The 2018 MG ZS arrives later this year to take on the Mazda CX-3 and Toyota C-HR, but is it up to the challenge? James Wong takes a quick spin for a first impression.
SUVs are where it’s at these days, and it’s the smaller ones that are the most popular thanks to their blend of everyday practicality with affordable pricing.
The latest addition to the small SUV party, the 2018 MG ZS, will launch locally in October.
MG has confirmed three trim levels will be offered, along with the choice of two engines depending on grade.
A 1.5-litre naturally-aspirated petrol engine will power the base model, paired with a somewhat ancient four-speed automatic transmission, while more expensive variants will get a new 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol mated to an Asian-sourced six-speed auto.
Last week we were able to have a quick sample of the ZS at parent company SAIC Motor's proving ground in Guangde, China, and were also able to spend a bit of time getting a feel for the little SUV's cabin.
From the outside, the ZS looks a lot classier and mature than other models in the range, thanks to the new 'Nebula Shield' front grille and sharp headlights with LED daytime-running lights modelled on the reflection of the London Eye on the River Thames.
A range of alloy wheels will be offered too, including in 17- and 18-inch diameters, while the tail-lights are clean and uncluttered, making for a smart look.
First impressions of the cabin are also pretty good. There's soft-touch materials on the upper dash, though lower cabin trims and the doors are finished in a hard, though solid-feeling, plastic.
A new steering wheel design features, as does an 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay – but no Android Auto – though this will be reserved for higher-grade models in Australia.
It's a more convincing interior than the larger GS, offering plenty of space for larger occupants in the rear despite its smaller dimensions, while the luggage area appears surprisingly large – it has a maximum capacity of 1166L (the Honda HR-V, meanwhile, manages 1462L), but MG is yet to confirm the volume with the rear seats up.
The vehicle available on test was a higher-spec model equipped with the new 'NetBlue' 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine, producing 92kW of power and 170Nm of torque.
Drive will be sent exclusively to the front wheels across the range, via a six-speed automatic from Aisin in the three-pot turbo, or a more dated four-speeder with the entry-level 1.5-litre naturally-aspirated motor – which will sport outputs a little higher than the current 78kW/137Nm unit currently fitted to the MG3 light hatch.
Our time with the ZS was a quick stint around what SAIC call the 'Tai Chi Pile', a circular test track shaped like the Yin Yang symbol.
The test allows drivers to assess the vehicle's directionality in consecutive curves and the suspension's lateral support in high-speed bends – according to the company.
Despite having a three-cylinder engine, the MG's cabin is pretty well insulated from the trademark thrum of engines this type, while acceleration off the line isn't as brisk as you might expect from a turbocharged motor.
In terms of overall NVH (noise vibration harshness), it's difficult to gauge how the ZS stacks up as we only drove it briefly on the perfectly smooth tarmac of the skid pan.
Around the higher speed outer borders of the Tai Chi Pile, the ZS rolls a bit, though offers adequate grip and light-yet-direct steering.
Into the tighter turns, the ZS changes direction pretty well without feeling clumsy, while the light steering makes tight and quick inputs an easy task – which should work great in the city streets and shopping centre carparks these vehicles invariably spend most of their lives in.
The front seats are comfortable and offer decent support, while there's plenty of head and legroom for both the front and rear occupants.
A highlight of the MG ZS's cabin is the large 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system, which in China offers both Apple CarPlay and native navigation along with SAIC's internet-enabled personal assistant sourced from e-commerce giant Alibaba. However, Australian versions will miss out on the 'smartcar' tech, while the availability of both smartphone mirroring and navigation, or one or the other, is still to be decided for our market.
If Australian-spec cars get a system like the one in the larger GS, it'll be easy-to-use, snappy and high resolution.
To judge the ZS as an all-round package at this point in time is a little difficult considering how short the time we spent with the car was, in addition to the fact it was under controlled conditions.
However, initial impressions are promising. If MG can price the ZS right, with a strong standard equipment list, it could be the reborn British brand's most competitive local offering yet.
We're looking forward to spending more time with the ZS when it arrives in Australia in October, so stay tuned to CarAdvice in the coming months.