Chinese-owned British brand MG was on a sabbatical from the Australian market in 2015 and 2016, yet it’s now threatening to break into the top 10 sales chart.
After just 600 sales in 2017, it’s currently on track to shift about 14,000 units in 2020. With 2018 registering a 401 per cent year-on-year increase, this isn’t a COVID-inspired trend.
With its super-cheap MG3 defying a poor three-star crash rating to blitz the city-car class, it’s clear Australians still have a healthy appetite for budget-priced new cars.
And MG’s showroom options are increasing. Following the 2020 introduction of the HS mid-sized SUV, Morris Garages has now added a new compact SUV to its stable.
The ZST is essentially an updated, slightly redesigned version of the ZS that debuted in 2018 – though to muddy matters a bit, the ZS – without updates – will for at least a year continue to be sold alongside the fresher model.
ZST is a badge specific to Australia, and the T could represent several things: the Turbocharged 1.3-litre engine exclusive to this model; Technology in the form of the MG Pilot driver-assistance systems shared with the bigger HS but not available on the regular ZS; or Trophy, for the sporty ZS trim grade found in some other markets and still seen as a badge on the ZST’s rear pillar.
The ZST brings a different question for MG. With the ZS carrying on the cheap-and-cheerful approach with drive-away pricing that starts from $21,990, can the brand compete with a more premium variant starting from closer to $30,000 all up?
What better way to find out than pitting it against a competitor SUV from Hyundai – a brand that has already successfully transcended its origins as a budget-focused carmaker.
Hyundai’s Kona is the natural size rival for the 4.3m ZST sharing the same 'small SUV' sales classification, though here we have focused on greater price/features parity – choosing the 4.0m-long Venue from the light-SUV class in top-spec Elite form.
Pricing and equipment
The ZST is offered in two trim levels. While our test car is the more expensive Essence grade ($31,490 plus on-road costs), for this comparison we’re treating it as the entry Excite that costs $28,490 before extra charges.
At the time of writing, MG had extended the ZST’s launch drive-away pricing into November: $29,490 for the Excite or $32,490 for the Essence. Given MG's value positioning, it's likely those offers will continue on for a while yet.
Focusing on Excite rather than Essence simply means ignoring our test car’s panoramic sunroof, digital instrument panel, electric driver’s seat, heated front seats and different wheel design that the extra $3000 brings.
The Venue, which in 2019 replaced the Accent city car as Hyundai’s joint most affordable model, kicks off at $20,690 RRP for a base manual and ends with the $26,490 auto-only Elite.
Hyundai similarly has the Venue under a price promotion at the moment, for $29,240 drive-away, putting the Elite within the ZST’s ballpark.
Add $495 for the Venue if you want a colour besides white (though the contrasting roof is a no-cost feature); pay an extra $500 if you want your ZST in a more vibrant paint than the standard white or black.
Even when overlooking the extra features of the Essence, the ZST Excite’s equipment list remains just ahead of the Venue Elite’s.
In the MG’s favour are LED headlights, adaptive cruise (with traffic jam mode), surround-view camera, rain-sensing wipers and a larger touchscreen.
The Hyundai’s advantages are digital radio, fatigue monitoring and – after an MY21 running change – a sunroof and wireless smartphone integration.
Between them, the ZST Excite and Venue Elite share a bunch of features including 17-inch alloy wheels, single-zone climate control, keyless entry/start, navigation, LED daytime running lights, and various driver-assist systems.
The Excite’s features still look good on paper compared with base versions of the Ford Puma, Nissan Juke and Volkswagen T-Cross (models that are also a bit more expensive), though the imminent Skoda Kamiq 85TSI – costing from $29,990 drive-away with auto – is making its own case to be labelled ‘best-value small SUV’.
