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Today’s MG marque might be a far cry from the heady days of the quintessential British sports cars from Abingdon, near Oxford, but the modern MG SUV entrant in the small SUV segment seems like a proper bargain given its entry-level price tag from just $22,990 – drive away.

A quick squiz at the spec sheets across the MG ZS SUV line up and it’s not hard to see why buyers might be keen to give the new-found Chinese-owned brand a go, especially given its equal-best seven-year factory warranty and roadside assist program.

There’s no doubt the MG brand is making its presence known in Australia and whilst no one would argue it has a way to go before it could ever be considered a mainstream player in the local landscape, there’s certainly plenty to appreciate about modern MGs aside from the tempting drive-away prices on offer.

Chinese brands copped a good deal of criticism in the past for less than attractive designs that made a habit of borrowing styling cues from any number of brands, often with less than spectacular results.

MG is a bit of a surprise, though, especially with its ZS model, even if it does appear to take inspiration from the larger Mazda CX-5. From any angle this is a smart looking SUV with an all-together contemporary look and one that stands out in what is an extremely crowded segment.

More than that, though, on close inspection we’re also impressed with details like the paintwork, which is a high-quality finish. Even the multi-spoked alloys look the goods.

The only question is which variant offers the best value for money out of the three versions on offer in the ZS range given the $4000 variance between all three; the MG ZS 1.5L Excite, MG ZS 1.0 Excite Plus or the top-spec MG ZS 1.0 Essence that gets a bit more kit.

There are two engines on offer and effectively, three trim levels; Excite, Excite Plus and Essence. It’s a tad confusing because the only differentiating factor between Excite and Excite Plus is the engine. The standard equipment inventory is the same.

The entry-level Excite is exclusively available with a 1.5-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine with direct injection making 84kW of power and 150Nm of torque at 4500rpm to the front wheels via a less than contemporary four-speed automatic transmission.

Step up a level to the Excite Plus and under the bonnet you’ll find a thoroughly modern 1.0-litre, three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine with 82kW and 160Nm of torque available between 1800-4700rpm to the front axle thanks to a six-speed automatic gearbox.

The top-spec Essence also uses the 1.0-litre turbo powertrain but simply adds a few more features.

Keen pricing is clearly a key strategy for MG’s push into the Australian market with the Excite listed as $22,990 – and that’s drive-away and with standard inventory that includes equipment such as 17-inch machined alloy wheels, eight-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay, six-speaker audio system with Yamaha digital sound processing and rear parking sensors with rear-view camera.

There’s also auto headlights with follow-me-home function, electrically adjustable and heated side mirrors, tyre pressure monitoring system, configurable EPS power steering and metallic paint is included.

Choose the Excite plus (our pick) and the price jumps $2000 to $24,990, but the equipment package is identical to its entry sibling, except for the upgraded drivetrain.

The range-topping Essence simply adds integrated satellite Navigation, keyless start and a panoramic sunroof with electric sunshade to its 1.0 turbo powertrain but asks $26,990 – for the privilege. We’re not so fussed with the Navigation thanks to CarPlay making it effectively redundant, but push button start and the electrically-operated roof and sunshade are well worth the extra coin.

Safety is covered to some extent with six airbags including full-length curtains, ABS brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution, Emergency brake assist, Active cornering brake control, Electronic stability program, Hill launch assist and cruise control but it’s not adaptive.

However, it falls one point short of a full five-star ANCAP safety rating given the lack of active safety systems like Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB), Lane keep assist, rear cross-traffic alert and Blind spot monitoring.

Clearly, the budget buy here is the base Excite, and don’t worry about the fact the 1.5-litre powertrain isn’t turbocharged like the ‘Plus’ version because driving them back to back in an urban environment there really isn’t much in it, especially when it comes to getting away at the lights. It’s got more poke that we would have given it credit for. And, the fact that its only got a four-speed auto isn’t really an issue around town.

But, where you will notice the shortfall in gear ratios is on the motorways or when you’re doing some long-distance cruising where it might get a tad noisy (given its working harder with higher using higher rpm) and certainly less fuel efficient under those conditions.

