MG ZST 2020 essence
launch-review

2021 MG ZST review

Australian first drive

Rating: 7.6
$28,490 $31,490 Mrlp
  • Fuel Economy
    N/A
  • Engine Power
    115kW
  • CO2 Emissions
    N/A
  • ANCAP Rating
    N/A
MG Motors' baby SUV gets a new variant with more power and even more equipment.
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I first reviewed the MG ZS back in 2018 when it first lobbed on our shores. I was quietly impressed with just how decent it was as a package, especially for the very competitive price MG Motors was offering, and continues to offer. It seems buyers in the small-SUV segment agreed, the MG ZS finding plenty of new homes in the intervening years.

Now, MG Motors has not just updated its small SUV, but has created a new model – the MG ZST – that will sit alongside the incumbent ZS in MG dealerships around the country.

On the surface, it appears the MG ZST is little more than a facelift, with a redesigned gloss-black grille and some gloss-black accents, such as the mirror caps. There are new front and rear bumpers, too, but the cosmetic changes are relatively minor.

Instead, it’s under the skin where MG has really thrown the book at the ZST with a new engine and some structural rigidity aimed at improving the breed.

There are two ZST variants and we sampled both at the model’s local launch in Sydney. The MG ZST Excite is the entry point at $28,490 plus on-road costs. However, MG Motors is currently offering a sharp $29,490 drive-away price until the end of October.

Similarly, the top-spec MG ZST Essence is priced at $32,490 drive-away until the end of October before reverting to its $31,490 plus on-road costs regular price.

For reference, the regular ZS range gets underway at $21,990 drive-away for the Excite, and tops out at $26,490 drive-away for the ZS Essence.

In terms of rivals, buyers enjoy a wealth of choice in the small-SUV segment, which is one of the most competitive arenas in the new-car world. The volume sellers in the segment include the Kia Seltos, Mazda CX-30, Mitsubishi ASX, Toyota C-HR and Subaru XV, all with variants in that circa $30,000–$32,000 price range.

MORE: 2020 Mitsubishi ASX Exceed review
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Engine (capacity, cylinders, type)1.3-litre turbo inline three-cylinder
Power and torque (with RPMs)115kW @ 5200-5600rpm, 230Nm @ 1800-4400rpm
TransmissionSix-speed automatic
Drive type (FWD, etc)Front-wheel drive
Tare Mass1295kg
Fuel claim combined (ADR)7.1L/100km
fuel use on test6.9L/100km
Boot volume (rear seats up / down)359L / 1187L
Turning circleNot provided
ANCAP safety rating (year tested)4 (tested 2017)
Warranty (years / km)7 years / unlimited km
Main competitorsMitusbishi ASX, Kia Seltos, Toyota C-HR
Price as tested (ex on-road costs)$31,490

One of the hallmarks of the MG brand since relaunching is just how much equipment it crams into its offerings. The new ZST range is no different.

The entry-level Excite is brimming. Standard equipment highlights include a 10.1-inch touchscreen with satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, keyless entry and push-button start, a 360-degree camera, 17-inch alloys, synthetic leather and cloth-trimmed seats, LED headlights and tail-lights, and MG’s suite of active safety technology dubbed MG Pilot.

MG Pilot has trickled down from the MG HS, the brand’s medium SUV, and brings to the party adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning, autonomous emergency braking, lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, intelligent headlight assist, as well as traffic jam assist.

It’s a comprehensive suite, although it hasn’t helped with the ZST’s ANCAP safety rating, which carries over from the ZS range and remains at four stars. The MG ZST has not been crash-tested as yet.

Stepping into the top-spec Essence adds some bling to what is already a pretty loaded small SUV. There’s a digital instrument cluster, as against the Excite’s analogue dials, a huge panoramic sunroof, heated front seats, faux leather seating, electrically adjustable driver’s seat, red embossed MG Logos on the front seat headrests, and a different design of 17-inch alloy wheel.

The cabin is well presented, with a mix of soft-touch materials and harder plastics. There’s a generous amount of contrast red stitching, including on the flat-bottom steering wheel, that adds a racy vibe to the cabin.

The seats are firm but supportive, and offer a decent driving position, while the cabin is intuitively laid out with everything within easy reach. There are physical switches for the climate controls, always a plus in our books. No diving through menus and sub-menus to change the temperature settings.

Storage options include a cubby ahead of the gear lever and a central storage bin that is a bit on the small side. It has a padded lid, though; a nice rest for your arm. The door pockets are big enough for 600ml bottles, too.

The second row is spacious and comfortable. There’s plenty of room in all key areas behind my 173cm driving position, while second-row passengers enjoy two USB points to keep devices topped up. That’s on top of the three USB points in the front row, for a total of five. Impressive.

