Big Test: MG Z-cars
A marketing masterstroke that kept the wolf from MG Rover’s door: but were the MG Z-cars any good?
MG’S marketing masterstroke – but are they still worth buying today?
From the very moment that the Phoenix Consortium bought Rover Group from BMW for a nominal fee of £10 in 2000, one thing was eminently clear. If the company was to stand any chance of survival whatsoever, it would need external investment.
Many column inches have been dedicated to the firm’s trials, tribulations and ultimate failure since; but whatever your take on its demise, you can’t fault the company’s engineers and designers for trying. After the ink was dry on the contract in May 2000, the newly-formed MG Rover needed new cars and it needed them quickly. But with no money in the coffers, it took a real marketing masterstroke to breathe new life into its existing model range. The 25 was already long in the tooth and the 45 even longer (though it was actually launched a couple of months after the 25, it was based on the Honda Civic-based 400 from 1994). The 75, which was
universally regarded as a fine car, was already past its honeymoon period – although it was the one truly competitive product that MG Rover had in its armoury, it was also the most expensive to build.
A saving grace was that, under BMW’S ownership, Rover Group had never been allowed to build a truly sportingcar. That was the parent company’s domain: the idea of a Rover that could out-handle a 3 Series was scorned. No surprise, then, that sporting cars were considered the short-term answer; the MG Z-cars were conceived right at the start of the Phoenix days. Mclaren F1 stylist Peter Stevens was drafted in as design chief, and in just over 12 months the ZR, ZS and ZT were rushed into production.
Unlike the Metro, Maestro and Montego, they were engineered as performance cars from the very start, and there wasn’t a red seatbelt in sight. The Z-cars now have a cult following, but how do they stack up as practical classics, and why should
you want to own one? After all, their individual success was not enough to save MG Rover, nor did the constant cost-cutting help. Here, we’ve brought the five key MG Z models together to see if they
MG ZR 160
Of all the Z-cars, the little ZR was the biggest commercial success – in fact, by 2003 the 25-based ZR was the company’s best-selling car outright. Why? Well, for a start it looked pretty cool. The 25 was seen as something your granny might drive, but the ZR was all chunky bumpers, low sideskirts and beefy spoilers.
Unlike the larger ZS and ZT models, a lot of the design work had already been carried out by RDS, an independent design house. It had been working with Rover at the time of its new independence to create a factory body kit that would enable dealers to help market the 25 to younger drivers.
With the input of Peter Stevens’ team, RDS evolved the design to create the ZR – and it was a car that was an instant hit with young customers. The entry-level price tag of just £9995 for the 1.4-litre ZR 105 helped, as did the enticing low-rate finance packages and insurance deals. It was a formula that had worked wonders for Citroën with its ‘warm’ versions of the Saxo, and it was equally successful for MG.
As well as the ZR 105, there was a 1.8-litre ZR 120 (the numbers reflect the PS figures – Eurostyle bhp) and a 1.8 160, with variable valve timing, plus the ZR 100 and 115 diesels with the Rover 2.0 L-series unit.
The ZR was flawed, of course. Peter Stevens spoke quite openly about how he’d have liked more freedom with car’s interior, but the 25’s dash and seat architecture had to stay, with only white dials and part-leather upholstery adding a sporting bent.
It was also the car that had the least suspension development, though in fairness to the 25 it was a pretty decent steer, even in shopping trolley spec.
The flagship is what we have here, the ZR 160 – this one has been enthusiast-owned for the past five years, and is in completely standard form. It’s a fun car, though one that doesn’t have the same sense of occasion as some contemporary hot hatchbacks. It’s quick (0-60mph takes less than eight seconds) and the handling is agile and predictable, but it’s not as edgy as some of the French and Italian competitors of its era, while the cabin feels old-fashioned compared to other cars sold at the same time.
It’s not without its charm, however. The K-series was always an eager powerplant, and the one in the ZR 160 is very close to that used in the Lotus Elise. Push it hard and it rewards; drive it gently and it’s as docile as a normal 25. Indeed, the ride comfort is better than any other Noughties hot hatch. It’s a car
‘All chunky bumpers, low sideskirts and beefy spoilers, the ZR is a fun car’
with character, comfort and a chassis that encourages you to get to know it more and more as you drive it. While the term ‘performance’ is pushing it a bit for lower-powered versions, it did a great job of bringing new blood into MG Rover showrooms, so was arguably the most important of the Z-car line-up.
