Car of the Month : August 2004

The MG ZS has established itself with those-in-the-know as a driver’s car of merit. However, it also seems to have ended up as one of those traditional BMC>Rover specialities: the underrated gem… sample two of the breed to decide just how good they are, whether they can be improved and if they’re not selling in huge numbers, is it the general public that is displaying a lack of judgement?

A tale of two MGs

Sleepy suburbia brightened no end by the addition of two ZSes in the best colours for them: black and X-Power grey…

ONE thing I have always admired about the MG ZS, is its Ronseal quality. By that, I mean, the ZS is a hot hatchback of the old school; quite simply, it does what it says on the tin. The principle is simple, stuff a large engine upfront, stick big wheels on, and complement it with whacking great spoilers. It’s a hot hatch with attitude – “mess with me at your peril”…

We all know that the ZS 180, equipped with it’s 180PS KV6 engine and a chassis breathed on by Rob Oldaker is an absolute driver’s delight, but how does the ZS concept work, when powered by the more humble 1.8-litre K4? Does it still deserve to wear the ZS badge, or is it a marketing exercise, pure and simple?

As we all are constantly reminded by the likes of Top Gear and WHAT CAR?, the 45/ZS is getting on a bit, so it seemed a good time to sit back and and take stock: just because the platform has been around for a while, does it mean that buyers should ignore it in favour of something newer? Can the ZS still cut it today?

So when Jon Mower and Andy Hames got in touch with offering their cars up for testing, it seemed like the timing was perfect. It has to be remembered that although the 2004 year ZSes are now on sale, they do not differ in any substantial way from the existing models. Yes, there is a new upper dashboard moulding, and revised front and rear bumpers, but that really is about it. So, did the existing model need to be facelifted? Was this an engineering or marketing-led decision?

ZS 120+

Profile of the ZS is helped massively by the addition of the Scooby-like rear wing. The tail of the ZS saloon borders on being whale-like, but at least that wing takes some attention from it.

Back in 2001, when the warmed over MG “Zeds” appeared, many commentators sighed cynically to themselves and muttered unfavourable comments about “desperate measures” and a return to the “bad old days” of badge-engineering. But were the old days really that bad? Look at the MG Maestro, for instance. What was actually wrong with that car? Yes, its styling was considered too staid by most of the young blades that bought GTis during the 1980s, but other than that, it was a fine car. It outhandled the contemporary Golf GTi, it was roomier than all of its opposition and performed as a GTi should.

So the “bad old days” were not that bad after all, then.

And now history would appear to be repeating itself. The MG ZS has been praised from pillar to post by the motoring press for its handling and performance, but slated for its interior and exterior style. Plus ca change

Still, I have always tried to avoid taking pre-conceived ideas with me when driving an unfamiliar car (as it can cloud judgement); something that is not easy to do, especially when the car is such an opinion provoker as the ZS. Actually, I already pretty much knew what to expect before I even sat in the Jon Mower’s mint 2004 MG ZS 120+, as I have already had experience of the ZS 180 from a couple of years’ back, and am more than familiar with the K-Series engine, which powers it.

In other words, there should be little to surprise here…

Front view was never the best aspect of the ZS, as the MG grille looked too tacked-on…

One thing that strikes about the interior is that it is a pretty sombre place. Unlike comparable Rovers, with their light hues and wood filleting, the MG is a black place. Its mood is not lifted particularly by the grey dash inserts, either. Perhaps sombre is not the best way of describing it; workmanlike sounds better. The major controls certainly fall nicely to hand: the steering wheel is nicely sized and thick rimmed in leather, whilst the gearknob falls naturally to hand. The instruments don’t look too bad, and there appears to little to suggest that they originally hail from Japan, unlike previous generations of Ro-ndas.

Sadly, the dashboard is not pretty. It is slabby in the way that Hondas were back in the early 1990s (disappointing after the elegant simplicity of the low-line R8 dash), with non-too-intuitive ergonomics (I will not mention the positioning of the electric window switches). The scuttle line is pretty low though, and this gives a good view out, and allied with the excellent driving position, the ZS is a car that you can feel in control of without endless minute adjustment of the seats.

The seating is also very good: the driver’s seat has obviously been designed with the brisk driver in mind. The under thigh support excellent, lumbar support ample, and side support is generous. Again, the impression that comes loud and clearly across is that this car has been designed for drivers.

Once underway, the case for the defence becomes increasingly strong. The K-Series is in a fairly mild state of tune in this installation, and still the ZS manages to feel brisk. At idle and at low-revs, it is agreeably quiet, and power take-up is commendably clean. It all adds up to a light-footed car; one that can be driven reasonably quickly with no real effort. Having said that, there are not vast amounts of torque either, so when upping the tempo, it is essential to get the crank spinning, when at 4500rpm and beyond, more meaningful acceleration can be had.

