First Drive : MG ZT 260 V8 (Mk2)

Launched in November 2003, the MG ZT 260 V8 heralded a return of the rear wheel drive V8 super-saloon to the MG Rover fold.

It has been lauded by all who have driven it, including us, but how does the Longbridge bruiser stack up under closer scrutiny?


Phil Mitchell on wheels…

Quad exhaust pipes are the only giveaway from this angle.

Quad exhaust pipes are the only giveaway from this angle.

MG ROVER has to be congratulated on its ability to develop and introduce cars at the upper end of the market. The ZT V8 is one such product – Alongside the XPower SV, it was announced early on during Phoenix’s tenure in charge of the company, it is patently obvious that the car is the brainchild of a bunch of repressed hot-rodders with a penchant for stuffing oversized engines into seemingly timid family saloons.

Faced with the prospect of running a car company with one reasonably fresh model which never met its potential. and three other ageing lines, which would soon be in need of attention, the idea of producing a V8 engined Rover 75-based car would not have been high on the list of most managers’ priorities. One can almost picture the scene now…

A bunch of petrolheads sat round a table, each one with idea of playing ‘fantasy carmarker’ in his mind:

Product planner number one says: “I have an idea, lets produce a bunch of MGs, which could be re-badged versions of the Rover 25, 45 and 75!
Second planner says: “Great idea! We have been developing sportier Rovers in one of the tunnels, at weekends, when BMW were looking the other way… we could stick MG badges on these and get them into production pretty quickly – making us look like real heroes.”
Not to be outdone, planner number one retorts: “I like the sound of that – we can stuff the biggest engines in these cars, and give our cars real sporting kudos… but will that KV6 really cut it? Perhaps we could turbocharge it…?
Nahhh….“, says planner number two, “It’ll not be easy… but we could always buy in someone else’s engine…

Then Nick Stephenson comes staggering in. He’s a little worse for wear after long afternoon meeting down the pub, and is swaying a little when he slurrs: “Top job lads. Let’s stick a bloody great V8 in it. Oh, and make it rear wheel drive… That’ll show the Germans. I’m off for a nap now.

After the decision was made, it would have been down to the boffins to make it work. A two-cam version of the classic Ford Mustang 4.6-litre V8 engine was the power unit chosen, and the idea was to use it in two states of tune, 260PS and 385PS. However, MG Rover was a shadow of its former self, and now without a R&D centre at Gaydon, development resources were scarce. RD/X60 would have already been occupying engineers’ minds, so the logical decision to farm out the development of the MG V8 project – X12 – was farmed out to Prodrive.

Sadly, it soon became apparent that the converting the front wheel drive R40 platform into the rear wheel drive X12 was going to be less straightforward than first envisaged. For a start, the rear differential was too large to fit into the existing housing, so a new rear floorpan needed to be developed. If nothing else, it definitely proves the R40 platform was not based on the BMW 5-Series, as the urban myth had us believe. Development was an on-off affair with rumours of Prodrive upping its financial demands, and MG Rover refusing to meet them. Development was delayed, and finally, MG Rover brought the X12 project in-house. The work was then rapidly finished, and the car rolled out to the press in November 2003 – over two years after its original announcement.

Still, it is a fascinating car, and although questions have been raised about its relevance on wider society, and within a company struggling to make ends meet, one thing is for sure: the world would be a lesser place without it.

Performance and Economy

256bhp from 4.6-litres may not exactly be great shakes these days, but the 302lb/ft of torque is, and as a result, performance is delivered in an elastic way, characteristic of a V8.

256bhp from 4.6-litres may not exactly be great shakes these days, but the 302lb/ft of torque is, and as a result, performance is delivered in an elastic way, characteristic of a V8.

Let’s get one thing settled straight away: the ZT 260 V8 is an excellent performer. It may deliver the goods in what can only be described as an old fashioned way, but that in no way can be levelled as a criticism – acceleration is more than adequate, with standing start figures greatly helped by exceptional traction. Unlike the Rover V8 we tested earlier, which had something of a lazy feel to it until it became apparent the throttle needed mashing like an organ pedal to get the best from it, the ZT is much lighter, and instantly more alert.

The story here, is of a car that can pull with alacrity from as little as 500rpm in any gear. There is no fluffing, no snatching, and when trickling along at what seems like walking pace in fifth gear, floor the throttle and there’s simply a smooth and seemless supply of power. But don’t get the impression the V8 is all about grunty delivery from low revs – after all, if you wanted that, you’d buy a turbodiesel. No, the power is delivered in a single, linear lump of power, and it pulls cleanly and vigorously from 1500rpm, all the way to its 6000rpm cut-out.

