Rental Car Review: 2021 MG ZS 1.0T-GDi Excite Automatic – Anonymous Now Has A Famous Name

The rental car roulette wheel has come up with another interesting choice, a fact finding opportunity for a UK based Curbivore and a perfectly practical, and adequately capable if almost forgettable, way of driving 350 miles over three days, all in one 4300mm/14 feet, 1250kg/2750lb package. The MG ZS 1.0T-GDi Excite Automatic. As we’ll see, one of those of words is working quite hard.

But, first, what is an MG ZS? It won’t be familiar to North American readers, even though I suspect you know MG – this is CC after all. The MG name was one of the pearls in the asset basket collected by China’s Nanjing Automobile from the 2005 receivership of MG Rover, the volume car business handed over to a management buyout by BMW in 2000, when the Rover Group was broken up. We’ll go into that story one day, but the Longbridge factory, previously home of Austin, and the range of dated Honda derived cars and the then new BMW developed and funded Rover 75 formed the MG Rover Group (MGR). It lasted five years and, in its defence, built 800,000 cars before the inevitable happened. Much heralded joint ventures had never come to pass, but in the receivership, Nanjing Automobile bought the MG name and some of the products, SAIC (Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation) bought much of the rest.

In 2007, Nanjing merged with SAIC, so MG is now an SAIC brand used in China, across Europe, some parts of south east Asia, Australasia and parts of Central America. CC has seen the MG6, the first Chinese built MG to reach Europe, and the range has grown since then, to become a range of compact hatchbacks, saloons, estates (a friend swears by his MG5 EV estate) and compact SUVs, often with an electric or hybrid option. Perhaps the pick of the range is the new MG4 EV, described by some as MG’s break out car, a Skoda moment and a credible VW ID3 competitor at a significant discount.

In spirit, these are not “classic” MG products in any way, but there’s nothing unique about such a transition. After all, Porsche and BMW have moved from sports cars and saloons to SUV dominant model ranges, so why not MG? Production is in China and Thailand, and India for the local market.

The MG ZS, picking up on an MGR era name, is a compact SUV, nominally seating five and practically seating four, and competing with the others of the ever growing compact SUV class. It’s up against cars like Nissan Juke, Ford Puma, Vauxhall Crossland and Mokka, Citroen C3 Airstream, Renault Captur, SEAT Arona as well the Hyundai Kona and Bayon and Kia Stonic and Soul…. the list is long.

The MG has two notable points when looked at against this list – its clear unambiguous SUV, not crossover, styling and value for money. The car I drove retails for £20,840 with the metallic paint (Battersea Blue, named after an area of London?) and automatic gearbox. A Nissan Juke to a similar specification would be close to £24,000, and less spacious. A Ford Puma would be over £26,720, albeit a hybrid. So, the value for money is there.

What this does not have, apart from that value for money and the space, is much that sets it apart from several of the others. It is not a sweeping statement, or necessarily an outright criticism, to say this car could have been a Kia, Hyundai, Suzuki, Nissan, Skoda, Citroen, or GM era Vauxhall. The styling is generic, if inoffensive,  the interior appearance broadly likewise, the driving experience adequate and acceptable if completely unexciting. But it is not anything like any MG that came from a UK factory, even if the brand name still has a lot of recognition and UK market appeal. On its own, adding octagons to an anonymous car does not make it special.

The Excite specification is generous, but not extravagant. Fabric covered seats (my preference as it happens), cruise control, speed limiter, keyless entry, automatic handbrake with auto-hold, automatic lights (but not wipers) and a 10.1 inch screen for the usual functions – audio, heat and air and the obligatory car settings. Isofix mountings, Bluetooth, Apple Car Play and Android Auto, digital radio with many auxiliary and USB sockets, LED lights and folding mirrors all add a bit of contemporary completeness to the package. Missing, as far as I could find, was an outside temperature gauge, surprisingly.

