The new MG: China gets it right

It’s a classic brand, it looks good, has a great warranty and even more ludicrous price. The new MG ZS signals that the Chinese may soon be a formidable new force in the Australian car market. The FFmag car review team reports. 

It seems as if every generation of Australians is catered for by a new car-making super power. Back in the 60s and 70s our Baby Boomer grandparents drove Fords and Holdens when Aussie cars ruled. When Generation X arrived, the oil shocks of the 1970s saw the Japanese take over with their better fuel economy and reliability. In the naughties, as the Japanese became boring and expensive, the South Koreans landed for Gen Y with Hyundai and a lesser extent Kia, selling cheaper cars whose quality soon matched that of the Japanese. And now, as the Millennials and Gen Z hit driving age, it might be the turn of Chinese automakers.

Yes, the China whose cars have been landing haphazardly on our shores for the last ten years or so to less than critical acclaim. This was the inescapable conclusion after we attended the launch of two new models of the now Chinese-owned British marque MG in Sydney recently.

The MG ZS is a cute compact SUV that is pitched at those who want an active lifestyle (hence why Fitness First mag gets invited to car launches). When you first lay eyes on it, the MG ZS looks like another small SUV entering a crowded compact SUV market. It looks good, but from a distance could be mistaken for a Hyundai Kona or Mitsubishi ASX, and you ask why would the Chinese SAIC Motor corporation have bought a British badge renowned for fun, open top motoring only to turn it into a cookie cutter SUV?

But then, you take a closer look at the car, its spec sheet and price, and you realise there is a lot more to this little crossover than meets the eye. It’s more than a car. It’s the second coming of the Chinese automotive industry to these shores and this time the Chinese have learnt their lessons from their less than stellar first arrival.

Let’s begin with the pricing with the two models of the ZS, which starts at $20,990 for the ZS Soul and $23,990 for the ZS Essence. It immediately undercuts the Mitsubishi ASX, the Hyundai Kona, Honda HR-V and the Mazda CX-3, which tells you that, at the very least, the Chinese are still going to compete on value for money in this segment.

But what’s different now is that value is real. The MG ZS is much more reminiscent of what Hyundai did many years ago when it shocked the market with the $9,999 Excel, a runaway success because you got a lot of car for the money. Except when it comes to pound for pound value the new MG ZS is light years ahead of where the cheap and cheerful Excel was.

The design

Let’s start with what it looks like. MG has gone to a lot of trouble to give the ZS a contemporary look, at least the equal of its established class rivals. You see the care taken with design everywhere in the sculpting of the exterior, with its flowing curves and creases of the bodywork, as well the satin chrome trims, cool headlamp LEDs, and in an impressively assertive front end. Add one of the four metallic colours designed to create reflections on the multi-surface exterior and the ZS looks quite the sexy little SUV.

These design theme is continued inside, with a soft touch dashboard, Audi-like turbine air vents, contrast stitching and various carbon fibre style, piano black and chrome finishes, and a huge 8in touchscreen display that also includes Apple Play and views from a reversing camera. The cabin succeeds in not looking cheap but isn’t overwrought either. The more expensive Essence comes with a gigantic sunroof that covers over 90 percent of the roof.

So, the design is a winner. This baby looks as good as more expensive SUVs.

Space

It’s in the internal dimensions that the ZS comes closest to being exceptional. Following a classic SUV’s two-box design (basically it splits into engine space and occupant/boot space, which means more of the latter can be configured to create space) its interior space is among the best in class, specially in the back where there’s a massive 995 mm of rear head room and 926 mm of leg room.

Add the ability to fold the 60/40 split bench rear seats flat (depending on the setup of the tiered boot floor found in the car) and the ZS has a truckload of rear boot space (see above). With the rear seats up, boot capacity is up to 359 litres. With a full fold of the back seats the cargo capacity increases up to a huge 1166 L. In brief it has the internal space of bigger SUVs, enough for a family of three let alone the young active couples who are the most likely targets.

Safety

The poor crash test scores of earlier models from makers such as Chery and Great Wall Motors have probably been one of the biggest failings of the first wave of Chinese cars in Australia. Although the ZS was not tested at time of launch, its bigger sibling, the MG GS was the first Chinese car to get a 5-star ANCAP result in Australia. At the launch, MG Motor Australia staff were at pains to claim a family safety connection between the ZS and the larger GS. They pointed to generous use of high tensile steel which strengthened the car’s safety cage and helped the driving dynamics. The ZS also comes with a full complement of front, side and full-length curtain airbags and with standard electronic safety features, although it lacks more recently minted safety features now flogged heavily by the competition, such as autonomous emergency braking, blind spot assist and lane departure warnings.

Driving

With an “Excellent” in design and a “Pass” in safety, what about driving dynamics? We can’t pass judgement on this because we observed the ZS at the launch and did not get to drive the ZS. What jumped out from a look at the technical specs was the size of the engines: a modest 1.5 litre for the ZS Soul, and a turbocharged, 1 litre 3-cyl unit for the ZS Essence.

One litre? We drove a 1.4 litre Kia Rio last year and it could barely accelerate fast enough to merge with traffic at freeway speeds, so how would a 1 litre motor fare? In reality the turbocharged 3-cyl powering the Essence has a reasonable power output of 82 kw and 160 Nm, which pretty much matches that of the 1.5 L engine. While both are the least powerful of the compact SUVs out there, they’re not that far behind the others. Both engines aren’t tire scorchers, but the power appears to be adequate for the size judging by early reviews of the ZS from overseas. Both also marry only to auto transmissions which helps improve the value equation when compared to rivals, although the purists would love a manual.

The second coming

Put it this way, you don’t buy this little crossover to drag its class competitors at the lights. You buy it for the huge value for the money. You get class leading internal space, external looks that match the competition for style, an excellent cabin with all mod cons including a fashionable big screen, promising safety if the MG GS ANCAP is anything to go by, and a big 7-year warranty and road service. And the MG brand cachet helps to circumvent any uncoolness people might feel about driving Chinese cars.

In other words just as the Hyundai Excel rewrote the rules all those years ago, the MG ZS does the same now. It also rewrites the rules for what “Made in China” means when it comes to automotive products.

AT the launch, Peter Cao, the general manager of SAIC Motor Australia (above) was at pains to point this out.

“As the first Chinese vehicle to receive a 5 Star ANCAP rating in Australia, the MG GS represents a breakthrough for the China automotive industry,” he said, pointi9ng out that LDV, another SAIC-owned brand, had also been awarded a 5-star ANCAP rating.

“This signals the new generation of ‘Made in China’,” he said.

Secondly, just because you haven’t heard of SAIC Motor doesn’t mean it’s a small car company. In fact, it’s China’s second largest car maker and bigger than BMW and Hyundai. It has deep pockets to innovate and keep on improving its cars. In electric cars its already a leader, being the first automaker to launch a pure electric SUV.

With the MG ZS we’re seeing the beginning of the cyclonic impact of Chinese car makers on the Australian market. The critics dismissed Hyundai’s little Excel when it first arrived her so many years ago. Look at Hyundai now.