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The road from Oxford to Shanghai is long and littered with the fallout of a once-beloved British carmaker. For so long, MG Car Company, as British as pork pies, forged a niche turning out charming and affordable sports cars. Quaint, quirky, quintessentially British.
But the 9257km gulf separating Oxford from Shanghai is nowhere as long as the chasm between those cute British roadsters and the automotive product now coming out of the MG Motors factory in China. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing; it’s just different. Made in China.
In 2013, China exported US$2.21 trillion worth of goods to the rest of the world to become the world’s largest trading nation, surpassing the once dominant USA. The point is, China makes stuff, lots of stuff. Some of it is cheap, some of it is, let’s face it, a bit nasty. But, not everything bearing the little ‘Made in China’ sticker is of inferior quality to what we expect from our stuff.
Chances are, you’re reading this review, right here, right now, on a device made in China. And you’re fine with that, probably don’t even give it a second thought. Yet, when it comes to cars, it’s all too easy to dismiss that ‘Made in China’ sticker as a synonym for inferior quality. And to be fair to you, that’s sometimes the case.
But, much like it has with the Korean car industry, the winds of change, they are a-blowin’. And leading that change is this compact SUV from the Chinese state-owned SAIC Motor, the MG ZS.
Let’s get one thing straight from the outset. Forget what you think you know about Chinese-made cars up to now. This car is here to dispel that previously held opinion.
The MG ZS arrived on our shores late last year, the fourth model – and second SUV alongside the MG GS – in the nascent manufacturer’s local line-up. Slotting straight into the compact SUV segment, the ZS faces some stiff competition at the budget end of the spectrum – that $25K or thereabouts mark populated by the likes of big-volume sellers Mitsubishi ASX, Honda HR-V and Mazda CX-3. It’s a crowded segment, to be sure, with 21 models from 12 manufacturers all competing for the circa $25K of buyers’ hard-earned. For MG to make an impact with its all-new offering is no easy task.
On test we have the top-spec MG ZS Essence that is sharply priced at $23,990 (plus on-road costs). That sharp pricing is honed further by the addition of zero options. There are none to be had other than three shades of premium paint that add either $499 or $599 depending on colour. Our test car, finished in Dover White, carries no such premium so $23,990 it is. Sharp indeed, sharper still when considering the list of standard inclusions.
Both the MG ZS Essence and the entry-level MG ZS Soul ($20,990 plus on-roads) include 17-inch alloys, an 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay (but no Android Auto), Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, a rear-view camera, rear parking sensors, and a pretty decent six-speaker audio system with Yamaha 3D Audio Digital sound processing. Both models also feature cruise control, automatic halogen projector headlights with LED daytime running lights, front and rear fog-lights, and synthetic leather trim.
The Essence on test adds keyless start and a panoramic sunroof with electric sunshade as well as a three-cylinder, 1.0-litre turbo-petrol unit mated to a six-speed automatic transmission (over the Soul’s naturally aspirated 1.4-litre four-cylinder number).
Surprises abound with the MG ZS. Step inside and you’ll be greeted by a mature cabin that belies its price point, not to mention its Chinese origins. The synthetic leather looks and feels the goods, while the fit and finish and quality of materials throughout are excellent. The 8.0-inch infotainment screen looks sharp and is well designed. Little things like fonts and the design of the app-style interface look modern, and while that may not seem important in the grand scheme of things, it makes for a pleasant user experience.
The rear-view camera also features a function we’d like to see on every car. Activated when in reverse (of course), the picture is sharp and the guidelines helpful, but not as helpful as the little readout that activates once you are within 100cm of the car behind and displays how close you are getting to that car. It’s a brilliant little feature, and especially handy for those super-tight spaces you sometimes find yourself in.
The panoramic roof adds a lightness and airiness to the already comfortable interior. The front seats look the part too, clad in their faux leather, and offer nice support. There are plenty of the usual accoutrements to keep most modern buyers happy – USB point, 12V charging point, two cupholders, and decent enough door pockets with bottle holders. Satin chrome highlights throughout lift the already pleasant ambience.
The back row, too, is comfortable enough for two average-sized adults with adequate head, knee and toe room, although fitting a third passenger in the centre would be a bit of a squeeze. The two outboard seats have ISOFIX points for the little ones and there are three top-tether points as well.
There’s no shortage of space in the boot either, with 359 litres, expanding to 1166 litres with the second-row seats folded flat (60:40), on par with others in the segment. So far, so good.