MG ZS 120
Of all the Z-cars, it’s the ZS that surprises the most. Styling-wise, it was potentially the least successful of the initial three. The ageing 45 bodyshell, itself based on the 1994 Honda Civic (or 1992 Honda Domani in Japan), was restrictive, especially in its five-door form in which the rear end looked little different. The quadheadlamp nose was pretty, though, and with the saloon versions you could opt for a giant rear wing that aped the look of the Subaru Impreza – hardly surprising, really, as Peter Stevens was heavily involved in that project, too.
The chassis is the area where it really shines, though. With MG Rover angling for external investment for a 45 replacement, the company needed to prove it could engineer a chassis to match the best in the segment – and when the benchmark compact hatchback was the truly excellent Ford Focus, it needed to be more than just good.
Even today, the ZS is regarded as one of the finest-handling front-wheel drive cars ever made. The flagship 2.5-litre V6 180 proved a huge hit with the media at the press launch for its intoxicating exhaust note, superb steering and point-and-squirt handling. It was hailed as a true performance car bargain, sufficient enough to overlook the awful dashboard and awkward ergonomics, which included a passenger electric window switch by the handbrake, so the driver and passenger could each operate it without the need for two buttons.
As well as the 180, there were two other engines: the 2.0-litre L-series diesel in the ZS 115 and the 1.8-litre petrol in the 120, which was both the entry-level car and the best seller. The latter is what we have here. While it was the 180 that won all the plaudits, in many ways the 120 was the real star, as it brought the same handling finesse to the cheaper models in the range. The need to keep it constantly within its torque curve forced you to explore the chassis even further – it’s not stupidly quick, but
it’s a great car to drive quickly once you get there, with a fluidity that belies its old-fashioned origins.
It’s also the ‘forgotten’ Z-car, which means they’re still stupidly cheap, though the real Q-cars of the era are the standard post-2003 Rover 45s – they got pretty much the entire ZS suspension and handling set-up as a cost-cutting exercise and were hidden gems as a result. It’s a well-kept secret – only those who’ve driven one truly realise how good they are…
MG ZT 190
Turning the 75 into a performance saloon was a delicate exercise. Richard Woolley’s original styling was almost perfect, with proportions so superbly crafted that they won it the ‘Most Beautiful Car in the World’ accolade from an Italian car magazine in 1999. So, dramatic restyling wasn’t an option.
As a result, the ZT was a little more conservative in its approach, but it was also executed brilliantly. Indeed, Peter Stevens was most fond of the ZT out of the three, and the estate version even more so.
It was styled not just with looks in mind, but also aerodynamic efficiency, and the look much more integrated than the ZR and ZS. The car was offered with multiple accessory styling options, including a big rear wing that was less aerodynamically efficient than the more conservative lip spoiler fitted as standard.
Once again, there were multiple versions offered. The 1.8-litre K-series was more mouth than trousers, and there were two versions of the 2.5 KV6, in 160 and 190PS variants. A ZT 180 Sport Auto came a bit later, with the top-spec engine detuned to a level where it wouldn’t eat the JATCO automatic transmission for lunch. There was also a diesel version with the BMW M42 engine used under licence.
The car we have here is a ZT 190 V6, which is a former MG Rover press demonstrator with unusual Monogram ‘Spectre’ paintwork. The Monogram programme was a unique colour and trim option package developed by MG Rover, in the same vein as the Range Rover Autobiography concept that had been previously tried with the P38 – it allowed customers to select colours and trims outside of the standard range. Among them were ‘flip’ micatallic paint finishes that flickered between shades in certain lights and are actually quite collectable today. This is one of just 12 cars built in this colour scheme.
The first thing that you notice about the ZT is its interior, which is slightly incongruous. Whereas the Rover 75 on which it was based managed to combine a convincing combination of the traditional and the modern, the ZT knocks back the traditional wood in favour of a gunmetal grey plastic appearance, with white dials and half-leather/half-alcantara sports seats. It’s wonderfully comfortable, but it feels a bit like it’s trying a bit too hard.
‘A wonderfully seductive exhaust note and mighty fine handling’
Any qualms that may have been initiated by the interior are soon dispelled out on the open road, though, with a wonderfully seductive exhaust note and mighty fine handling. It doesn’t invite you to drive it to within an inch of its life in the same way that the ZS does, but it’s a brilliantly composed car. The only real downside is a slightly over-firm ride, although it’s by no means discomfiting.