But when the K is there, the ZS does accelerate pretty smartly. OK, it is never going to push you in the back, but between 4500 and 6000rpm, it gathers pace in a very “hot hatchback” way. The 16v engine is a bit of a screamer, and not as rough as the road testers would have you believe. It isn’t quiet, for sure, and is slightly vibratory, but it makes a pleasantly sporty noise that does not discourage you from pressing on.

Respect for the owner and lack of time meant that we did not get a chance to put the ZS up against the stop watch, but seat-of-the-pants impressions were of a car that would easily crack 10 seconds for the 0-60 dash. In gear acceleration was also pretty good in third, fourth and fifth, and it would seem as though the ZS 120 has been given a beautifully judged set of ratios. But in-gear lugging isn’t really this car’s thing: the positive, beautifully weighted short throw gear change encourages the driver to stir the pot in the search for more performance.

That rear wing again. The pre-facelift ZS sported a bootlid-mounted numberplate, which effectively managed to break up the vast acreage of sheet metal. The new version’s has been bumper-mounted. Perhaps we will get used to it, perhaps not.

K-Series 1.8 litre engine is game enough, but needs a bootful of revs to extract useful performance. Once spinning though, it is quick enough to entertain.

Interior is not the strongest point of the car, but no way is it was bad as the magazines liked to make out. Firm, grippy seats hold you in around the corners, and the short-throw snappy gear change is a delight to use.

So we know that it goes reasonably well in a straight line, but what about around the bends? Well this is where the ZS really excels. That small, thick rimmed wheel promises much and does not fail to deliver. Take the ZS into a medium speed bend of tightening radius, and you can be guaranteed that you will know exactly what the front wheels are going, such is its feelsome nature. Steering weight and gearing is nigh-on perfect as well, so before the chassis is explored to any great degree, the driver has total confidence that if a limit is neared, his palms will be telling him, loud and clear.

Then there’s the suspension itself. Best to save the best ’til last. Ride is firm and has a reassuringly boney feel at low speeds. One will never buy a ZS for its relaxing ride, but be assured, the ride is good enough. It joggles somewhat over broken urban blacktop, and it is fair to say that if you drive over a cigarette paper, your back and palms will be telling you loud and clear. But, in the context of a sporting saloon, this is certainly no criticism… far from it, in fact. After all, being able to feel the road is a positive aspect. And although ride is firm, it is acceptable, thanks to its brilliant damping, which smooths off all the edges perfectly, leaving the driver with nothing but a high resolution mind map of the road beneath.

A firm ride usually means roll-free cornering, and with this ZS, this is very much the case. Attack a corner – any corner – and the immediate impression is one of total roll-free control – thanks to precise turn-in and kart-like agility. There is no other way to describe the flat, planted feel of the ZS; kart-like. It treats British B-Roads with utter disdain, tackling them with the same ease that the Rover 75 gobbles up motorways. This triumvirate of super-sensory steering, revealing ride/damping, and kart-like cornering beggars belief, especially if your only experience of this car is either the 45 or its older and flabbier brother, the 400. Obviously, the Honda suspension was always fundamentally good, its only limiting factor (pre-2000) were its unimaginative settings, which were shamefully biased towards ride comfort.

Having yet to drive the current VW Golf or Vauxhall Astra, I cannot comment on the car’s ability compared with its newest peers, but compared with the dynamic leader leader upto that point, the Ford Focus, the ZS stands up very well indeed. Only its average brakes mark it down – the rest is right up there. The ZS is slightly more sporting biased than the Ford, so ride is slightly firmer (although no worse), but it easily out-corners a “cooking” Focus. Impressive indeed… My overriding impression driving the ZS 120 was this: if MGR can give a 1995 car this level of handling ability, imagine what they will be able to do with an all-new car.

Imagine how well RD/X60 is going to handle…

Owner’s view…

ZS 120+ owner, Jon Mower is clear about why he bought his car: “I purchased the MG 120+ because, at the time, being a loyal Rover buyer I would not have considered anything else so the MG was a natural successor to my previous Rovers, I love the colour and the handling and performance.”

ZS 180

Aside from the obvious colour difference, the ZS 180 is all-but identical to the 120+ featured above. X-Power grey looks very smart, but somehow does not suit the car quite as well as black.

In case it was not obvious from reading the above, the MG ZS possesses a gem of a chassis. Incisive handling combined with talkative steering results in an unusually pleasurable drivers’ car. Around the twisties, it is hard to see any of its rivals being able to outhandle it. In 1.8-litre form, it is no roadburner, but it is reasonably brisk and as a bonus, it gives excellent fuel consumption.

