Reality beats expectations

Poor reputations and rigid preconceptions do so much to kill sales. You may be thinking, for instance, that the titivated MG ZS you see here is little more than a forlorn final attempt to wring sales out of a car so far past its sell-by date that its radio should be broadcasting the Noel Edmonds Breakfast Show.

You may also be thinking that because it comes from MG Rover, whose reputation among much of the discerning car-buying population is barely better than Mr Byrite’s, that this car cannot possibly be any good.

But you’d be wrong. We’ve said before, of course, that the MG ZS version of the Rover 45, which started life as the 400 in 1995, is a surprisingly effective piece of kit, with abilities far beyond those that any MG Rover-hater could bear to credit it with.

In fact, of all the original MG Z cars, this was always the best balanced, with the wieldiest, most forgiving handling of the trio. And all this with the weight of a 175bhp V6 in the nose. It can also be had with assorted petrol four cylinders, and a diesel. That, though, was back in 2001.

Since then, the ZS has sold moderately well, but nowhere near as successfully as the cheaper ZR, which for a while was Britain’s favourite hot hatch. This facelift, however, deserves to attract fresh buyers. Certainly it collects the occasional stare, and that must in large part be down to those startling (and functional) air vents in the front wings, which ought to appear preposterous but somehow work.

Resculpted bumpers and a new body kit – standard on the V6, optional for the rest – integrate tidily to lend the car just the right amount of muscle, while the new bootlid makes the rear end surprisingly modern. This is a facelift that works.

But it’s rather less effective inside. There wasn’t enough development money for a soft-surfaced fascia, so you get a hard-feel, but decently textured, new upper dash whose Audi TT influences are obvious, if somewhat undermined by the crude breakout for the passenger airbag.

Still, the silvered airvent bezels look good, and the faux- textured aluminum of the centre console and the gearlever surround is just about acceptable. But the automatic air conditioning display, standard on the ZS 180, is just plain weird. It’s eccentrically asymmetric, featuring a line of buttons that trace a faintly descending arc from right to left beneath the LCD readout. It all works well, though.

The ancient Honda Civic column stalks remain, and now have slightly roughened texture that looks marginally less cheap, but if you were hoping for steering-wheel mounted stereo controls, or even a trip computer, forget it – in some areas, the ZS is resolutely old-tech.

And so, in a way, are its dynamic manners – but in an entirely positive sense. This is a car untroubled by electric power steering, dynamic stability control, an electronic throttle or even traction control, though it does, of course, have anti-lock brakes.

On top of that it has such finely judged damping, such precise steering, such well-judged brakes – and a power delivery untouched by trick engine management algorithms – that you can just grab it by the scruff, drive it hard and have yourself a whole lot of fun.

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Especially because its handling is just as capable as it ever was. The only chassis alteration is to the wheels, whose extra half inch of width increases the tyres’ contact patch, and the same well-balanced, game car is there. It’s firmly sprung but absorbent – amazingly so, given the 45-section tyres – and almost entirely viceless, unless you count the faintest smidgeon of torquesteer.

Best of all is the way you can safely steer it on the throttle, trimming your line just so to fling the car around with confidence. Apart from the Ford Focus, it’s hard to think of another car in this class that’s so well sorted for drivers. And that includes the new Vauxhall Astra Turbo I tried the day before.

Faults? Well, there are a few. The V6 doesn’t pull with the cleanest bite from low revs, though it sounds pretty good. The five-speed gearchange could be slicker, and there’s wind rustle and a bit too much background commotion above 85mph.

Rear room is significantly diminished by the oversize Rover 75 chairs, and the stereo looks rubbish and sounds worse. The ride will be too firm for some, and despite the make-over, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the interior looks tacky and under-developed. And of course, this is hardly a EuroNCAP five star car, achieving three stars with four airbags.

But the ZS 180 is as appealingly straightforward as the billboard campaign that’s running for it right now. ‘Enjoy the rush hour’, it says. And in this car, you will. If you like driving briskly, and love cars that respond predictably and engagingly to your efforts, the ZS is worth serious thought.

The only problem, cabin apart, is the price – especially since the better-looking four door costs a ridiculous £800 more than the £16,495 hatch. Against the cheaper Honda Civic Type-R, and the Seat Leon Cupra 180, it doesn’t look quite so clever. But with the fattest of fat discounts, the MG ZS 180 is a better proposition than you’re thinking it might be. Really.

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Leslie Brook 31 July 2010

Re: Reality beats expectations

PRODIGY wrote:
design is subjective
You're correct there, I think the Citroen Ami is wonderful, and I'm not too keen on the original E-Type (too narrow track). Both opinions likely to get me blackballed.

PRODIGY 31 July 2010

Re: Reality beats expectations

Leslie Brook wrote:
Looks appalling. Stick a Proton badge on it. How can you recommend a car for not being as bad as you expected? I'll have a Kia thanks.

You think it looks appalling? Fair enough, everyone has different opinions and design is subjective e.t.c, but I think Peter Stevens did wonders to the design with the facelift. Don't forget this came out in 2004, 6 years ago when Protons still looked like wedges, and Kia's still were not up to scratch dynamically and asthetically.

But yes, I do like modern Kia's.

Leslie Brook 31 July 2010

Re: Reality beats expectations

Looks appalling. Stick a Proton badge on it. How can you recommend a car for not being as bad as you expected? I'll have a Kia thanks.