There was rear parking distance control, with a centimetre by centimetre countdown, but not a camera, which is reserved for the Exclusive trim level, along with blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert. For most private buyers, there’ll be enough features, and it all comes with a 7 year, 80,000 mile warranty. So, in the brochure and on the website, a potentially attractive package.

The styling is a bit of mixed bag. Yes, it does have many SUV cues, such as high flat bonnet, slightly flared arches and determinedly boxy profile. Some of those also now date it – the car was launched in 2018 and it’s starting to show. Add in the small wheel – those are 17inch wheels with 55 profile tyres and early models came on 15 inch wheels – lost in big arches effect and it looks like it’s on its tip toes, trying to attract your attention. Others manage the stance much better. The front end is either fully contemporary or slightly anonymous, perhaps with Mazda overtones and the rear just as unremarkable. The feature lines on the sides are bang up to date apart from the one over the rear wheel which did nothing for me. There’s a relatively limited range of colours, but one that includes some strong bright ones as well as greys – other manufacturers please take note.

One point about the styling though. The ZS dates from 2017 and was facelifted in 2020, and it’s starting to show. Styles are moving very quickly now, and against the latest Hyundai, Kia, Toyota and Nissan designs this is now looking its age. The latest cars, especially from Japanese and Korean brands, are finding interesting ways to present the SUV without a mini-Range Rover/Jeep Cherokee aesthetic – I’m thinking of cars such as the latest Kia Sportage and Niro, or the Nissan Juke, for example. Contrast those with the current crop of VW, SEAT and Skoda triplets to see what I mean.

So, what’s under that skin? Starting at the front, there’s a choice of a 1.5 litre four cylinder engine, offering 105 bhp and linked to a five speed manual gearbox, or as I had, a 999cc three cylinder engine with the five speed gearbox or optionally linked to a six speed automatic. Both are transversely mounted and drive just the front wheels. There is also an EV version now available.

If your brain is not scrambled enough by a 999cc three cylinder with an automatic gearbox, this engine is also more powerful than the 1.5 litre, with 109bhp, thanks to a turbocharger. Both engines are part of the GM SGE engine family developed jointly by SAIC (including from SAIC UK’s Technical Centre) and GM, who use variants in Chevrolet Equinox, Trax, Malibu and Cruze and Buick Encore and Chinese market Envision. Performance was, in the traffic of the UK, adequate rather than exciting. It was keeping up with the flow, travelling one up. I sensed laden would have been different, and it didn’t suggest cruising comfortably beyond 75-80 mph. It was slightly surprising to see how frequently on the motorway that the car changed down to fifth gear and sometimes needed encouraging to get back into sixth. Over 350 miles of mixed use, keeping with the flow on the motorway, fuel consumption came in at about 37 mpg (Imperial) – not spectacular but pretty close to the official WLTP high speed assessment, and I suspect the manual 1.5 litre would improve on that. (The WLTP figures for 1.0 GDi range from 36.7 to 49.3 mpg, with an overall figure of  42.7 mpg.) But, that 3 cylinder engine really, really didn’t want to cruise at any more than 80mph, even just one up.

The car sits on 102 inch wheelbase, and that reads across, with the upright styling leading to upright seating to a very spacious interior. The interior space is probably the best aspect of the car – I’m a close fitting flat cap under 6 foot and could sit behind myself readily. Width is not so great – it’s really a four seater – but four people for proper journey is fully within this car’s abilities, space wise. Boot size and access is fine too, with split level options.

Driving was satisfactory, but not in way exciting and in some ways disappointing. There’s some roll but it’s not excessive, the ride comfort is perfectly adequate but the steering is light and fairly feel free. There’s little to tell what the front wheels are doing. The steering has three modes – Urban, Normal and Dynamic – and there’s little difference to spot. The brakes are brakes, the auto hold on the parking useful and the noise levels not unacceptable when cruising or moving in heavy traffic. There is some three cylinder thrum under acceleration and the automatic gearbox holds the gears longer than you might expect. There is a sport mode, selected by moving the gear selector across the gate and then it’s up and down the box forward and back. No paddles, but in reality you’re unlikely to use it except for steep downhill sections.