The ZST Excite’s pricing, then, isn’t as super-sharp as might be expected, and its value proposition will be less convincing if MG doesn’t retain the existing drive-away pricing.
|Hyundai Venue Elite||MG ZST Excite|
|Engine||1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol||1.3-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol|
|Power and torque||90kW @ 6300rpm, 151Nm @ 4850rpm||115kW @ 5200-5600rpm, 230Nm @ 1800-4400rpm|
|Transmission||Six-speed automatic||Six-speed automatic|
|Drive type||Front-wheel drive||Front-wheel drive|
|Fuel claim combined (ADR)||7.1L/100km||7.2L/100km|
|Fuel use on test||6.5L/100km||7.0L/100km|
|Turning circle||10.2m||not available|
|ANCAP safety rating||4 stars (tested 2019)||4 stars (ZS, tested 2017)|
|Warranty||5 years / unlimited km||7 years / unlimited km|
|Main competitors||Kia Stonic, Mazda CX-3, VW T-Cross||Ford Puma, Mitsubishi ASX, Skoda Kamiq|
Infotainment and tech
Adaptive cruise control isn’t a common feature on SUVs below $30,000, and the ZST’s system also effectively performs the task of slowing the car automatically when approaching vehicles in the same lane, then re-accelerating to the set speed once clear.
The driver can select the desired gap, though the visual guide in the digital instrument cluster is very subtle – noting the selections with tiny notches on the ‘lane marker’ rather than filling bars as with most systems.
Big merit points, too, for the MG’s lane-keep assist system, which is less sensitive than the Hyundai’s system. It nudges the steering only when it’s obvious the vehicle is about to encroach on a centre lane marking, whereas the Venue occasionally makes a fairly aggressive adjustment, even when there’s no obvious trajectory away from the centre of your lane.
You otherwise regularly feel the Hyundai's system making unnecessary inputs, so fortunately there’s a dash button that allows the driver to switch the system off.
Both models cover off other notable driver aids such as AEB, auto high beam, forward-collision warning, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert. Each also has tyre pressure monitoring.
The MG Pilot suite of safety tech that has cascaded down from the HS is welcome, though the ZST is for now slightly tainted with the same four-star ANCAP crash rating as the ZS from 2017. The model struggled particularly in the frontal offset test. The Venue also carries a four-star rating from 2019, marked down, largely, due to a lack of a more sophisticated AEB system.
While the ZST is hardly the trickiest of vehicle sizes to park, its 360-degree camera will be welcomed by some and the image quality is decent. The surround view appears on the 10.1-inch centre infotainment display, which presents with a vibrant, multicoloured homepage (as with the smaller, 8.0-inch display in the ZS).
It’s not the most responsive screen, though. There’s a slight lag between selecting a function and seeing it appear on the display, and the navigation was a bit slow to load a selected route. Some lag can also be experienced when pressing the shortcut buttons below the screen – such as selecting a climate function for the first time.
The use of incremental bars and varying tones of blue/red to indicate colder/hotter isn’t the most intuitive way for the cabin climate to be adjusted, either.
The Venue’s separated climate controls with digital readouts are a much simpler method.
While the Venue’s 8.0-inch touchscreen presentation isn’t as expansive or visually fancy as the ZST’s, its operations are slightly quicker and the various functions are all logically laid out.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility is standard in both cases, though a USB lead is no longer required in the Venue thanks to that new wireless set-up for smartphone-mirroring technology.
Also common, however, is the absence of wireless smartphone charging that is standard on the cheapest versions of the Puma and T-Cross.
The ZST joins the larger HS in showcasing how MG is steadily improving the quality of its interiors.
While hard plastics are still used widely, softer materials are found on the upper dash and doors – including fake-leather patches featuring a carbon-fibre weave pattern. This matches to the bolstering on the front seats, which share red stitching with other areas of the cabin to contribute to a sporty-ish design theme.
The cabin’s upholstery is very obviously fake leather, though, and it doesn’t quite pull off the intended premium look.
‘MG ZS’ logos on the floor mats and ‘New MG ZS’ etchings on the bottom of the cupholders also betray the fact this ZST is an updated ZS not a separate, all-new model.
There’s a reassuring feel to how the cabin’s various components have been put together, but some of the switchgear tactility – such as the mirror adjustment switch and climate buttons – is less impressive.
And not everyone is guaranteed a perfect driving position, as the steering wheel adjustment goes up and down only (and it made a slightly disconcerting grating sound when we adjusted the wheel in our test car).
The Venue’s steering wheel has both reach and height adjustment, while the driver’s seat matches the cushioned comfort of the ZST’s front pews.
