Concepts and prototypes : MG ZT XPower 385

The most powerful version of the rear-wheel drive MG ZT spent a long time in development – and in the end it didn’t make it into production, as time ran out for it.

Wearing the coveted chassis number one, the ZT XPower 385 is another of those fascinating might-have-beens that never saw the light of day.


M5 Basher?

One of the most fascinating announcements made by MG Rover management in the immediate aftermath of the BMW sale was the proclamation that the company would be developing a range of rear wheel drive MG saloons based on the front wheel drive 75. Eyebrows were raised, given the general opinion was that MGR would not last more than two years, and such bold cars are not the domain of a company in terminal decline. However, the prototype was shown around various motor shows, and reaction from potential buyers and the press was extremely positive.

MGR stated that the V8 versions of the ZT saloon and ZT-T Tourer would be available in two forms: the 260bhp ZT and ZT-T V8, and the other, the 385PS XPower ZT385 version. The power source would be the V8 Ford Mustang engine (ironically to also be used in the XPower SV, although this was not in place when the ZT-Extreme was conceived) and there would be much chassis development – handled by Rob Oldaker.

The launch was provisionally set for late 2002, and MG enthusiasts (and those looking for a spiritual successor to the SD1 version of the Rover Vitesse) sat and waited in anticipation.

…and waited and waited and waited and waited.

Prodrive given the job

In good Rover tradition (look at the MGF and RV8 for examples), the development of the car was outsourced. In this case, the company tasked being Prodrive. The people behind WRC Subaru Imprezas were charged with the major task of converting the 75/ZT back to rear wheel drive. Given the fact that the Rover 75 platform was not based on the rear wheel drive BMW 3- or 5-Series the conversion was far from straightforward (for a start, there was not enough room for a rear differential without major body modifications).

The development phase was, therefore, not trouble-free and it was reported that the collaboration went, sour. One major issue was the cost of the project: according to one journalist, development costs were alleged to spiralled, going some five times over their original budget. A Prodrive engineer, who worked on the project countered this: ‘As for the costs spiralling out of control, the project was taken on at a fixed cost which wasn’t exceeded, although MGR then tried (and failed) to get some of that money back through the courts.’

As a result of this, development was taken in-house, and as can be seen from the accompanying photograph, the development XPower ZT in near-production trim was spotted out and about in the Midlands. It certainly looked good on the road. Jon Mower, who saw it in action, and took the above photo, said: ‘…the front of the car did not have the standard MG ZT grille; it was similar to that of the new SV. The tyres were different sizes, front and rear..’

As can be seen from this picture, the stance of the MG XPower ZT385 is somewhat more adventurous than the already sporting MG ZT V8; the wheelarches have been widened considerably (in a similar way to the Audi RS2, 4 and 6 models) in order to house wide enough rubber to handle the 385PS this car is reported to put out.

As can be seen from this picture, the stance of the MG XPower ZT385 is somewhat more adventurous than the already sporting MG ZT V8; the wheelarches have been widened considerably (in a similar way to the Audi RS2, 4 and 6 models) in order to house wide enough rubber to handle the 385PS this car is reported to put out.

Brought in-house

According to one engineer who worked on the project, it shared little with the standard ZT 260, and that would explain the fact its development dragged on for so long. He said: ‘The shell was standard, but apart from that there was very little shared in common with the production – basically because it was no good. We spent a lot of money sorting the chassis out, because Prodrive was a bit wide of the mark. The original cars were basically totally re-engineered to sort out all of the problems.’

According to a Prodrive engineer, this was not the case: ‘Despite being given an incredibly vague design spec, which amounted to “Put this V8 in that car, and make it an M5 beater”, we developed a car that rode beautifully and was all but unstickable from the road. However, MGR decided quite late in the programme that the superb ride and handling that matched the M5 was too safe – they wanted it to be ‘edgy’ and to have the feeling that it was barely tamed.

