MANY people who see the MG badge on the front of the ZS crossover might question – ‘Is this an actual MG?’ And that’s a fair question.
Last century, MG made fun-to-drive sportscars that have become automotive classics, but now that the brand is under the ownership of the giant SAIC Motor group in China, it has shifted focus dramatically to practical passenger cars and SUVs.
Regardless of whether or not it is a “real” MG, the ZS is one of the brand’s more serious efforts. We test the ZS Essence to see how it stacks up.
Price and equipment
Priced for $23,990 before on-road costs, the MG ZS Essence offers good value on paper thanks to its sharp pricing. Standard equipment includes two-tone 17-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 215/50 tyres, power windows and side mirrors, roof rails, chrome trim, dusk-sensing halogen headlights, LED daytime running lights, front and rear foglights, 3D-effect tail-lights and a space-saver spare wheel. Our test car was finished in Regal Blue metallic paint – a $499 option.
Inside, a six-speaker Yamaha 3D sound system, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, an 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system, Apple CarPlay support, manual air-conditioning, a monochrome digital instrument cluster, a leather steering wheel, synthetic Knight Black leather upholstery with contrast stitching and satin-chrome trim feature.
The only difference between the Essence and the entry-level Soul ($20,990) is the addition of keyless start and a panoramic glass sunroof with sunshade that covers about 90 per cent of the roof surface – sure to attract plenty of positive reactions from occupants. MG Motor Australia promises a more affordable Core variant will be added to the ZS range in the first quarter this year.
Measuring in at 4314mm long, 1809mm wide, 1644mm tall with a 2585mm wheelbase, the ZS Essence is larger than several of its competitors, meaning packaging is a strong suit.
The first and second rows are particularly roomy with decent headroom and legroom on offer. To make things better, cargo capacity is 359 litres but can expand to 1166L when the split-folding 60:40 second row is folded flat. Tick.
The overall interior vibe of the ZS is a good one as it offers a certain premium feel that its rivals lack. Lashings of artificial leather adorn the seats and door trims, combining with the ‘stitched’ soft-touch plastic that lines the top of the dashboard to create a top-notch effort.
Better yet the centre stack is simple, avoiding the clutter of button-heavy takes from years gone by – it truly is well-executed and modern, save for the ambitious fake carbon-fibre trim.
In the age of Apple iPhones, it is surprising how so few car-makers have looked to capitalise with a well-designed and -executed infotainment system. Most serve up sub-par offerings, but not MG.
This set-up looks great, with interesting graphics and an interface modelled on, you guessed it, the iPhone.
Our only criticisms are the overly glossy touchscreen and lack of in-built satellite navigation in preference to Apple CarPlay support but not Android Auto.
The monochrome instrument cluster sandwiched between the speedometer and rev-counter looks like it was pinched from an old Golf and, crucially, does not have a digital speedo.
Engine and transmission
Powered by a 1.0-litre Netblue turbocharged three-cylinder petrol engine, the ZS Essence produces 82kW of power at 5200rpm and 160Nm of torque from 1800 to 4700rpm.
These outputs translate to lacklustre performance. Stick the boot in and progression is less than rapid. Off-the-line pace is reasonable, but the powertrain runs out of puff at speeds above 60km/h.
It is also one noisy unit, requiring plenty of revs to get going, particularly given that peak power doesn’t come on steam until near the redline.
While more expensive rivals such as the Hyundai Kona can offer up to 130kW/265Nm and the Mazda CX-3 tops out with 109kW/192Nm, the MG ZS does stack up against the 90kW/150Nm Ford EcoSport and 81kW/152Nm Jeep Renegade in performance.
The 1245kg Essence exclusively sends drive to the front wheels via a clunky six-speed automatic transmission with torque convertor. This unit is not the smoothest operator, with its mechanical nature most apparent when shifting from Reverse to Auto as an indelicate thud is felt throughout the cabin.
This same situation plays out when accelerating off the line. Thud, repeat. It’s all very well and good when shifting from second to third and beyond, but those low-speed gear changes are less than refined, especially when they crudely jerk occupants forward.