Keep it about 1500rpm, and there is genuine shove in any gear, and if you use wide throttle openings (and let’s face it, who wouldn’t) the brisk acceleration is accompanied by a melodious soundtrack unique to an old-school V8. It starts out as a roar, evolves into a bellow as the revs rise, to finally mutate into the most soulful howl you’ll find in any car under £50,000.

The ZT actually accelerates faster than it feels – helped by tight suspension control, limiting rear end squat when gunned, and aiding the already excellent traction – and this can sometimes have you feeling like you want more power (which will happen – the ZT 385 is on its way). But like all ZTs, one glance at the speedo usually tells you the car is actually travelling considerably faster than you first thought. 0-60mph is dispatched in an excellent 6.2 seconds, with 100mph coming up in 16.3, and the maximum speed is a very competitive 155mph (limited).

Economy is a disappointing though, and although we weren’t expecting miracles, the overall 17.9mpg in our hands was no great achievement. On a gentle run, we managed to eke out 270 miles on a tankful of Optimax, but if you get at all enthusiastic, or tend to do a lot of urban driving, it is possible to find the tank needs re-filling after 160 miles. Bear that in mind if long trips are on the agenda. The trip computer has been re-programmed not to give fuel read-outs, and initially we thought this may have been down to the system not working with the V8 engine, but we’ve since heard the real reason is more simple: it got deleted in order to stop drivers alarming themselves with single-figure read-outs.

Handling and Ride

This is where the MG was always expected to excel, and it comes as no great shock that it more than lived up to expectations. Initial impressions are of a car with a rock solid and rather bony low speed ride, but as the speed rises, this is replaced by an overall feeling of indominability you only get with a well-honed heavyweight.

Levels of roll are low, and the steering is communicative – something you can’t accuse its smaller brothers of being. There’s weight at the helm, but the gearing is quick, resulting in a satisfying set-up, which is perfectly in tune with the driver who likes long, sweeping, open roads. Because of the high level of driver/car interaction, driving quickly is an incredibly easy process, and whereas a few years back, one might have baulked at driving a car this powerful in bad weather – the ZT comes across as a bit of a pussycat.

This is especially the case, when you lean on the car, pressing it to poking its tail out. Because of the superb rear suspension and high levels of traction, it is quite inconceivable it’ll snap into surprise oversteer, but if you provoke it in the classic slow in-fast out way, it will drift beautifully. In fact, it’s ability to power-oversteer on demand in medium- and low-speed corners borders on the sublime – so easy, in fact, corrective measures are spookily instinctive.

Of course, all this is only achievable if the traction control is switched off. The less we mention about this, the better – because there’s little to recommend this agressive and instrusive system. It may stop the car from sliding, but the way it cuts the power suddenly, kills the fun and ultimately ends up frustrating the driver.

Another impressive aspect of the ZT are the brakes, which have all the stopping power of a pair of nightclub bouncers – they’re strong and silent, but also sensitive enough to give good feedback. Low pedal effort is required for big stops, but although they’re light in operation, there’s real progression, too – it would be fair to say that ZT brakes like to other MG before it – they’re Germanically good.

Motorway driving is a particular pleasure, and although the A-Post wind-rustle, present in every 75 or ZT we’ve driven, is there, it doesn’t detract from what is a very restful, composed and relaxing high speed companion. You get a real feeling of its size, weight and solidity – it feels like it would take a hurricane to deviate it from its given course.

At the wheel

There’s little to criticise here – the seats are wonderfully supportive and because they are heavily bolstered, offer superb lateral location when cornering enthusiastically. The driving position is also very good – and because you can sit high, you get a good view out and and feel in command. Like all ZTs, all the major controls fall readily to hand, especially the leather steering wheel, and there is little criticise on the ergonomic side.

There are one or two irritations, such as the cramped footwell, and lack of an ashtray (both as a result of the bulkier transmission package), but on the whole, its a very impressive driving environment. Being an MG, it has blue tinted dials, which look very nice at night, but sadly, the trip computer, climate control, and sat/nav still illuminate in orange…

The interior is on the snug side for a compact executive car, and perfectly commodious upfront. A six-foot rear seat passenger sat immediately behind another six-footer is not short of headroom, but legroom is a little tight.