And so to the car’s biggest weakness – the interior. Yes, as I noted, it’s spacious and nominally has the features you’d expect and which the competition offer. But the tactile experience is one of the most disappointing I can recall. The steering wheel, for example, is claimed to be leather covered, and looks reasonably inviting as you open the car, with coloured stitching. But to handle, it feels very man made and hard. The same impression applies to the interior door handles and window switches, the column stalks and gear selector. Nothing feels attractively tactile or actually that durable.

The dash cover and door elbow rests are covered in what looks to be a soft touch material that turns out to pretty stiff and uninviting, and not actually warm to the touch as you might expect. The seats are comfortable enough, the door bins a reasonable size but the glovebox is actually just a slot that folds into the dash. The touchscreen worked well, with no lag and a pretty intuitive interface. The Excite trim level does not have a GPS navigation, so the screen works the audio (digital radio, USB, aux and Bluetooth), the car configuration settings that you’ll use once and forget and, big fail, the heating and air conditioning. From the home screen, the number of taps to adjust the airflow is frustrating large. Please, bring back knobs and switches. There are a series of piano key like shortcut switches under the screen, just to emphasise how a solution is needed to a problem that didn’t exist a few years ago.

The cruise control is not an active system, and whilst it worked well enough, the control was all but totally obscured behind the steering wheel spoke and the instructions thereby completely unseen. Given its position, I adjusted the cruise control several times by flashing the head lamps or indicating first.  Defrosting on an icy morning was a fairly tediously and lengthy process too.

But, perhaps the strongest reason for thinking carefully before buying the MG ZS was the apparent durability issues. This car was less than two years old and had done about 35,000 miles, but already the carpet under the driver’s right heel was not just showing wear but worn through into a sizeable hole, the rear shelf supports had given up and gone completely AWOL and the shelf itself was cracked, the fuel filler flap release catch (a Japanese style lever under the dash) felt a bit soft and the harder surfaces of the interior showed some evidence of wear and felt vulnerable to marking.

Back in the late 1980s, I used to get to drive a director’s Rover 820Si saloon on occasion, and in some ways this car reminded me of that one. Looked pretty good and contemporary, had most of the features the market expected and some others and was in may ways a thoroughly contemporary product. And then you handled various contact points – slightly flimsy column stalks, not fully reassuring door pulls and clang shut doors. This car had those kind of characteristics, almost as if the spirit of the old Rover Group was trapped in there somewhere. And they lead to a feeling that a 7 year warranty might be needed. Or maybe it had some Austin Montego ancestors?

In summary, the strengths are value for money and internal space. The weaknesses are the driving experience – others do it quite a bit better – and the crucially the interior and tactile quality, which are very disappointing and perhaps show where the costs have been saved. The driving experience is not fully competitive in 2023, and residual values are not great either.

The greatest feeling of all was one of being underwhelmed, and that without the MG branding it felt like a car that would be unlikely to register on my radar. But MG Motor are doing something right – the brand registered over 50,000 sales in the UK last year, is targeting 90,000 in the near future and the larger MG HS (another SUV, more closely matching the Qashqai for size) was Britain’s best seller (in a rather disrupted market) in January this year.

So, would it be my choice?  As often in these reviews, I’d suggest picking something from the pre-owned market, perhaps a Ford Kuga (Escape) or Kia Sportage, though the latest model is rare as a used vehicle.  But probably the UK default would be the Nissan Qashqai. It’s not a car that will get you a hot date, but £20,000 will get you a nicely specified and very capable 2021 example of the current model, that despite the branding is British built and largely British designed to boot. It’s Britain’s best seller for a reason.