We reckon the Hyundai’s seats also look more upmarket with their combination of patterned ‘Denim’ cloth and leather-trimmed bolstering. (This upholstery is paired with the Typhoon Silver and Denim exterior colours, whereas other paints come with black or grey cloth.)
The Elite’s two-tone interior is a welcome break from the overly black cabins Hyundai (and its sister company Kia) often serve up. It helps create a more mature vibe compared with the ZST.
Although softer materials are in shorter supply in the Venue, the South Korean SUV avoids a sense of cheapness with textured surfacing on prominent sections of the dash and doors, as well as some nice matt-silver plastic used for the door pulls, gear lever surround and engine start button.
The smooth-leather steering wheel with silver cross-stitching looks relatively posh and is pleasant to hold. Buttons and switches also generally feel nicer to press or move.
Neither SUV is overly generous with front-cabin storage, though the MG has the edge with its larger door cubbies, overhead sunnies holder and extra centre console compartment.
Two USB ports are found in the front console area of each car, with the ZST adding a third (dash-cam-friendly) USB above the rear-view mirror.
MG provides another two USB ports for rear-seat passengers, though joins the Hyundai in neglecting ventilation and a centre armrest. Both vehicles provide seatback pockets and bottle holders in the rear doors.
As the longer vehicle, the ZST offers a clear advantage in rear knee room – able to accommodate taller passengers, whereas the Venue is best if all adults are of average height. There’s noticeable extra width in the ZST, too.
The Venue counters with more head room and its outboard seats are more comfortable – mainly due to better under-thigh support. The ZST’s bench is a touch flat.
Small families will find both rear seats useful for fitting child seats, including a baby capsule.
Luggage capacity is a close battle. The Venue’s 355L volume compares with 359L for the ZST.
The MG’s boot is relatively narrow, with the wheel housings restricting width to 88cm. The Venue’s boot is 94cm wide at its narrowest point, but more than a metre wide at its widest point. The ZST’s boot is longer: 77cm compared with 65cm.
Both offer the versatility of a dual floor height – with a lower setting allowing for deeper storage and the higher setting ensuring a flat cargo area when the 60/40 seatbacks are folded down. Temporary spare wheels are also common.
Whereas the regular ZS comes with either an 84kW/150Nm 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol or 82kW/160Nm 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol engine, the ZST is powered by a 1.3-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol motor with 115kW and 230Nm.
It joins a growing band of impressive turbo triples. While a touch of lag can be encountered around town, it’s never frustrating, and you ultimately enjoy the three-cylinder’s combination of strong performance and thrummy (but refined) soundtrack.
Incidentally, its power and torque outputs aren’t far off the 119kW/250Nm 1.5-litre turbo four-cylinder in the mid-sized HS SUV. To handle the extra power, MG says it increased the ZS’s front-end rigidity by 50 per cent by beefing up the subframe and suspension points.
We didn't experience any torque steer, while the ZST's six-speed auto works well with the turbo engine, if lacking the snappier gearshifts of dual-clutch autos commonly paired with three-cylinder turbos in the segment.
The ZST’s engine emphasises a flaw in the Venue range, where the flagship Elite uses the same normally aspirated 1.6-litre petrol engine as lower-spec models.
The modestly powered four-cylinder – just 90kW and 151Nm – feels acceptable in the base Venue that starts from just over $20,000, and even the mid-range Active, but the performance is a bit underwhelming for a vehicle that will subtract almost $30,000 from a bank account.
Whether you’re overtaking or looking to slot quickly into a traffic gap, the Venue requires a heavy stomp on the ‘go’ pedal – and even then the acceleration is modest, while also accompanied by unpleasantly thrashy revs.
The Venue features a Sport mode that improves throttle response slightly, though this is not an engine that sounds good at higher RPM. The engine is better when you’re simply maintaining momentum once up to speed, with the six-speed auto smart enough to drop a gear or two when starting up a hill. And the engine is sufficiently quiet when it doesn’t need to be worked.
The Hyundai’s engine can run on regular unleaded fuel, too, whereas the MG’s turbo motor needs 95RON at a minimum.
Indicated fuel consumption on test pointed to a slight advantage for the Venue – 6.5L/100km versus 7.0L/100km – though the MG’s figure is better in the context of its extra performance.