Finish and equipment

The ZT continues to feel like an impressively well screwed together piece of kit – there are no rattles or squeaks audible from the driver’s seat, even over the roughest of roads. The dahboard – again – feels impressively solid, but it has to be said that the grey plastic facia insert feels on the cheap side, and sounds hollow when you tap it, cheapening the overall effect, somewhat. There is evidence of ‘Project Drive’, the cost-cutting measures at MG Rover – and you’ll notice a lack of rear ventilation and back seat cupholders for a start…

The blue/purple pearlescent paint is impressive, with a flawless finish, and the overall effect is of a very well built car.

It might all be well put together, but the panel gaps are wide where the front bumper/nosecone meets the bonnet – and it also looks messy where the bonnet/wing shutline meets the front lights. This could be offputting to some customers – those who may equate this with poor build quality, which is certainly not the case.

Verdict

You can have a short verdict or a long one…

For those who like to cut to the chase, this verdict is for you: The ZT 260 V8 is power and violence personified, but forced to wear a tuxedo… if you like a bit of rough that can still scrub up when the occasion demands, you’ll love this car… Just remember, it likes a drink.

And for those who like more words…

In a dispassionate world, it would be easy to dismiss the ZT 260 V8 as a hopelessly flawed car, one which is overpriced and has a shocking appetite for fuel. But try as we might, it was difficult, nay impossible, to come away from a drive in this car without a wide grin. For anyone with petrol in their veins, the ZT will win lifelong adherents the first time it is started up – that burbling engine note is more than enough.

There is a reassuringly ‘mechanical’ feel to this car, which sets it apart from its dull as dishwater default-choice German rivals, proving that there still is genuine choice in the new car market, if you are prepared to go an look for it.

We love the engine note, but even taking that out of the equation, the impressive handling, brakes and performance are enough to win over even the most cynical non-believers. The downside of being such a driver-focused tool is that anyone who does get behind the wheel and is seduced will really use this car, and there is a heavy price to be paid at the fuel pumps.

If you’re fortunate enough to have your fuel paid for, and can stump up the £30,000 list price (before discount), there really isn’t much to say against the car. It’s a classic already, but do you know what sets the ZT 260 V8 apart from ALL its rivals? It has an engaging fusion of old and new, which makes it unique – and impossible not to love.

As we said in the intro, the world is a better place for its existence, and after driving it again, we’re even more convinced of that.

Summary

Scores out of ten

Performance
Economy
Transmission
Handling
Accommodation
Boot/storage
Visibility
Instruments
Depreciation
Ventilation
Noise
Finish
Equipment
Verdict
Keith Adams

About the Author:

Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007. Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Clsssics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent... Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.

5 Comments on "First Drive : MG ZT 260 V8 (Mk2)"

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  1. Hilton Davis says:

    The front view of the ZT V8 with full colour coding & extra spotlights looks sporty & agressive… as it should. What a shame its days are over.

  2. Dave Watts says:

    If only we could believe in ourselves , our European counterparts , ie the french, Italians, germans all supported there car industries by buying the cars , and we were daft enough to buy there products. French electronics / wiring are still poor , Italian cars are still hit and miss and German cars cost a fortune by way of parts and lab

  3. Dave Watts says:

    our , so take away “leased and contract hire” products, and refer bought cars ( without hidden rebates / extra discounts) British cars were still cheaper to run than the imports. Sadly we as a nation could never help ourselves and we are now paying the price.

  4. David 3500 says:

    @ Dave Watts:

    I know, it is a crying shame that the British cannot believe in ourselves or the products we build.

    If you read interviews with captains of British industries published in the broadsheets and regional newspapers, very few of them drive a British car – probably less than twenty percent in total. Yet we are supposed to support their businesses.

    Next time you see a British high street retailer such as a supermarket doing its deliveries have a look at what make of delivery van they use, for its certainly won’t be an LDV or Ford Transit.

  5. Ric Belcher says:

    A fabulous car that I fell in love with when they first came out. The best combination of great value, power and finesse this side of a Jaguar XKR….And for an even closer look, my one is now sadly for sale – just not getting the opportunity to us it. A 2004 SE version with full leather, Climate , cruise and sun roof. Finished in Firefrost Red, one of only 11 SEs in this colour, I understand. 34000 miles and excellent condition. New brakes all round and new clutch last year. Based in Salisbury, please call 07836 721714. Ric

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