany interior or enormous spangly alloy wheels. Everything is very retrained, inside and out. MG says its pragmatic priorities are the reason why it can offer a base Explore model for £12,496 and the top-spec Exclusive complete with an automatic gearbox, sat-nav, a reversing camera and parking sensors for £17,495.

That’s around twenty per cent less than the Japanese and European competition. And the seven-year warranty, MG bullishly points out, doesn’t deteriorate in cover as time passes, like Kia’s much-touted rival offer.

Engine-wise, there’s the thrashy old 1.5-litre petrol four-cylinder, or a newer 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbo, which is more pleasant to use but still underpowered, compared to the competition. However, you can only pair it with the automatic gearbox, which is an epic own-goal, as we’ll see on the next page. There’s no diesel planned, and electrification is being considered in the future. But simple-to-understand specs and offers are MG’s battle plan for the ZS.

As you’ve likely spotted, the ZS is not a tiny car. Cabin space-wise, it’s bigger than a Qashqai, at sub-Juke money. That. And the big boot, are perhaps the ZS’s greatest virtues. And the cabin, while aeons away from the ‘premium’ feel that MG’s propaganda will desperately try to have you believe, is strides better than the diabolical MG 6 and cheapo MG 3 offered. MG is getting there. Slowly.

While MG’s proud of standard equipment even on basic Explore models such as side curtain airbags, LED running lights with automatic headlights, electric door mirrors, Bluetooth and cruise control, this is not a car to consider if you’ve become used to any rival’s active safety systems.

The MG offers no autonomous emergency braking, lane departure or blind spot assist, and the ESP system is one of the most dated, haphazard we’ve come across on a new car in recent times, snatching at wheels as you corner with little logic or finesse. It’s simply not as polished a product as its rivals – you get what you pay for, basically. Take that as a positive or a negative, depending on how simple you like your transport. We’re not convinced.

DRIVING

MGs do corner well. Really. Even the dreadful overall MG 6 and lacklustre MG 3 did, against all the odds, have a decent chassis underneath them. MG used this to bullishly cling to the idea it was a maker of drivers’ cars, worthy of those old MG Bs and Cs and Midgets that are as quintessentially British as strawberries and cream at Wimbledon. It wasn’t enough to make us like them, or make buyers care, though. So we presumed the MG ZS would switch those priorities.

Not so, as it turns out. First up, the ZS does indeed have a god chassis. It generates lots of grip and can corner at amusingly high speed with very little body roll, and when you drive like, say, a normal, responsible person, it keeps feeling agile but remains well-damped. There’s more wind and road noise than its rivals, but it’s passable, and the 1.0-litre engine is professionally isolated from the cabin.

Here, the case for the MG as a good drive starts to waver. The steering is incredibly vague around the straightahead, which isn’t that pleasant, and despite MG’s fevered protestations that the three different weights (Urban, Normal and Dynamic) improve the feel or wieldiness of the steering, that’s chapter one, verse one of marketing rubbish. The steering, despite six months of tuning for UK roads we’re told, is lifeless. A Mazda CX-3 demolishes the ZS for driver feedback.

Yes, we know, this is a crossover, not a car that begs Sunday morning crack-of-dawn hoons. In which case, you’d rather that the development time had been spent on the powertrains…

The 1.0-litre turbo unit, co-developed with General Motors, develops a useful 109bhp and holds maximum torque of (just) 118lb ft between 1,800 and 4,700rpm. And weighing in at 1,330kg, that ought to be adequate. However, the three-pot is strangled by one of the worst automatic gearboxes in any modern car. The six-speed slusher has AWOL kickdown reactivity, and is so keen to sit in its sixth, cruising ratio that it could fool you into thinking it has a decouple and coast function, so low do the revs drop. It doesn’t however, and the resulting delay waiting for the powertrain to get out of bed and go to work hurts the ZS’s driveability just about everywhere.

This issue could be solved at a stroke if there was a manual option, but no, it’s auto-only on the turbo motor. If you want to swap gears yourself with the rubbery five-speed stick-shift, you’re forced to have the dated, thirsty, thrashy 108bhp 1.5-litre four-pot petrol engine, which takes 10.4 seconds to get from 0-60, and struggles for in-gear motorway pace. It also permeates the cabin with a shivering vibration, and could really do with a sixth speed.