He added: ‘The tuned ZS that they gave us as a target example was almost dangerous (I know the production ZS is far better than that). But, as the customer is always right, Prodrive tried to meet this change in specification, although with the project so far down the line at this point, all that could be done with the remaining budget was to tweak the already-designed setup, resulting in an unsatisfying compromise.

‘I don’t hold a grudge against any of the MGR engineers, as they were largely kept out of the project by their management until it was too late, and knowing how good many of them are, I can understand their resentment at someone else being given such an interesting project. But the blame for the failure of the project, and for the ultimately compromised chassis of the initial 260s, lies at the door of the MGR managers, not Prodrive.’

ZT 385 prototype problems

Our ex-MG Rover engineer recalled: ‘There were actually a couple of 385s rolling around when the company closed – however you would not have been able to spot the difference between a 260 and the 385 as there was no external differences apart from the extra intercooler radiator mounted at the bottom of the normal rad. To make the full blown version, the brakes were to be uprated, as was the suspension, to take the wider wheels and tyres at the front. We also needed a body kit for it – which existed in CAD form. There were some other areas to look at too, but the bones were there so to speak.’

As a road car, the prototype was not without its problems, and it was guaranteed to give its test pilots something to think about at speed. Our engineer recalled: ‘It was a unique vehicle… that proved a living nightmare to drive and look after. I reckon the best thing you could have done with it, was drop it off a cliff. It was badly executed and could have been so much better.

‘The gearbox was a pig to use, the drivetrain was unbalanced, and the vibrations were awful. No heater system or ventilation packs. Over 80mph, the whole thing wobbled, over 120 it became frightening; and from 150 on, it took a brave soul to keep it there.’

A sad end

Disappointingly, the MG XPower ZT385 never hit the showrooms, having been delivered to MG Sport and Racing to prepare for production – and following Sport and Racing’s fall into administration, the car was sold by tender auction for an undisclosed sum to the MG Owners Club during December 2005. Our engineer commented wryly: “I hope whoever bought it spends a lot of time and effort sorting the problems out on it… like throwing away the rear end, and fitting a proper production specification rear six-mount subframe on it!”

Roger Parker of the MG Owners Club summed up the work that needed completing on the prototype to make it run and drive as MG Rover intended: ‘There are several parts missing such as the bonnet and front panel, but MGOC plans to bring the car back to a roadworthy specification. At this time we have not fully decided on the detailed look as there is a new style rear bumper with prominent raised surrounds inbuilt to the panel before any metal finishers are fitted.

‘This is an all new look not seen before, but fortunately goes well with the front panel style. I favour the 385 style as seen in the Frankfurt image, although the costs of returning to the original Typhoon paint is probably too expensive, especially since the Aurora finish is full and production quality. This will also need the individual rear styled spoiler which unlike the rounded ZT 190 one, has a different style with a clearly lowered centre section similar to the style on the ZS180 hatch. I have trialled a route to achieving this with reasonable ease also!’

Nic Fasci, one of the engineers who worked on the car summed-up: ‘The ZT385 was always a “show item” and way off the final production car. Great bit of fun though. ZT260s were great, and the production car would have been absolutely fantastic with the most amazing soundtrack too. Happy days and proud to be a part of that bit of history.’


With thanks to: John Mower for the picture.

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Editor at AROnline and @hjclassics. Likes cars, taking pictures, travelling and knee-high boots...


23 Responses

  1. Ken Robinson - July 24, 2011

    We had that fantastic prototype in our studio (we photographed all Rover cars) and yes it was one hell of a car, the exhaust sound was to die for and the body bulges were almost obscene. It would have been an M5 beater, no question. But like many of the prototypes I have seen, never passed the finishing tape.

  2. David 3500 - July 24, 2011

    I must admit that a slghlty less lairy version of the ZT 385 in terms of styling, ride and noise would have made an appealing Rover 75 Vitesse.

