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?

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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.

Con­clu­sion

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.

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