Mind you, I must admit that driving the 120+, I did keep wondering how much better the 180 would be. After all, it has 50 per cent more power, whilst weighing only marginally more. The on paper specification of the 180 has always been interesting, simply because the sonorous KV6 engine that powers it, resides in a class dominated by highly tuned 16V fours…

There are other V6 powered uber-hatches out there, but they are significantly more powerful – and expensive. That makes the ZS 180 pretty unique in its class. There is also the matter of its price rivals, such as the 206GTI and Renault Clio 182 – they are considerably smaller, and realistically cannot cope with being pushed into service as fully-fledged family cars. So, the 180 has very few natural rivals, then, and should be selling in bucketloads. Especially when viewed as a cut-priced Impreza.

Sadly, as discussed above, it does not sell in huge amounts and once again, one is forced to wonder why.

Orange indicators do jar on a 2002-spec car… otherwise, the (now abandoned) quad-headlamp look is very effective indeed.

First thing’s first, can it continue all of the good work that the ZS 120+ did? In a word, yes. The chassis set-up is slightly different, for a start, and although we are only talking degrees, it seems slightly more restful than the smaller car. The softer ride is equally well controlled in the damping department, and as far as I could tell, there seemed little difference in roll angles when going into a corner. That means that the 180’s overall set-up is at the same superlative level as the 120+, but with ever so slightly differing priorities. If anything, I would have assumed the V6 car would be firmer in order to counteract the extra weight up front, but overall handling balance seems unaffected, despite the softer ride. An amazing result then – again considering the car’s provenence…

The steering, also differs slightly. It shares similar gearing and response to the 120+, but seems slightly less focused. Again, we are only talking minutiae, but there is a difference. Either way, it remains exceptionally good compared with its rivals, and still pretty much as talkative as the smaller-engined car. Nothing to complain about on that score, then. Are there any complaints? Well, no, not really. The brakes felt slightly stronger in the 180, as well they should considering the bigger discs fitted to the V6 model.

Best ’til last? It was a toss up between the chassis and the engine in this case, but in the end, I think the engine just sneaks it. The ZS 180 possesses a ride/handling compromise that borders on the supernatural, but ally this with a power unit of genuine talent, and one is left with a car with an amazing breadth of abilities. Accelerate the car from rest, and this MG does push you back into your seat; 0-60 comes up in around 7.3 seconds, which isn’t that fast in absolute terms, but entertaining when doubled up with the remarkable chassis. Traction is excellent (and that is without considering the fact that it does not have an electronic T/C system) and as a result, you can concentrate on allowing the melody of the KV6 to wash over you. The joy is that the 180 is relatively quiet, but what noise that does permeate the cabin is a mixture of aggression and silk in equal measure. There is a slightly hard-edge to it, but it is a charismatic lump, and one that should be enjoyed with the windows down…

Power delivery isn’t quite linear, but it is still impressive enough. Low-end torque is easily beaten by the venerable old T16 Turbo found in the still-popular Tomcat Coupe, but it is ample enough in isolation. Low-rev lethargy is exaggerating the case considerably, but you feel that as the KV6 spools up, it gives its best work higher up the rev range. Whatever, it is hardly a chore givem the aural pleasures to be had…

So the 180 is an exceptionally gifted car. We are not ralking rose tinted spectacles or personal bias here, either: I drove these cars having recently tried a Ford Focus ST170 and came away feeling that the MG’s overall driving experience was more focused (excuse the pun), and ultimately more rewarding. Yes, the Focus has a roomier interior and better brakes – but other than that, the MG beats it hollow.

So, is it easy to sum-up the ZS? Not really, as it is a car of extremes. Where it is good, it is very, very good, and where it is bad, it doesn’t matter!

Again, one needs to be a hardened trainspotter to see the difference between the 180 and its lesser brethren. This is no bad thing, in the author’s eyes…

KV6 is a thriller: it sounds interesting, delivers its power smoothly and has bags of top end shove. Like the smaller K4, it does need revs to deliver its best. It’s all relative of course: it has enough torque to deal with real life situations.

Boy racers, step this way…

Green alcantara-like trim lifts the seats, and like the 120+, they are just what one needs when pressing on…

Owner’s view…

Andy Hames, the owner of this immaculate ZS 180 has a firm idea about why he chose it over the opposition: “The Reason behind me buying the MG 180, was I wanted a British built car with good sports performance, (that somewhat limits the market) the performance and handling are the things I like best about driving the car.” And so say all of us…

Keith Adams

1 Comment

  1. its been over a decade since i had the ZS and still today i miss it, the black paint looks great outside of the car, but look deeper and there are so many places that have been missed and left to the undercoat to cover the metal – but it was a stunning car, and no amount of other cars since (jaguar X-Type, MINI Countryman, Rover 827 Si, Citroen C4 Cactus, Vauxhall Meriva, and more) have come close, except for the Cactus which is the comfortablest car i have ever had.

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