  3. Dennis - February 1, 2012

    “I must admit that a slghlty less lairy version of the ZT 385 in terms of styling, ride and noise would have made an appealing Rover 75 Vitesse.”

    So you mean the ZT260 with Rover badges then?

  4. Michael Clark - March 29, 2012

    I own and drive a 2002 ZT 190 which is superior to any comparable 2002 BMW/Mercedes/Audi. No wonder MG Rover got shunted to the sidelines. Cars like mine, the Mustang V8 and the unfinished 350ps must have scared the daylights out of the German and French automobile industries as they had nothing to compare at the time. Typical of unsuportive governments when it comes to British industry and innovation. I still rate British engineering as the best in the world. I’m hardly going to put down my own profession am I?

  5. Jelibeli - December 18, 2012

    I worked on the ZT260 at Prodrive, and many of the ‘engineers comments’ are a little unfair to say the least.

    Despite being given an incredibly vague design spec, which amounted to “Put this V8 in that car, and make it an M5 beater”, we developed a car that rode beautifully and was all but unstickable from the road. However, MGR decided quite late in the programme that the superb ride & handling that matched the M5 was too safe – they wanted it to be ‘edgy’ and to have the feeling that it was barely tamed. The tuned ZS that they gave us as a target example was almost dangerous (I know the production ZS is far better than that, BTW). But, as the customer is always right, Prodrive tried to meet this change in specification, although with the project so far down the line at this point, all that could be done with the remaining budget was to tweak the already-designed setup, resulting in an unsatisfying compromise.

    As for the costs spiralling out of control, the project was taken on at a fixed cost which wasn’t exceeded, although MGR then tried (and failed) to get some of that money back through the courts.

    The project was an overall failure (260 and 385) because MGR could never decide what they wanted from the car, and would change direction on a weekly basis.

    I don’t hold a grudge against any of the MGR engineers, as they were largely kept out of the project by their management until it was too late, and knowing how good many of them are, I can understand their resentment at someone else being given such an interesting project. But the blame for the failure of the project, and for the ultimately compromised chassis of the initial 260s, lies at the door of the MGR managers, not Prodrive.

    BTW, the two press photos are of the original hand-built prototype ZT360 with the Rousch front-mounted supercharger, the show-stopper car that spawned the whole X12/13 (ZTV8) project.

  6. Jerry Flint - September 2, 2013

    Really appreciate the Prodrive answer. I can honestly believe MGR changing the goal posts result in in a compromised car.

  7. Malcolm Sayer's Ghost - December 3, 2013

    An M5 beater? Obviously.
    BMW was certainly similarly in awe as Claridge’s would be if the Linton Travel Tavern decided to redecorate a few of its rooms.

  8. Phil Simpson - December 3, 2013

    Typical MGR. Spend lots of time & money on a niche product or three (MG ZT260 & X Power SV then wonder why there’s no money to complete the bread & butter car required to move the company forward.

  9. John Fishwick - December 3, 2013

    Yet another wasted opportunity . Such a shame , as that car looks drop dead gorgeous. Why on earth give it to Prodrive to develop and then move the goal posts. Unbelievable !

  10. F.F.Mitchell - December 3, 2013

    The “normal” MG V8s were quite a nice car. There is a chap just round the corner who has one and had it converted to SC by Dreadnought. However too much time and money was spent of niche products like this that would only sell in penny-packets, yet the K-series engine head gasket problems were ignored until too late. Let’s face it, if your main engine that is put in 95% of the cars is no good then you need to fix it asap before the customers walk away.

  11. francis brett francis brett - December 3, 2013

    @8,I don’t really think this car was really the problem, I feel far happier with this car than MGR poncing around Le Mans trying to out- Audi Audi.

    The Zeds were a life saver for MGR, while it lasted.

