Re-booted MG has found success delivering budget alternatives to increasingly expensive popular mainstream models.
Cars like the MG3 hatch and ZS small SUV have made serious inroads on the sales charts with this simple-but-affordable approach.
The new ZS variant for 2021, the ZST, aims to change this though, with new technology and a more comprehensive safety offering at a correspondingly higher price.
The question - does MG's ZS small SUV formula still work when the price and spec playing field is more level with its mainstream rivals? We went to the ZST's local launch to find out.
Does it represent good value for the price? What features does it come with? 7/10
Ok, first things first, the ZST is not a full model replacement for the existing ZS. That car will continue at an even lower price for "at least a year" after the ZST's launch, allowing MG to experiment in a higher price bracket while maintaining its existing "value focused" buyer.
While it carries new styling, a new powertrain, and a significantly overhauled tech suite, the ZST shares its platform with the existing car, so it could be thought of as a very heavy facelift.
Unlike the existing ZS, pricing is less budget for the ZST. It launches with two variants, the Excite and Essence priced from $28,490 and $31,490 respectively.
Tough company to not quite be undercutting. The ZST does deliver on spec though. Standard items on both grades includes 17-inch alloy wheels, full LED light clusters front and rear, a 10.1-inch multimedia touchscreen with Apple CarPlay, built-in nav, and finally Android Auto, too, faux-leather trim throughout with extended surface coverage when compared to the regular ZS, keyless entry and push-start ignition, and single-zone climate control.
The top-spec Essence adds a sportier alloy wheel design, contrast wing mirrors with integrated LED indicators, a digital dashboard, panoramic opening sunroof, an electrically adjustable driver's seat, heated front seats and a 360-degree parking suite.
The full safety suite, which has been improved out of sight to include a fleshed-out list of active items, is also standard across the two-variant range. More on this later.
It has a 10.1-inch multimedia touchscreen with Apple CarPlay, built-in nav, and finally Android Auto, too.
Is there anything interesting about its design? 7/10
The ZST is the first vehicle in MG's range to debut an interesting new design direction which does a little less borrowing from competitors.
I like the slick new grille, and how it's difficult to tell the base car apart from the top one with many of the contrast black design points carrying over. Full LED lighting is a welcome touch to draw this car's corners together. It's nothing groundbreaking in the design department, but we can at least say it looks just as good if not better than some other, far more dated, designs still on the market like the facelifted-a-million-times Mitsubishi ASX.
The ZST is the first vehicle in MG’s range to debut an interesting new design direction which does a little less borrowing from competitors.
It’s nothing groundbreaking in the design department, but we can at least say it looks just as good if not better than some other, far more dated, designs.
I like the slick new grille, and how it’s difficult to tell the base car apart from the top one with many of the contrast black design points carrying over.
Inside the ZST notably improves on its predecessor with an impressive multimedia screen, some genuinely nice touchpoints and a simple but inoffensive overall design which has been gently tweaked to feel much more contemporary.
I did notice on my drive loop the huge multimedia screen was a bit too close for comfort but the software on it is much faster and less prone to glitches than it was in the previous ZS or even the larger HS.
The abundance of faux-leather trims in the cabin look good from a distance, but don't feel quite as good to the touch. With that having been said, at least most of the materials have padding beneath for critical touch areas like elbows.
Inside the ZST notably improves on its predecessor with an impressive multimedia screen, some genuinely nice touchpoints and a simple but inoffensive overall design.
How practical is the space inside? 7/10
Despite essentially being a heavy facelift to the existing ZS platform, MG tells us the cabin has been significantly re-worked to increase the amount of space available. It certainly feels it.
Behind the wheel I have no complaints when it comes to the space on offer or visibility, but I did find it a bit of a shame there was no telescopic steering adjust.
Ergonomics are pretty good for the driver too, aside from the touchscreen being an inch or two too close. Instead of dials for volume and climate functions, the ZST offers toggles, which is a welcome step up from having to control climate through the screen as is the case in the larger HS.
Boot capacity comes in at 359 litres – the same as the existing ZS and reasonable for the segment.
Front passengers get two large binnacles in the centre console, decently-sized cupholders, a small centre armrest box and glove compartment, as well as decently-sized door bins.
