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A sporty performer;Ross Finlay discovers an MG makeover that di dn't cost a mint - The Herald (United Kingdom); Apr 24, 2002

IN among all MG Rover's plans for things like a Chinese alliance, a Ford V8-engined ex-Italian GT car and so on, the MG ZS range may seem rather conventional, being basically a reworking of the Rover 45.

It's a curious thing, though, in a month when MG is celebrating the production of its 1.5 millionth car since the marque was established in the 1920s, that the total includes half as many saloons as open two-seaters. The ZS is by no means out of place.

MG has demonstrated some ingeniously inexpensive ways of getting into new areas of marketing and promotion. The X80 coupe, due next year, is a reworked Qvale Mangusta which didn't need a complete development programme of its own. And the MG XPower brand will be appearing in American CART racing thanks to a joint project with engine builder John Judd.

Similarly, with the ZS sports model range there was nothing like a blank cheque available. Tinkering around with exterior styling and the look of the cabin didn't cost a lot, and the MG chassis people were able to uprate the car by knowing exactly what to do about handling.

There's a basic ZS 120 and a ZS+ 120 with a slightly better specification. These cars use the 1.8-litre K-series engine which seems likely to have a longer life than was expected at one time, as it gains improved emission control. The 120 catalogue includes a Stepspeed automatic transmission which isn't available in the altogether more businesslike ZS 180.

Prices for the 120 models start at (pounds) 12,680, and the 180 costs (pounds) 15,825 as a five-door hatchback, (pounds) 16,640 as a four-door saloon.

The ZS 180 is a serious performance saloon. That means very firm suspension and low-profile tyres which pick up all the bumps and corrugations on the tarmac. So the car feels fine on smooth going, but jerky on second-rate minor road surfaces.

One great thing about the way the 180 handles at speed is its ability to turn immediately into a corner. The front end steers exactly where it's pointed, to the nearest half-inch, and that's not quite as common as the makers of sports saloons would have us believe.

Being front-wheel drive, the MG doesn't enjoy the all-wheel traction of its more expensive 4WD turbo rivals, but the normally aspirated engine doesn't have their peaky power delivery either. This is the 2.5-litre KV6 engine tuned to 174bhp, the 180 in the model name being slightly optimistic.

With 177lb ft of torque coming in at 4000rpm, the ZS 180 gets to 60mph in 7.3 seconds and on to a test track top speed just short of 140mph. So the fastest MG saloon is no slouch, and the appeal of this kind of specification is the linear power delivery. The power comes in smoothly, although, just to emphasize that this isn't transport for Mr Milquetoast, there's quite a bark as the revs rise.

While MG has a ZS team in the British Touring Car Championship, the race cars don't use the 2.5 KV6 engine, being restricted by the regulations to two-litre capacity.

In the showroom 180, upgrades from the 120 specification include much larger disc brakes. The gear ratios are also closer, and the gear lever itself has a shorter throw.

Economy in the 180 is around 41mpg on the extra urban test, and just under 30mpg combined. With the current engine, CO2 emissions are 227g/km.

Considering the deep front bumper, fog-lamps, huge rear spoiler, 17in multi-spoke alloy wheels and modified side sills, it's no surprise that the ZS 180 looks the part of a sports saloon. It also has a chromed tail-pipe, just in case anybody behind doesn't get the message from the looming boot-lid spoiler.

Inside, there's also no mistaking the emphasis. The 180 has figure-hugging sports front seats, a leather-rimmed steering wheel, a leather gear lever top and part-leather upholstery. There's a fair amount of passenger room, because the Rover 45-based MG starts out with a family-car bodyshell.

There's plenty of luggage space too. In fact, the 180 could easily have far more, because it's fitted with an ''instant mobility'' system, which means no spare wheel but a tyre-inflating gadget. That and its packing take up all the room in what would otherwise be the spare wheel well.
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