  12. COKE STAR - December 3, 2013

    @10. Having owned 3 different LHD cars including K-series engines (Rover 114 SL, Rover 114 GTi, Rover 25 Vi) and still owning a ZT 190, I’ve never been hit by a single head gasket problem in more than 600.000 cumulated kms. If you take a minimal care about these engines, they appear to be very reliable. Or the ones sold in France were “special export products”. Or I am a very lucky guy!

  13. WarrenL - December 4, 2013

    “The rear-wheel drive version of the MG ZT spent a long time in development – and in the end it didn’t make it into production…”

    The ZT260 was both rear-wheel-drive and in production, was it not?

  14. alex scott nzl 69 alex scott - December 4, 2013

    great looking machine, there is a red ZT in the city I live in and it looks great even if it looks slightly tamer than this one. Alex

  15. WarrenL - December 4, 2013

    Aha! You fixed it. My confusion is dissolved.

  16. Stevo - December 5, 2013

    Not a great fan of the 75, shape or styling. Whilst the MG was a good attempt at maximising the potential of the model it still didn’t do much for me. However I really like the look of this, it’s edgy and has a real presence. I agree with PS though they should have concentrated on cars that would make MGR some money rather than waste time on niche products. Typical of the great malaise!

  17. DeLorean's Accountant - December 5, 2013

    How would it have been an “M5 basher”? It was already 14 bhp down on the outgoing E39 M5 and would soon be 114bhp down on the then-new E60 M5.

    In addition to that, the E39 was regarded as one of the best cars available at the time. Both were incredibly well engineered even if the E60 had dreadful iDrive abnd a bit of a cheapo-looking interior.

  18. Chris Baglin - December 6, 2013

    Wonderful concept, but like the poorly monickered X Power SV, it was a project that Rover could ill afford, especially given the aforementioned problems with the K Series, and the urgent need for a 45 and Metro replacement.

    P4, and Kevin Howe, ran Rover like it was their own private train set. A crying shame.

  19. francis brett francis brett - December 6, 2013

    @18,Thats because it was their train set, no matter where the blame lies, without P4 there would be no MGR for 5 years after BMW bailed.

  20. Jonathan McDowell - December 10, 2013

    Hi guys, sorry to butt in! I do feel very strongly about this subject. I own a ZT190 and would love a ZT260. I think they are a beautiful car both to drive and to look at. The only thing I would change about the 190 is to add a sixth gear and give it a few more ponies.

    As for F4, they milked every penny out of the company and frittered away the rest on fancy show off projects that led no-where.

    I could have made a better go of Rover, but they didn’t offer it to us common folk for a tenner!

  21. Brad Pitt - December 13, 2013

    @ 4.

    Dream on. The ZT was an interesting car and pretty good for a FWD platform but to say they were better than anything from Audi, Mercedes or BMW were offering at this time is just nonsense.

    The RWD 260 with the Ford engine was “pig iron” engineering compared to the Germans. Just looking at BMW, they were producing the E46 with the M54 engine at this time. 230 BHP in 3L form. A far more efficient, refined and desirable package.

    The E46 M3 was 3.2L and produced 340 BHP. It annihilates a ZT260.

    The ZT’s were interesting cars for sure but to think that the Germans were quaking in their boots about them is laughable.

  22. engineermk - December 19, 2013

    At the time the MGR guys were falling out with Prodrive at a the Fen End/Kenilworth site the Tickford guys (who were by then owned by Prodrive) we’re trying hard to keep a good relationship going on the engine testing services they provided to Longbridge.

    The Tickford team were dismayed, MK1 Focus RS was a success. Prodrive were having a tough time with this project.

  23. engineermk - December 19, 2013

    I do know at one of these ended up in the US. Rousch apparently took a car in lieu of payment from Prodrive and it’s found it way to the US.

    The now owner called me (when I worked for Tickford) to see if we could shed any light on it as the Prodrive receptionist thought it was a Tickford project!

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