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First Oz drive: MG's hot shots

On the attack: The ZT 190 is part of a growing range of Rover 75-based MG sports saloons.

MG takes the mild-mannered Rover 75 and turns it into a road racer

10 May 2002

TO most of us the concept of an MG sports sedan is as alien as ET. Surely, MGs have two doors, leaky rooves and a small, eccentric group of fans.

But here they are, the MG ZT family of not only sedans but ZT-T wagons as well, on sale in Australia from this month.

Based on the Rover 75 sedan and estate, the ZTs are the product of the independent British-owned MG Rover car company. It is what emerged from the red-ink stained ashes of BMW's disastrous ownership of a bunch of British brands in the 1990s.

So desperate was BMW to rid itself of what its executives derisively called the "English patient" that two years ago it sold Rover and MG to a group of English businessmen for just 10 pounds - and threw a 500 million pound long-term loan into the deal as well.

The Brits, known as the Phoenix consortium, were expected to crash and burn pretty quickly. But instead the reconstituted MG Rover has proved itself a clever, flexible and fast car manufacturer.

The ZTs are a great example of this. There is no way under BMW ownership that a sports version of the 75 could have been created, but its amazing what can be achieved when bureaucratic impediments are removed and replaced by the necessity of making a buck to survive.

And it should also be pointed out that big, fast sedans are not totally alien to MG - although you have to go back to the SA and WA series of the 1930s to find the last time it delved into this area. But MG has never offered a wagon before.

We don't see all the ZTs in Australia but the local distributor, MG Rover Australia, is still offering eight variants: the MG ZT 190 is the manual version of the sedan while the ZT 180 is the auto. The ZT-T 190 is the manual version of the wagon while the ZT-T 180 is the auto.

If you want a bit more luxury, there's the optional "+" available for all the variants listed above, and that's the eight model line-up completed.

The numbers are significant because that's the horsepower rating - convert that to kilowatts and it's 140kW for the manual and 133kW for the slightly detuned auto.

Pricing starts at $59,990 for the ZT 190 and 180, rising as high as $66,990 for the ZT-T+ 190 and 180 (see the full pricing list below).

To turn the refined and rather plush 75 into a sports sedan, MG Rover engineers made plenty of changes.

The 2.5-litre, all-alloy, quad cam KV6 engine has had induction and exhaust system modifications and there's a more aggressive inlet cam profile, as well as a strengthened bottom end to cope with the rise in power from 130kW to 140kW at 6500rpm and the torque peak from 240Nm to 245Nm at 4000rpm.

That's not a quantum leap and the acceleration figures bear that out. MG Rover claims the manual sedan reaches 100km/h from rest in 8.2 seconds and the auto in 9.5 seconds. The wagons claims are 8.7 and 10 seconds respectively.

Despite the higher state of tune, the ZTs still run on regular unleaded fuel.

The engine sends its drive to the front wheels via either a Getrag five-speed manual box with changed détente springing and shorter lever for a sportier feel and mated to a shorter final driver for boosted acceleration, or a Jatco three-mode electronic five-speed auto.

Braking power is provided by uprated ventilated discs mated to four-channel anti-lock braking and electronic brakeforce distribution.

There's a quicker ratio steering rack and the all-independent suspension has been lowered 20mm and firmed up, as well as mated to 18-inch alloy wheels and liquorice strap 225/45 Michelin Pilot rubber.

Other external ZT signatures include a new airdam with bright mesh grille feeding air through to the enhanced cooling system, xenon headlights, rear spoiler on the sedan, twin exhaust pipes with a stainless steel heat shield and a body noticeably lacking chrome trimmings - unlike the 75.

There's still a few chrome touches inside but the sports feel again dominates, with metal-look plastics on the dashboard, leather-covered gearshift, handbrake and steering wheel, the latter with a large MG badge embossed in its centre.

Deeply bolstered sports seats are covered in a leather/cloth trim and form part of a long list of luxury features, including cruise control, air-conditioning with pollen filter, six airbags and a six-speaker CD audio system.

The + pack adds leather/Alcantara trim for the sports seats, electric glass sunroof, trip computer, rear parking sensors and auto-dipping mirror. Available only in addition to the + pack is automatic climate control, for an additional $2000.

MG Rover Australia plans to sell between 400 and 500 ZTs this year, with the sedan accounting for at least 80 per cent of the volume.

But just as important to the local distributor is who will buy it. Currently, the average age of 75 owners is 55 and the hope is ZT will appeal to an audience about 10 years younger.

PRICING:
MG ZT 190 $59,990
MG ZT 180 auto $59,990
MG ZT-T 190 $62,990
MG ZT-T 180 auto $62,990
MG ZT+ 190 $63,990
MG ZT+ 180 auto $63,990
MG ZT-T+ 190 $66,990
MG ZT-T+ 180 auto $66,990

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

THE great fear with a car like this must be that it is just a badge-engineering job - that more thought has gone into the style than the substance.

The good news is that with the ZT MG Rover has managed to pay due attention to both aspects of the equation. Not only does this car look good - in both bodyshapes - but it's a pleasure to drive as well.

The highlight is undoubtedly the chassis. Sharp turn-in, a high grip level and a dirth of bodyroll make this an entertaining car to attack twisties in. The front-wheel design does not impinge more than with some steering wheel tug as you accelerate hard out of tight corners.

Yet the ride is not bone-shattering and uncomfortable. Sure, it bears little resemblance to the softness and absorbency of the 75, but as a day-to-day proposition it is more than liveable.

The engine, despite its higher state of tune, is similarly civilised. MG Rover claims to have specially tuned the engine note for a more sporting impact, but it was barely noticeable until hovering near the rev limit beyond 6500rpm.

And you do spend a lot of time revving the engine hard to extract performance. There is not a lot of punch down low and there does not seem to be a hell of a lot further up either. Combine that with a kerb weight that varies between 1485kg and 1580kg, and the ZT is not a straight-line terror.

The gearbox is also a little underwhelming, the strong détente spring requiring a firm push of the lever to overcome, catching the unwary out once or twice by springing back into neutral.

We also found the footwell too small and the pedal positioning too high, which made for something of a tangle at times when making heel and toe gearchanges.

The rest of the interior worked well, with deep, body-hugging seats and a high level of adjustability to help you get comfortable. Only the locally-fitted Blaupunkt audio head unit struck a jarring note in an otherwise homogenous interior.

The exterior is also well wrought, walking the narrow line skilfully and stylishly between performance and parody. It's a head turner but in a good - not gauche - way.

It's a neat summation of the car overall a very professional and impressive job that does not discredit the MG name or heritage.

The good news is there's more coming. How does a rear-wheel drive ZT with a choice of 190kW and 270kW V8 engines sound?

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