The Essence also has that panoramic roof MG claims is the largest in the class. It certainly adds an airy ambience to the cabin, although spending time in the Excite without that roof isn’t exactly an exercise in darkness thanks to the light-coloured headlining.

The 10.1-inch touchscreen is sharp and easy to use, although the native sat-nav mapping looks pretty rudimentary. Still, it works as intended. There’s AM/FM radio, but neither ZST scores DAB+ radio, which really should be standard once you get around that $30K price bracket.

Apple CarPlay integrated quickly and seamlessly and worked exactly as intended, while playing some tunes via Spotify highlighted the decent, if not ground-breaking, six-speaker sound system. It sounds better than a six-speaker system looks on paper.

Behind the second row is 359L of boot space, which is about par for the segment. Fold the second row away and there’s 1187L, again about par for the class. There’s a space-saver spare under the floor, again matching its main rivals.

While the cabin offers decent levels of comfort and convenience, all while being well-executed and put together, the real work on the MG ZST has taken place under the skin, where a more powerful turbocharged engine has provided some much-needed zing to the drivetrain. Whereas the ZS always felt a smidgeon underdone, whether powered by the 1.5-litre atmo four or 1.0-litre turbo three-pot, the new 1.3-litre turbocharged three-cylinder petrol is pretty decent.

With outputs of 115kW (between 5200–5600rpm) and 230Nm (1800–4400rpm), the ZST is around 40 per cent more powerful than either engine found in the ZS. It’s a significant power and torque bump, and one that pays dividends on the road.

Those outputs are sent to the front wheels via an Aisin-sourced six-speed torque converter automatic; a package that works pretty well in most situations. MG doesn’t quote a 0–100km/h sprint time, but there’s enough zip moving away from standstill to not cause any concern. Sure, it won’t break any land speed records, but then buyers of this type of vehicle aren’t looking to match it with hot hatches when the light turns green.

Acceleration is brisk and linear, while rolling acceleration doesn’t faze the ZST either. We executed several overtakes on single-lane roads with ease, while several uphill hairpins were negotiated painlessly as the ZST happily accelerated hard, and with some pep, out of those uphill 180-degree corners. All while that happy little three-banger adds a meaty gruffness to the soundtrack.

The six-speed auto does a decent job of switching ratios, with a seamless transfer of power to the front wheels. Torque steer? Not that we felt.

To cope with all that extra power, MG has added some rigidity to the subframe and suspension points, which it claims has increased rigidity at the front by 50 per cent.

The net effect is of an altogether more planted small SUV, certainly in terms of ride. With a torsion beam set-up at rear and MacPherson struts out front, the ZST does a decent job of isolating most bumps and lumps. There’s still a tendency for the SUV to feel a bit floaty, but it’s certainly an improvement over the ZS.

There’s minimal noise intrusion into the cabin as well, with only the coarsest of coarse-chip surfaces offering any violation to the cabin ambience.

A short stretch of twisting back roads offered some insight into the handling characteristics of the ZST. It’s by no means a corner carver, and nor does it purport to be, but changes of direction are met with a composed chassis that doesn’t flail about too much. Body roll is minimal while steering remains direct, if a little on the light side with minimal feedback. Again, though, the ZST doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is – a small SUV loaded with kit made for the urban and suburban jungle.

And by that barometer, the MG ZST measures up pretty well.

It certainly measures up in fuel consumption. MG claims the ZST will need 7.1L/100km out of its 45L fuel tank. After a day of mixed driving taking in some freeways, country roads and a bit of city traffic – a combined cycle, in other words – we saw an indicated 6.9L/100km. Not too shabby.

Neither is MG’s seven-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty along with seven years of roadside assistance. Clearly, MG is standing behind its product. Servicing intervals are every 10,000km or 12 months, whichever comes first, with that distance interval a bit on the skinny side.

MG says it’s in the throes of putting together a capped-price servicing plan for the ZST, but did provide indicative pricing for the first five years or 50,000km of scheduled maintenance – $241, $283, $291, $448 and $241 for a total of $1504 over that time.

MG Motors has certainly made an impact on the Australian new-car market since relaunching back in 2017. Last year, the now Chinese-owned marque sold 8326 cars and SUVs in Australia. This year, the brand is on track to surpass that number, if it hasn’t already. To the end of August, 8074 new MGs had found homes locally, a growth of 57.1 per cent year-to-date, defying the current pandemic-led trend.

Buyers wanting a small, affordable SUV with all the trimmings have long been drawn to the MG ZS. Now, with the facelifted and vastly improved MG ZST, buyers have even more choice. Its pricing may be more in line with its mainstream rivals, but the value is easy to see, both in the level of included equipment and in an altogether better driving experience.

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