12 Nov 2018

MG ZS Essence 2018 Review

Is this more than just a cut-price competitor?
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In more than one sense the Chinese-built 2018 MG ZS Essence looks to find itself where rival South Korean brands were a couple of decades ago.

It might be scarcely believable today, but for two months back in 1998 the Hyundai Excel became Australia’s most popular new vehicle, springboarding our taste for affordable light cars with the leverage of a $13,990 driveaway deal. Plus $2000 cashback. Plus ‘free air’.

Nowadays, we’re more affluent, light cars are in decline and the small SUV class (in which this ZS plays) is trending well. The parallels are clear – a ‘new’ brand lobs in a booming segment wearing a sharp pricetag. But is the ZS a good deal more than just a good deal?

Against rivals such as the Honda HR-V, Hyundai Kona, Mazda CX-3 and Toyota C-HR, this flagship ZS Essence arguably needs to be more than just a driveaway-no-more-to-pay special.

1/7

Vehicle Style: Small SUV

Price: $23,990 plus on-road costs

Engine/trans: 82kW/160Nm 1.0-litre turbo 3cyl | six-speed automatic

Fuel Economy Claimed: 6.7 l/100km Tested: 8.6 l/100km

 Overview

OVERVIEW

MG – or Morris Garages – may have once been home to lightweight British roadsters, but in 2005 it was purchased by the gigantic Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation, or SAIC.

 Overview

Its range now comprises MG3 light hatchback, MG6 small liftback, this ZS small SUV and the GS medium SUV. To help the buying public trust a brand that departed these shores in 2005, and then again after a brief return in 2014, there’s full seven-year warranty coverage.

Dubbed the Excite, the ZS base model grade kicks off from $20,990 plus on-road costs, or $22,990 driveaway at the time of publication. It gets 17-inch alloy wheels, foglights, automatic on/off projector headlights, ‘synthetic’ leather trim, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, remote central locking, cruise control, power windows and mirrors, plus an 8.0-inch colour touchscreen with Apple CarPlay (but no Android Auto) and a reverse-view camera.

 Overview

The Essence top model grade, as tested here, costs $23,990 (plus orc) or $25,990 driveaway at the time of publication, sharing most of the above equipment while adding push-button start (but no keyless auto-entry) and a panoramic sunroof. This model grade, however, swaps out a four-speed automatic transmission for a six-speed unit, and a low-output 1.5-litre non-turbo four-cylinder petrol engine for a more modern 1.0-litre turbo three-cylinder petrol mill.

THE INTERIOR | RATING: 3.0/5

 Overview

Standard Equipment: Remote central locking with push-button start, automatic on/off headlights, leather-wrapped steering wheel, synthetic-leather seat trim, panoramic sunroof, manual air-conditioning, cruise control, and power windows and mirrors.

Infotainment: 8.0-inch colour touchscreen with Bluetooth and USB connectivity, Apple CarPlay smartphone mirroring and eight speakers.

 Overview

Options Fitted: None.

Cargo Volume: 359 litres.

There are two high points inside the interior of this MG – quite literally as it were. The first is the high seating position, plus expansive forward and side glass that makes for plenty of legroom, headroom as well as all-round visibility. That panoramic sunroof is the other highlight too, only further aiding what is one of the roomiest cabins in the small SUV class.

It would take an HR-V to best the ZS for space inside. Its front seats are cushy, if not overly supportive, and matched to an equally plush rear bench and backrest – though, disappointingly, there’s no centre armrest or cupholders, let alone air vents for back seaters.

It can’t quite match the Honda’s expansive 437-litre boot, nor its clever seat-fold mechanism, but the 359L volume almost beats the C-HR’s 377L while trumping it to a greater degree for rear-seat space, if not features and quality.

In the latter case, the plasticky controls and scratchy lower console – bereft of a centre storage bin found in other rivals – disappoints more than most in this class. The ambience just feels cheap, though there are upsides that at least equal established players.

Both the exterior and interior panel fit is actually impressively tight and squeak-free, for example, while the dashboard itself uses soft-form plastics and the steering wheel’s perforated leather rim is nice to hold – even if it reeks of a previous-gen Volkswagen Golf.

The 8.0-inch touchscreen further delivers quick reaction time, teamed with a high resolution that makes for an outstandingly clear reverse-view camera. Make that a third high-point, then. Although the simple tile menu slides as effortlessly as a smartphone would between home screens, the lack of integrated satellite navigation and digital radio grate at this level, especially given the inclusion of CarPlay but not Android Auto smartphone mirroring tech.

All three are now standard on an equivalent, albeit dimensionally smaller, CX-3 Maxx Sport auto costing $27,490 driveaway at the time of publication – mirroring that of an HR-V VTi auto. Neither get a sunroof, but the Honda includes sat-nav and climate control absent here, and the Mazda adds to its three infotainment advantages with another trio – forward collision warning, forward/reverse autonomous emergency braking (AEB) and blind-spot monitoring.

