First Drive : MG ZT V8 260 (Mk1)
After a long wait, the rear wheel drive MG ZT made an appearance in September 2003. Many people were curious, worried even, that it would not deliver the goods, given its limited budget…
Saddened after the loss of his SD1 Vitesse, Keith Adams takes the new car for a spin, and finds that comparisons between the two cars unavoidable…
IT was one of the hardest decisions in my adult life… keep, sell, restore, smoke, race? What to do with the SD1 Vitesse? After all, I have been raving about the car ever since I sat behind the wheel: the driving position, the view through the windscreen, the width, the downright dramatic style… THAT ENGINE NOTE. How could I possibly sell it?
How indeed. Sadly, I have been somewhat spoiled by the condition of my 1978 SD1, and as a result, every time I looked at the ex-AUTOCAR Vitesse, my critical mind was finding more and more things to complain about. The rust on the doors, the rust on the tailgate, the rust under the bonnet. Yes, I knew what I was letting myself in for when I bought it, and made a pragmatic decision at the time… run it for a few months, have a few laughs, sell it on… Pragmatism is all well and good when it comes to choosing a white good such as a cooker or Toyota Corolla, but it is not much use when the item in question is a red Rover, that tugs the heart strings every time I looked at it.
It was going nowhere. I put the car up for sale on this site. Received some enquiries. Took it down again. One such enquiry came from an enthusiast from Cheshire, who decided that the rusty, crusty and trusy Vitesse was just his bag. Before I had changed my mind about it, I agreed for him to come and have a look… Now a real dilema. I knew in my heart of hearts, it had to go, but at the same time, I did not really want to see the back of it. I could not back out; I am a man of my word, so the viewing was not cancelled. My heart really did not want the Vitesse to go – so I did not wash it, or prepare it in any way (rule one broken straight away). However, I did not bank on the fact that the buyer was equally as mad about cars as I was, and following a brief drive, he decided to buy it…
I was no longer a Vitesse owner!
MG ZT260 V8: the spiritual successor
So, the SD1 Vitesse was a legend in its own lifetime, but what could MG Rover actually learn from it in today’s market?
For one thing, the day Rover stopped building cars like the Vitesse, was the day that the way was left open for the Germans to come in and take over with their über-saloons. The Vitesse was the M5 of its day: stylish, fast, and possessing huge road presence. It commanded great respect for walking the walk, whilst backing it up with a string of victories on the race track. It was “British”, but not in the wet and windy Hugh Grant way – no, it was Oliver Reed-meets-Parky; a bad boy, and proud to be that way. Everyone loved the Vitesse… and many still do. I found it myself; where I work, a hardened bunch of smooth-talking BMW-owning salesmen was reduced to silence when the Vitesse made its entrance (it never simply “arrived”) for the first time in the office car park. That low-slung stance, the boldness, its sheer clarity of purpose was enough to command respect. No matter that their 330Ds could murder the Vitesse from point-to-point, this was a Vitesse and respect was forthcoming.
As we know, the Vitesse was replaced by the V6 version of the Rover 800. That was a fine car, but it was not the balls-out in-your-face batter-with-a-big-stick that the SD1 was. It was a smooth, well-crafted urbanite-around-town; sophisticated thanks to its Honda drivetrain, cossetting thanks to its snug and woody interior. But with the 800 Vitesse – as impressive as it was – it was soon left behind by the BMW 5-Series, and the Rover executive became a bit-part player within its own lunchtime. Don’t get me wrong, the 800 is a fine piece of kit (well, certain versions of it are, so don’t snigger), but as an SD1 Vitesse replacement, it was about as convincing as my mother is at going ten rounds with Mike Tyson. It was soon left behind. Consider it to be the Vitesse you could take home to meet your parents… and who wants that?
Then came the Rover 75. As we all know, this is the best car that Rover has ever built, and now it seems as if the public are finally cottoning on to the idea… 75 sales have been improving of late, and with the arrival of the MG “Zeds”, it has been going through something of an image transformation.