But, and it’s a big but, the ZS is let down by a four-star ANCAP rating (tested in 2017) thanks to a below-average score of 10.46 out of 16 for the frontal-offset test. Crash testing highlighted insufficient inflation of the passenger’s airbag, while the driver’s knee lacked sufficient protection, knocking down its overall score to 31.46 out of 37. It’s a black mark, a big one, on what is otherwise such a surprising and compelling package.
And not just on the inside...
Powering the ZS Essence is a spritely in-line three-cylinder, 1.0-litre turbo-petrol unit mated to a six-speed automatic transmission sending drive to the front wheels (there’s no AWD variant in the ZS range). It’s a perky application and really quite capable, with power outputs of 82kW (at 5200rpm) and 160Nm of torque at a very usable 1800–4700rpm.
And while those numbers aren’t stratospheric, they are more than enough to hustle the ZS’s svelte 1245kg tare mass around town. Quick off the line, the ZS is more than able to hold its own in an urban environment. The six-speed auto similarly does a good job of shuffling through the cogs and responds nicely, i.e. kicks down, when asked of it, such as navigating steeper hills that it dispatches with relative ease.
Highway runs too are effortless. Sure, the 1.0-litre isn’t going to break any records, but the ZS gets up to speed quickly enough and is happy to maintain a comfortable 110km/h with minimal fuss.
Where the ZS really shines, though, is in its ride. Sure, those 17-inch alloys shod with 215/50 R17 rubber all ’round could use an extra inch (when viewed side-on, the ZS looks under-wheeled… We reckon 18s would fix that), but they, along with the suspension tune (MacPherson up front and torsion beam at rear) do an excellent job around town. Bumps, holes and imperfections are barely noticed inside the cabin. Even sharp hits, such as speed humps, are dealt with easily, the ZS settling quickly into its rhythm.
Noise suppression too is excellent, both around town and on the highway. There are times you have to remind yourself this is a $24K car.
And then there are other times where it's glaringly obvious this is a 24-grand car. It’s a minor gripe, but there’s no digital speedo read-out. Yeah, we can read the needle on the speedo, but a digital readout in this speed-conscious day and age is a must-have, we feel.
Another gripe, this one not so minor, is all that lovely road noise and wind suppression is let down by the ZS’s air-con compressor that kicks in often, and quite loudly, marring what is an otherwise enjoyable driving experience. That said, the A/C works a treat, cooling the cabin nicely and quickly, even during the hottest of Aussie summer days we experienced during our time in the car.
Just to be sure this wasn’t an isolated case with the compressor in this particular car, I briefly sampled a second MG ZS Essence and found it to be the same. It’s not a deal-breaker (that lovely 3D sound does a good job of drowning out any unwanted noise), but it’s something for MG to work on for the future.
MG makes some pretty miserly fuel claims and the news here is good. We saw an average 8.6L/100km during our almost entirely urban week with the car. That marries up pretty well with MG’s claim of 8.4L/100km. Similarly, we saw an indicated 5.9L/100km out on the highway against the company’s claim of 5.7L. Not too shabby.
Similarly, MG Motor Australia deserves plaudits for standing behind its product with a standard seven-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty with seven years’ roadside assistance. That’s industry leading (alongside Kia) and a testament to the depths of MG’s belief in its new offering.
Servicing intervals are a not-so-great 10,000km or every six months, whichever occurs first, and if you intend to maintain your MG ZS through a dealership, you’ll need to plan well ahead. Currently, there are only 12 dealers nationally, although the brand is actively looking for potential franchisees on its website, so expect that to grow.
There’s no question the MG brand has work to do to gain traction in Australia’s already crowded market. Despite MG’s 94-year history as a manufacturer, the reality is the now Chinese-owned brand faces some pretty big hurdles in this country, not least of all the ingrained ‘Made in China’ stigma in our automotive psyche.
This car, though, the MG ZS, goes a long way to dispelling those perceptions with its affordability, surprisingly excellent ride and comfort, interior appointments and stylish, if a little derivative, looks. But, the dark cloud hanging over its head remains that four-star ANCAP rating. This really is an above-average car in the segment dragged down by that glaring black mark.
It’s a pity that ANCAP rating will, in all likelihood, cost the MG ZS a place on the consideration set of some potential buyers, because in every other regard this really is quite an accomplished small SUV. It's affordable, packed with standard features, and finished to a standard that belies not only its price point, but also its Chinese origins.