A $1500 saving at the time of writing, and two extra years of warranty, arguably aren’t quite enough to distance the ZS Essence from its VTi rival in terms of space and practicality, or the Maxx Sport for convenience and safety equipment, while it trails both for a feeling of quality.

ON THE ROAD | RATING: 2.0/5

Engine: 82kW/160Nm 1.0-litre turbo petrol 3cyl.

Transmission: Six-speed automatic, FWD.

Suspension: MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear.

Brakes: Ventilated front and solid rear disc brakes.

Steering: Electrically assisted mechanical steering.

Developed in conjunction with General Motors (GM), the SAIC-built 1.0-litre turbo doesn’t initially seem like a step up on the 1.5-litre non-turbo of the entry-level model grade. After all, power actually moves down, from 84kW at 6000rpm to 82kW at 5200rpm.

Of greater relevance, however, is the torque gain from a measly 150Nm at a high 4500rpm, to just 160Nm but produced consistently across an 1800rpm-to-4700rpm band. With six gears at its disposal, this is a smooth combination, albeit a fairly serene one. While the three-cylinder is near-silent at idle, and still-distant as the tachometer needle sweeps to the higher end, forward progress is fairly leisurely even once beyond a brief pause of dreaded turbo lag.

Both 1.8-litre HR-V and 2.0-litre CX-3 non-turbo four-cylinder engines are faster but louder, though the 1.2-litre turbo four-cylinder C-HR delivers the best combination of quietness and responsiveness – albeit for $30,990 driveaway at the time of publication. Expensive that Toyota may be, but it feels light years ahead of its other rivals for powertrain finesse and active-safety tech, adding to AEB and blind-spot monitoring with adaptive cruise control, automatic up/down high-beam and active lane-keep assistance all missing here or from rivals.

Where the MG’s engine and transmission are at least competitive – though the claimed combined-cycle fuel consumption of 6.7 litres per 100 kilometres elevated to 8.6L/100km on test – its ride and handling are as disappointingly sub-par as the vacant active safety tech list.

The steering is the highlight of the dynamic package, with reasonably linear response once lock is wound on, although even then it feels vague on-centre and the hydraulic power assistance can fail to keep a consistently light level of weighting when parking quickly.

It’s the suspension settings that are all at sea for Australian conditions, though. A quick spin at low speed around the block might quickly suggest pleasant road manners, with the single exception of some jarring from the 17-inch wheel rims over sharp-edged potholes. However, anything more demanding and the wallowy lack of control can be nauseating, as the ZS pitches forward under brakes and can wobble side-to-side across lumpy country backroads.

The lack of handling alacrity doesn’t really do the MG badge justice, though with a tighter, tauter suspension tune there could be reason to further explore this SUV’s ability. It really just needs an Australian-tuned chassis – as South Korean brands such as Hyundai have.

SAFETY

ANCAP rating: 4 stars – this model scored 31.46 out of 37 possible points when tested by ANCAP in 2017.

Safety Features: Six airbags, ABS, electronic stability control (ESC), reverse-view camera, and rear parking sensors.

WARRANTY AND SERVICING

Warranty: Seven years/unlimited km.

Servicing: MG does not offer a capped-price servicing plan, however a Victorian dealership explained that annual (or 10,000km) servicing costs a reasonable $270, $390 and $270 for each of the first three check-ups to three years or 30,000km.

RIVALS TO CONSIDER

The entry-level HR-V VTi is the pick of the Honda small SUV range, and the roomiest in the class, if only it had the steering of the RS and active safety tech of the flagship VTi-LX.

The CX-3 Maxx Sport is the opposite, with the smallest interior offset by a high level of standard equipment, a superbly tuned automatic, responsive performance and energetic dynamics, all wrapped in a safety-packed little SUV.

Yet, while it may cost $5000 more than the ZS tested here, and $3500 more than the aforementioned rivals, the C-HR feels so much more advanced, more silken, more refined, more tech-packed and all-round better than any – it’s absolutely worth the extra spend.

  • Honda HR-V VTi
  • Mazda CX-3 Maxx Sport
  • Toyota C-HR

TMR VERDICT | OVERALL RATING: 2.5/5

With a lower pricetag or greater standard equipment, the ZS Essence could add a half-star to its score. And, if it had a (much) better suspension tune, another half-star could be filled in.

That’s simply because this MG is otherwise not bad at all, especially given its long warranty, a cabin that is rather roomy, and a turbo engine that is punchy yet refined. In short, it’s a bit better than the modern small SUV equivalent of what a Hyundai Excel was two decades ago.

What it can’t do, though, is shirtfront far more established competition with a pricetag only $1500 lower, while also lacking infotainment and active safety technology, plus merely achieving a four-star ANCAP safety rating.

This Chinese brand has a rough diamond to work with, though. All it needs now is to be polished, and then repositioned further away from cut-throat competitors.

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