There are five USB 2.0 ports throughout the cabin, two for front passengers, one for a dashcam (smart), and two for rear passengers, but there's no USB C or wireless charging.
Rear passenger space is excellent for the segment. Even behind my own driving position there was heaps of room for my knees, and no complaints for headroom either (I'm 182cm tall). The two USB ports are welcome, as is a small binnacle on the back of the centre console but there are no adjustable air vents or extended storage areas back here in either grade.
Boot capacity comes in at 359 litres – the same as the existing ZS and reasonable for the segment. There's also a space saver spare wheel under the floor.
It has a panoramic opening sunroof.
What are the key stats for the engine and transmission? 8/10
The ZST introduces a new and much more modern engine to MG small SUV range. It's a 1.3-litre three-cylinder turbo producing 115kW/230Nm, a notable increase on the sub-100kW outputs of either existing ZS engine and elevates the ZST to a much more competitive space in the segment.
The downside here is the ZST requires mid-grade 95RON petrol as the high sulphur content in our base 91RON fuel could potentially cause issues.
The ZST has a 45-litre fuel tank.
What's it like to drive? 7/10
You can immediately tell the ZST has improved out of sight when compared to the previous car. The cabin is quiet and reasonably comfortable, offering good visibility, and a decent driving position from the get-go.
The new engine is responsive and while it's not going to knock anyone's socks off, the power delivery feels great for a segment filled with lacklustre 2.0-litre non-turbos.
I'm a fan of the six-speed automatic transmission, which was smart and slick, playing really nicely with the engine to make the most of its peak torque at 1800rpm.
It's impressive to see how far the drive experience has come for MG, given it was just the beginning of this year we drove the HS mid-sizer only to find the drive experience was possibly its worst attribute.
You can immediately tell the ZST has improved out of sight when compared to the previous car.
Rigidity has improved in the chassis for the ZST, and the suspension has also been worked on to provide a comfortable but far from sporty ride.
It's not all good news. While it's improved out of sight for the brand, and now feels very competitive, the handling still leaves a lot to be desired.
Steering feel was vague at best, and conspired with the spongey ride to give a feeling this SUV could easily approach its limits in the corners. The break pedal is also a bit distant and soft.
While it’s improved out of sight for the brand, and now feels very competitive, the handling still leaves a lot to be desired.
One area where this car has also made a brand-wide improvement is in its safety suite. While the 'Pilot' suite of active features debuted on the HS earlier in the year, that car proved to be a bit overzealous and intrusive when it came to lane keeping and adaptive cruise.
I'm pleased to report the suite in the ZST has calmed a lot of those issues down, and MG's representatives said the HS will even receive a software update to make it more like the ZST in the future.
If nothing else the ZST is a big step forward for a brand which has had a lacklustre drive experience for some time. Hopefully those handling issues can be ironed out in the future, too.
What safety equipment is fitted? What safety rating? 8/10
It's a stark improvement on the existing ZS range which had no modern active safety items at all. I'm sure MG is frustrated by the fact the ZST will share the existing cars four-star ANCAP safety rating despite these improvements, with a follow-up test to be conducted in the near future.
The ZST has six airbags, two ISOFIX and three top-tether child seat mounting points, and the expected stability, brake, and traction controls.
I’m sure MG is frustrated by the fact the ZST will share the existing cars four-star ANCAP safety rating despite these improvements.
What does it cost to own? What warranty is offered? 8/10
MG clearly aims to replicate the successful ownership strategy of underdog manufacturers which came before it (like Kia), by offering a seven year and unlimited kilometre warranty promise. Too bad Mitsubishi just jumped to a ten-year warranty otherwise the ZST would be tied with industry leaders.
Roadside assist is also included for the duration, and there is a service schedule which lasts the life of the warranty.
The ZST requires servicing once a year or every 10,000km and visits to the shop cost between $241 and $448 for a yearly average spend of $296.86 in the first seven years. Not bad.
The ZST is a much more well-rounded product than its predecessor.
It's especially nice to see the safety and multimedia offering improve alongside some welcome software tweaks and a notable jump in overall refinement. As always, the seven-year warranty will help to keep competitors on their toes, too.
What remains to be seen: Will MG's newfound customer base be willing to follow it into the realm of mainstream pricing? Only time will tell.