As a comfortable car that gets you from A to B in the style of an expensive, large-engined GT, there are few cars that can rival it, even today.
MG ZT-T 160
As well as the Z-cars, another car that was a critical launch for the newly-formed MG Rover was the estate version of the 75, known as the Tourer.
So, it was a natural progression to offer an estate version of the ZT, dubbed the ZT-T. The ZT-T featured the same frontal and interior styling as the ZT, along with its side skirts, but had a smaller rear tailgate spoiler and a less fussy rear end.
It was arguably the most handsome of the Z-car family, and was a great marketing ploy to compete against sporting estate rivals such as the Ford Mondeo ST220 and Audi A4 S-line, both of which debuted at around the same time.
The MG was the best of the three to drive, with the same lithe handling as the saloons, but with the added practicality of the Tourer body.
The one we have here is the 160, which was offered in
a lower state of tune than the 190, though the car in our group today certainly doesn’t feel like it is lacking in outright power, partly because it has had a few upgrades. Nevertheless, it demonstrates that the seductive exhaust note, idle burble, sharp steering and slightly firm ride were just as apparent in the load-lugging model as they were in the less practical saloon.
To promote the model, MG ran a Rousch supercharged version in a speed trial on the Bonneville salt flats, achieving a 225mph land speed record. The tourer was chosen in particular for its better high-speed aerodynamic performance.
MG ZT 260
The final car in our Z-car selection box is also the hero of the collection. The ZT 260 was one of MG Rover’s last-gasp attempts at attracting foreign investment, by proving what its engineering team could do.
Following a deal forged to buy Italian sports car maker Qvale, whose Mangusta supercar was relaunched as the MG Xpower SV, the decision was taken to shoehorn the SV’S Ford Mustang-sourced V8 and rear-wheel drive powertrain into the ZT bodyshell.
In many ways, it was the type of project an ailing manufacturer should never have bothered with, but there were engineers, especially within the Xpower Sports and Racing division, who needed to prove they could undertake a complex project to attract that much-needed investment from outside the company.
The ZT 260 was just such an undertaking. While its understated external appearance is little different
‘It’s ironic that one of the last cars the firm ever produced was also one of its best’
from a ZT 190, under the skin it has a longitudinallymounted V8 and a rear-drive powertrain, neither of which the 75 shell was designed to accept. The fact that it was a truly wonderful car was a bonus.
Not especially powerful, but blessed with a lazy 302lb ft of torque, the ZT 260 is truly effortless, while the warbling engine note is as addictive as it is enticing to listen to. It handles properly, too, with tenacious levels of grip and the same superb steering that the rest of the Z-cars provide.
For a company that had made some of the best V8-engined saloon cars in the world for years, it was a fitting eulogy, the only tragedy being that’s all it was – a eulogy. Less than 18 months after the 260 appeared, following a series of ill-advised facelifts across the Rover and MG model ranges, the company finally fell on its sword. It’s ironic, then, that one of the final cars it ever made was also one if its best.
The MG Z-cars already have a fanatical following here in Great Britain, despite their many and obvious flaws. The enthusiasm for the cars when they first came out, along with the emotional pull of MG Rover’s eventual failure, remains strong. There were better cars offered at the same time as the Z models were on sale, but there was also something of the plucky, have-a-go hero about them all that truly defines the British spirit. As a result, although they lagged behind some rivals in terms of fit and finish, these are cars that will be loved long after others have been forgotten. Like so many other British classics before them, they had – and have managed to retain – a unique charm. And while they ultimately didn’t have enough about them to save the company, you can’t lay the blame with the designers, engineers and marketeers who made them good with meagre resources.
K-series engine was also used in the Lotus Elise.
RIGHT Stoke the fire, but don’t look at the mantelpiece. Get it up to speed and the ZS 120’s chassis shines. RIGHT BELOW Fine-handling ZS was a real hit with buyers.
above Cool, composed and makes a great noise.
above Yes, it’s him again. Craig and his sonorous V6.
You do like blue Alcantara, don’t you? Not only more practical than a saloon. More aerodynamic, too.
Against all odds, the ZT 260 is wonderful. And it handles, too.
Fitting surroundings from which to go out with a bang.
BELOW Mustangsourced V8 provides oodles of effortless grunt.
ABOVE Mighty Mustang-sourced 4.6-litre V8 engine provides oodles of effortless grunt.