It’s also not quite as refined as the smaller but more advanced 1.0-litre turbo with its six-speed auto. There’s more punch almost anywhere in the rev range which simply adds to the driving experience.

On paper its actually got less power than the 1.5-litre unit, but with 10Nm more torque. The more you drive this vehicle, the more you’re aware it’s a significant engine upgrade on the naturally aspirated unit. It’s a smoother, more refined power delivery and sharper throttle response.

And, for those that might be commuting longer distances on the open road, it’s not working as hard either, as well as producing less emissions.

It feels light and responsive on the road with nicely weighted electric power steering that changes depending on the vehicle’s speed. I’ll go one step further here and make the callout that the one-litre version is actually fun to drive (even slightly sporty) due to its relatively light kerb weight thanks in part to its front-wheel drive setup. Certainly its way better than expected.

Ride comfort is decent, too, with reasonably good damping that’s able to cushion most bumps, even sharp edges. There’s less consistency with the suspension, though, sometimes you feel the bumps in the cabin, but mostly they’re absorbed.

Inside, the MG ZS is clearly built to a budget, but it’s also well screwed together and there’s a decent ambience in the cabin. Initially, we thought the upholstery was genuine leather, only to learn it’s a synthetic fabric but it’s well bolstered (that’s seat and seatback) and genuinely comfortable.

The brushed faux metal accents throughout cockpit tend to lift the general look and feel, while the dash and instrument layout is clean and simple. The infotainment unit (using CarPlay) was surprisingly quick to respond to touch commands and clarity is better than expected.

The MG ZS appears physically larger than many of its small SUV rivals, explaining its excellent rear-seat legroom and luggage capacity with 359 litres available behind the rear seats, stretching to 1166 litres when folded. By way of comparison, the Mazda CX-3 gets 264 and 1200 litres.

If you’re looking for a winner here, it’s the mid-level Excite Plus with the turbo powertrain that makes the most sense to us, but if the extra two grand is a leap too far for the family budget, you won’t be too disappointed with the base 1.5-litre unit either, unless you’re doing plenty of motorway kays.

MG ZS: specifications snapshot

MG ZS Excite
Price: $22,990 (drive away)
Engine: 1.5-litre, 4-cylinder naturally aspirated petrol
Transmission: 4-speed auto
Power: 84kW @ 6000rpm
Torque: 150Nm @ 4500rpm
Spare wheel: Space saver
Boot Volume: 359L/1166L
Fuel consumption (combined): 7.1L/100km
Fuel tank capacity: 48L
Key features: 17-inch alloys, 8-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay, rear parking sensors with rear-view camera, auto headlights, electric folding heated side mirrors, tyre pressure monitoring system.

MG-ZS Excite Plus

Price: $24,990 (drive away)
Engine: 1.0-litre, 3-cylinder turbocharged petrol
Transmission: 6-speed auto
Power: 82kW @ 5200rpm
Torque: 160Nm @ 1800-4700rpm
Spare wheel: Space saver
Boot Volume: 359L/1166L
Fuel consumption (combined): 7.1L/100km
Fuel tank capacity: 48L
Key features: 17-inch alloys, 8-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay, rear parking sensors with rear-view camera, auto headlights, electric folding heated side mirrors, tyre pressure monitoring system.

MG ZS Essence

Price: $26,990 (drive away)
Engine: 1.0-litre, 3-cylinder turbocharged petrol
Transmission: 6-speed auto
Power: 82kW @ 5200rpm
Torque: 160Nm @ 1800-4700rpm
Spare wheel: Space saver
Boot Volume: 359L/1166L
Fuel consumption (combined): 7.1L/100km
Fuel tank capacity: 48L
Key features: 17-inch alloys, 8-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay, rear parking sensors with rear-view camera, auto headlights, electric folding heated side mirrors, tyre pressure monitoring system.

Additional features: Satellite Navigation, Push-button start, Panoramic ‘stargazer’ roof with electric sunshade

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