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Future models - MG - ZS

First drive: MG goes three-cylinder in new ZS

Threesome: A free-revving three-cylinder engine with a six-speed automatic transmission will be the headline act in MG’s ZS small SUV in Australia.

MG’s ZS baby SUV gets 1.0-litre turbo three-pot engine developed with GM

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MG logo24 Apr 2017

By RON HAMMERTON in SHANGHAI

GENERAL Motors powertrain engineers might be in line to take a bow if MG Motor’s new Chinese-built compact crossover, the ZS, takes off in the hotly contested small SUV market after it lands in October.

A feature of the Holden Trax/Ford EcoSport competitor is a spunky three-cylinder 1.0-litre turbo-petrol engine developed jointly by GM and MG parent company, SAIC Motor.

While the engine is yet to be spied in anything from GM Holden’s range in this market (it is employed in several Opel/Vauxhall models such as Adam, Astra, Viva and Corsa), MG will put it front and centre in the ZS as the premium powertrain alongside a bigger but more basic 1.5-litre normally aspirated four-cylinder unit.

The ZS – recycling an old British MG name from a Rover-based sports sedan of about 15 years ago – is regarded as MG’s best chance yet to make an impact in this market where the former British marque is attempting another comeback after a stumble under an ill-equipped independent import operation.

So far, Chinese car manufacturers have little but black eyes and bruised egos to show for their export ventures in western markets where they have generally overestimated the perceived value of their products and greatly underestimated the value placed by consumers on safety, design and quality.

Chinese imports accounts for just 0.2 per cent of vehicle sales in Australia where almost one in three of the million-plus vehicles sold annually originates from Japan.

For MG Motor Australia, it is early days, with a tiny network of three dealerships (a network of 30 is planned) and no dealership coverage yet in places such as Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth (a Melbourne deal is said to be close).

The front-wheel-drive-only ZS will sit below MG’s other SUV, the midish-sized GS, in a range that also comprises the MG6 Plus medium liftback hatch and MG3 light hatch.

While the existing models are all relatively aged, particularly the MG6, the ZS has just landed on the market in China where MG parent company SAIC Motor has high hopes that it will be one of its best sellers.

Bearing a new frontal design with a bigger, chrome-framed grille and a body styled with attractive – if generic – good looks, the ZS foreshadows a new breed of MG that, the company suggests, will hit the mark in export markets too.

For Australia, the range will include three specification levels and the aforementioned two engine choices. Prices and specifications will be announced closer to launch but expect a starting price below $20,000. In fact, below the $19,990 price of Mazda’s CX-3 Neo.

Riding on a shortened version of the GS’s platform, the ZS has MacPherson strut front suspension and a torsion bar set-up at the back.

The 1.5-litre engine will be a tweaked version of the 78kW engine that does duty in the current MG3, getting more power (it is 88kW in China). The MG3 will also get the upgraded engine as part of a facelift next year.

This engine will come only with a four-speed automatic transmission in the base ZF, and with five-speed manual and four-speed automatic (finally) in the revised MG3.

The main game will rest with the 1.0-litre three cylinder which, although the smallest engine in the MG range, is the most modern and – in this particular model – the most powerful with 91kW of power and 170Nm of torque. Fuel consumption is said to be 5.9 litres per 100km on the Chinese combined test.

This engine is related to the three-cylinder unit employed by GM in European cars such as the Opel/Vauxhall Adam, Astra, Viva and Corsa, and drawn from a family of small petrol engines developed jointly for both GM and SAIC, who are joint-venture partners in China.

Hooked up to a six-speed Aisin automatic transmission in the ZS, the engine provides surprisingly sprightly performance, at least around a simple test course laid out around witches’ hats on a billiard-table smooth skid pan at SAIC’s huge proving ground where we had a short drive in it.

Apart from that, about the only other thing we learned about the dynamic performance of the ZS is that it needs to be tied down a little better to tame excessive bodyroll. Otherwise, it seems on the money for an SUV in the small end of town.

The ZS’s real strength is its interior design that, for a vehicle in this class, is not only spacious, with plenty of rear knee room and a class-leading boot, but attractively turned out with plentiful soft finishes, polished metallic trim and nicely resolved lines.

We particularly like the side air vents protruding from the dash like jet turbines – an MG signature in its newer models.

With the split-fold rear seats down, the ZS swallows more than 1100 litres of cargo, but even with them up, a family of five could stack sufficient luggage in the deep boot for a short holiday.

And despite the boot depth, the designers have still found room under the floor for a temporary spare wheel, although it does mean that the exhaust muffler peeks out from underneath the rear bumper.

The interior fit-out is a marked step up on previous MG models, making even the GS – MG’s most recent model – look dated.

The luxury version of the ZS we sampled had a black leather interior with the red contrast double stitching of an expensive sportscar, along with a flat-bottomed, leather-clad steering wheel with the usual buttons for cruise control, audio and phone.

An 8.0-inch infotainment swipe screen sits in the middle of the dash, delivering features such as Apple CarPlay that will be standard across the range.

Outside, roof rails, driving lights, panoramic sunroof and 17-inch alloy wheels are in evidence. Those wheels, incidentally, are not a bad size for such a vehicle, but unfortunately fail to fill out the wheel arches.

In all, we really want to like the ZS, but our puny drive under controlled conditions in China was far short of a comprehensive test. We will have to wait until October for a proper drive in an Australian-spec car with all the details at our fingertips.

We suspect, however, that ZS success might come at the cost of some collateral damage to its GS sibling, which, despite being 186mm longer and 46mm wider, does not look that much bigger inside. Of course, the GS has more power and torque, but also a pricetag starting about the $22k mark.

SAIC is on record as saying the next-generation GS due in a couple of years will be a seven-seater, so we suspect it will be bigger in all dimensions, putting some distance between itself and ZS.

Until then, the ZS will be the most contemporary vehicle in the line-up, and with competitive pricing (i.e. sitting under all of its competitors such as the top-selling Mazda CX-3 and Honda HR-V), should at last give MG a chance to make an impact in Australia, at least once it has a dealer network in place.

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