However, the 75 and ZT are both super-sophisticated BMW-honed front-wheel-drive Rovers cast in the 600/800-replacement mould, so how could these be seen as any more an effective replacement for the SD1 Vitesse than the 800 before it? For one, although the SD1 had a primitive chassis, it was nicely developed, and you knew where you stood; in the case of that dynamic mongrel, the 800, this was patently, not true. Sure, late Vitesse Sport models handled (and rode) beautifully, but by then, who cared? The 75 is something else entirely… massively proficient in Rover guise, sporty and exciting in MG ZT form, there is a genuine choice here – “pipe-n-slippers”, or “thrusting young blade”. However, even in ZT190 form, it cannot hold a handle to the old bruiser in the fun department – it’s too refined, too revvy, too well-built dammit…
The ZT260 V8 is a different kettle of fish altogether, though. Powered by an American V8, this rear wheel drive super-saloon is the twenty-first century interpretation of the Vitesse. It juxtaposes good ol’ American muscle, with a pin-sharp build quality, fit for the 21st century MP3 generation. Unlike any SD1, this car is truly well-made inside too, and the cosy interior is free of any rattles, squeaks or chafes that mark out it ancestor. Ignore anything that you may have heard about Rover’s indifferent build quality; that is in the past as far as the big saloon is concerned; even the doors close with an Audi-like “thunk”. Perhaps that means it is going to lack character; after all, airfix trim is what helped define the SD1. Definitely not.
Once underway, the muted V8 rumble, meaty-yet-delicious gearbox, and weighty pedal actions mark out the ZT as a car on a mission. So reminiscent of a honed SD1 Vitesse is this car, that one could almost believe that MG Rover had re-discovered its past and bought-in an SD1 to use as a development benchmark. One thing is for sure though… the SD1 is quick, the ZT V8 is Q-U-I-C-K. The similarities in power delivery are there to see; instant throttle response, a deep-chested induction bellow when you give it some beans. The only difference is that the ZT has more. More acceleration. More speed. And truth be told, miles, miles more ability. And so it should be considering the age difference.
Like the Vitesse, the ZT is also something of a bad boy on the chassis front: there are no traction control routines, anti-stability programmes or active braking – in the £30,000 arena, this is like stepping back ten years. To a time when the Lotus-Carlton ruled supreme, and being seen as fast and conspicuous wasn’t frowned upon. The handling is old school too… easily provoked into power oversteer on damp roads, but grippy, agile and possessing high lateral limits, otherwise. Steering is full of feel, for sure, yet it is not disturbed by by torque reaction under acceleration, or kick-back.
The ZT delivers everything that one would expect from an SD1 Vitesse replacement… and yet. I have trouble with the use of the MG badge on this type of car. To me, and I am sure, many people of my age (thirty-something, OK?), MG means roadsters; MG means inexpensive coupés; MG means badge-engineered family cars. I cannot remember the last time that MG produced a car so obviously aimed at the upper end of the executive car market. Rover, on the other hand, can justifiably claim to have created the class, with its Buick-powered version of the seminal P6 saloon. One senses that the ZT260 V8 would be more comfortable wearing a Rover Vitesse badge…
And here’s the rub: Rover stopped building cars of this type in 1986, and as a result, that strong image faded. MG Rover’s management seem almost apologetic about the Rover marque’s core values now, fearing that perhaps the “new” Rover Vitesse would have less buyer cachet than that of an MG badged ZT. My own feelings are that it would not, given the extremely favourable reaction my Vitesse evoked wherever it appeared…
Whatever the case, the MG ZT260 V8 is a fantastic car. A flawed gem, perhaps, and not as even in its ability as the Germans (for a start, in road tests, it always struggled to beat 20mpg in any given situation), but one that is impossible to dislike. MG Rover plan to sell 1500 of these per year, and I cannot see the company having any difficulty at all in meeting this modest target. Whatever happens to the company, the ZT V8 will stand as a landmark car: the boys at Longbridge are Petrolheads.
So, where does that leave the SD1 Vitesse? In my biased opinion, it remains one of the UK’s finest saloon cars; a classic before it went out of production. Like all classics, it is a flawed gem, however a loveable one all the same. As I wrote at the top of the story, had Rover continued to build cars like this one, it would occupy a much stronger position in the market than it does now. Of course, it wasn’t able to because of the mess the company was in, and that is another sad BMC>Rover fact…
Rover took seventeen years to replace the Vitesse. But when they did, they got it right.
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.
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