Expect consumption to be higher with mainly urban driving. (In two other Venue tests, for example, we registered double-digit numbers.) Officially, lab-derived figures have the ZST pegged at 7.1L/100km and the Venue at 7.2L/100km.
On the road
There’s one word you could use to describe the ZST’s road manners: respectable.
The MG’s ride quality is quite decent, with the dampers just struggling to get a handle on rougher road sections or sharper bumps to ensure occupants are isolated from surface irregularities at all times.
Take to a country road without too much enthusiasm and the ZST will navigate corners competently, without excessive body roll and with good grip (and restrained rumble) from the 215/55R17 Michelin Primacy tyres fitted to our test car.
Drivers can add some weight to the steering for windier routes by selecting a Dynamic mode via the centre touchscreen. The Normal setting offers a medium heaviness, while Urban is the lightest set-up for city driving.
None is a Goldilocks setting, though. Regardless of mode, the ZST’s steering – like its ride – is decent if never great. There’s a slackness to its feel in Urban mode, while Dynamic mode doesn’t make it feel any more involving. However, these are aspects that are only likely to deter buyers of much older MGs (ie, keen drivers) rather than today’s typical MG customer.
Swapping to the Hyundai reveals an Elite model that improves upon the driving experience of the base model. Wider, lower-profile tyres help the Elite lose the vague on-centre feel found in the base Venue at higher speeds, though there’s a suggestion Hyundai’s local engineering team may have simply spent more effort on tuning the flagship Venue for Australian roads.
Despite that narrower sidewall, as well as 17-inch wheels that are two inches bigger than the rims fitted to the base Venue, the Elite also rides with more compliance than the base Venue – as well as the car it faces here.
While both contenders have a pleasantly supple suspension, the Hyundai is more consistent than the ZST at absorbing bumps.
The Venue’s more linear and more consistently weighted steering – a bit heavier than the ZST’s Urban steering setting – also make it an enjoyable car to manoeuvre, whether it’s around town or along country roads.
The Hyundai’s 205/55R17 Nexen N'Fera SU1 tyres are a bit noisier on coarser surfaces.
MG offers one of the longest warranties in Australia, matching Kia’s seven years. (Mitsubishi has introduced a 10-year warranty, though owners are obliged to service strictly within the Japanese brand’s dealer network.) MG also throws in roadside assistance for that period, too.
Hyundai continues to let its sister brand have the upper hand here, providing the industry-average five years with its warranty. Roadside assistance is included if you have the Venue serviced at authorised dealers.
Servicing costs are similar. MG is still finalising capped-price servicing for the ZST, but has indicated a $1504 total over five years. That compares with $1575 for the Venue over the same period, though MG’s mileage intervals are short at 10,000km, whereas Hyundai’s are at the average 15,000km.
For buyers who have a maximum budget of $30,000 and place value at the top of their shopping list, the MG ZST Excite is ready to answer the call with its long warranty and generous list of standard gear. And it’s essentially a small SUV for light-SUV money.
The ZST’s very likeable 1.3-litre turbo engine also delivers performance that’s well above average. For now, though, it’s not quite the complete package.
The ZST offsets its strong arsenal of active-safety features with that four-star crash rating, there’s a superficiality to some of its interior quality, there are driving-position compromises, and there’s room for improvement in the ride/handling department.
Hyundai’s smallest SUV doesn’t quite fulfill its brief, either. The Venue Elite is missing some features expected on a range-topping model – LED headlights and adaptive cruise, for example – and the engine lacks the flexible torque of turbocharged motors found in many compact SUVs these days.
The Venue, too, has a sub-maximum ANCAP rating, even if marked down to four stars mainly on the basis of its lack of AEB (autonomous emergency braking) cyclist detection, as it scored well for adult and child occupant protection.
And although the Elite isn’t a long way off the ZST Excite’s list of features, the Venue is a smaller vehicle that can’t match the MG’s interior space.
It’s still sufficiently practical for a small family, though, and the Hyundai’s interior compensates in other ways such as superior switchgear tactility and more comfortable seating overall.
The Venue Elite’s steering and suspension are also more precisely honed for Australian roads.