These powertrains age the modern-looking ZS into feeling off the pace of all its rivals. The pay-off, as per usual, is that this is a cheap car. Claimed CO2 emissions of 129g/km for the 1.5-litre and 144g/km (!) for the 1.0 turbo betray that this is where MG’s development isn’t on par, so the tax bills will be higher than Kia or Hyundai’s offerings. Even a Dacia Duster’s engine range is more refined and modern than the MG’s. And on the subject of the Dacia 4x4, that’s still in a class of two with the Fiat Panda if you want to take a small crossover off-road. A niche ability, but one the front-drive ZS doesn’t cater to.

INSIDE

The ZS is nowhere near as copycat inside as its bodywork might have you fear. In fact, the spacious cabin and its logical layout might well be the car’s strongest hand. There’s a new steering wheel that no longer feels cheaper to hold than a Fisher-Price PlayStation accessory, and the buttons have been copied from old VW products so you needn’t have the dexterity of a concert pianist to switch the volume up a little.

The clocks, with the Audi-esque fonts, are readable. There’s a good slug of soft-touch material on the dash, which is jolly nice, but rather undone by the baffling decision to make Apple CarPlay a standard feature on mid and high-spec models, then not rubberise the cubby holes where your phone might live. So, as soon as it’s plugged in and you set off, your gadgets are going to get scratched, and rattle. D’oh.

The touchscreen itself is a minor triumph. The home screen is a colourful and responsive affair, though this gives way to very fiddly sub menus. Sat-nav mapping is clear, and the Apple CarPlay functionality is a boon few rivals have can match in 2017, but will inevitably catch up with.

What they’ll struggle to do is match the ZS’s space. Behind comfortable front seats lives a rear bench that can genuinely accommodate three adults, almost in comfort save for the fact the rear headrests don’t sprout high enough, so they’ll dig into your back painfully. Headroom and legroom is beyond reproach however, the doors have wide apertures, and visibility is a brighter vista than some overdesigned rivals from the likes of Vauxhall (Mokka), Ford (EcoSport) and Nissan (Juke).

Meanwhile, behind the boot door with the release now neatly engineered into the MG badge, lives a 448-litre boot – thank the torsion bar rear axle for liberating space that more sophisticated rivals do without. Rear seats down, this is a 1,375-litre van, both of which are class-leading figures, says MG. Hmm. Given this car straddles about three classes, that’s your call. Either way, you will not want for space in the ZS, which makes its case as a growing family’s sole runabout a stronger one.

OWNING

Price-wise, there’s no getting away from the fact the MG ZS is unbeatable. The base model is £12,495, and regardless, MG says its mid and high-spec Excite and Exclusive version, all at under £17,000, will be better sellers anyway, because of their more generous equipment and rival-undercutting price.

Both engines return economy of 38-40mpg in real-world conditions, against claims of 49.6mpg for the 1.5-litre and 44.9mpg for the 1.0-litre turbo. CO2 emissions are reasonable competitive for the 1.5, but two tax bands off the pace where the 1.0-litre is involved, at 144g/km.

MG currently has 65 UK dealers as of late 2017 and is aiming for 90 in 2018. It service record is glowing, with strong aftersales care reported and a very comprehensive seven-year warranty. Chances are if your MG goes wrong, it’ll be fixed for free and you’ll be chuffed with the service, anecdotally at least. MG also says it’s working on competitive PCP deals, to compete with the likes of Nissan and Ford’s infamously cheap deals.

VERDICT

"The best 21st Century MG yet. Other faint praise is available..."

The ZS is indeed the best MG yet. It’s cheap, spacious, well put together, handles tidily, rides passably and has a strong aftersales package. The touchscreen, which even top-end manufacturers can trip up over, isn’t bad at all.

But there are fundamental issues with MG’s crossover that cease its romp towards being a TG underdog winner. The engines are too dated, the gearboxes unpleasant, and trumpeting the infotainment technology papers over the cracks in the safety kit for only so long.

It’s encouraging MG has sorted out its design both inside and out in a short space of time, and maintained chuckable, entertaining handling, but there’s not the bargain charm of a Dacia Duster here, nor the sophistication of more rivals which will be more pleasant to drive every day. When 21st Century powertrains and anti-crash tech arrive, the MG ZS will be worth consideration.
 

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