Claimed fuel consumption on the combined cycle test is 6.7 litres per 100 kilometres, while carbon dioxide emissions have been tested at 157 grams per km. During our week in the Essence, we averaged 8.5L/100km across a mix of urban and highway driving.
We can’t help but imagine that economy would be better if a little more low-end grunt was available, eliminating the need to build up the revs so much.
Ride and handling
Assessment of the ZS Essence’s speed-sensitive power steering will be dependent on which of its three modes you put to use – either Urban, Normal or Dynamic.
The first setting is soulless, offering no connection between the driver and road. It is prone to serious understeer, requires plenty of guesswork and is far too light – all the things you don’t want in an urban environment.
There is no easily discernible difference between Normal and Dynamic, but they are a welcome improvement compared to Urban. Steering becomes well-weighted overall, but is still just a bit lacking.
Throw the Essence into a corner at low or high speed and there’s a healthy amount of bodyroll.
It would serve MG well to find a way to make its latest model stay more planted through the twisty stuff, which would be a great way of paying homage to the brand’s sportscar heritage.
Meanwhile, the Essence’s suspension set-up consists of MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam at the rear with helical springs and hydraulic dampers on both axles.
Occupants feel even the slightest imperfections, whether it be uneven or unsealed roads, and don’t get us started on potholes and speed humps, they can feel like the mortal enemies of the ZS.
Ride comfort is poor enough to wear on occupants over longer journeys, but perhaps an Australian suspension tune would improve matters, or a change from the torsion beam to a multi-link rear set-up.
Safety and servicing
The Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) awarded the ZS a four-star safety rating in December 2017. A result of 10.46 out of 16 in the frontal offset crash test at 64km/h meant the MG was ineligible for the maximum five stars.
Specifically, the passenger airbag inflated insufficiently during the crash test, causing the dummy’s head to bottom out through the airbag and onto the dashboard. The ZS’ overall score was 31.46 out of 37.
Safety features in the Essence extend to six airbags, anti-skid brakes with electronic brake force distribution, electronic stability control, hill start assist, cruise control, rear parking sensors, a reversing camera and tyre pressure monitoring.
Those interested in advanced driver-assist safety technologies like autonomous emergency braking and lane-keep assist best look away, there is nothing to see here. However, MG promises that the MY19 update of the ZS will usher in such features.
We eagerly anticipate this as rivals such as the Mazda CX-3 offer AEB from the base grade up. Such kit is increasingly expected as safety standards continue to become more stringent.
As with the GS mid-size SUV, the ZS comes with seven-year/unlimited-kilometre factory warranty for private buyers – matching Kia’s industry-leading term – including seven years of roadside assist and paint coverage. Service intervals are shorter than usual, at every six months or 10,000km, whichever comes first.
Is this a “real” MG? Unfortunately, the answer to the question we originally posed is a firm no, with SAIC moving the brand far away from its origins.
Thanks to its bi-polar steering, poor ride quality and pronounced body roll, the ZS Essence misses the mark as far as staying true to the classic MG formula goes.
However, it is successful in offering a good-looking exterior and a premium cabin that is up there with the best in class, highlighted by its excellent infotainment system.
Nevertheless, the lethargic engine and jerky transmission make for a less-than-inspiring combination, despite the ZS’ best efforts. Meanwhile, questions over safety will linger until MG adds advanced driver-assist features and addresses crash test issues.
Could the ZS do better in the hearts and minds of new-vehicle buyers if it didn’t have an MG badge on its front grille and tailgate? Possibly, because in isolation it is a reasonable effort, just not a class-leading one.
Mazda CX-3 Maxx FWD from $24,890 before on-road costs
One of the more stylish offerings in this segment, the CX-3 does not put a premium on safety. However, its smaller dimensions mean the second row is cramped and boot space is lacking.
Mitsubishi ASX LS FWD from $27,000 before on-road costs
It might be getting long in the tooth, but the ASX continues to sell like hotcakes. Value and practicality remain strong points, but a noisy powertrain and stiff ride hurt matters.
Nissan Qashqai ST FWD $28,990 before on-road costs
A runaway success for the Japanese brand, the Qashqai is still on top of its game. A premium interior, oodles of safety kit and sharp steering are countered by a gutless engine and frustrating CVT.
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