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MG ZST 2021 review: Essence


Daily driver score

3.6/5

Urban score

3.9/5

This is the 2021 MG ZST - it’s different to the regular MG ZS. It’s really different, in fact. 

When our very own Tom White drove the new MG ZST 2021 model at the car’s local launch, he found it to be mostly pretty good. It’s easy to see why - it looks great, has heaps of features, and makes a very positive first impression.

But we managed to get one through the CarsGuide garages for a week-long loan to see what it’s like to spend even more time with. I drove it - a lot - to help you get a better idea of what the new high-grade MG ZST model is all about.

Does it represent good value for the price? What features does it come with?

If you know the MG brand’s position in Australia, you know that value is a key factor in the brand’s makeup. And while the MG ZST is still a very affordable small SUV in the broader context, it is a bit pricier than the existing ZS model that remains on sale, slotting in below the ZST.

The list price for the MG ZST Essence model seen here is $31,490 - that’s the MSRP or RRP, which is the price before on-road costs. But the company is doing decent deals, listing this grade for $32,490 drive-away at the time of writing. For context, you can get a ZS for as little as $22k on the road.

Read More: MG ZS 2020 review

Even so, the ZST Essence plays at a pretty strong price point. What else is in that arena? You’d be looking at a Kia Seltos Sport+ ($32,490 MSRP), Mazda CX-30 G20 Evolve ($31,490 MSRP), Honda HR-V VTi-S ($30,390 MSRP), or one of two models from Mitsubishi that probably aim up best against this car: the ASX GSR ($30,990 MSRP) and Eclipse Cross LS FWD ($32,590 MSRP).

It has its work cut out for it, but it argues a very strong case on equipment. Standard in both grades is a 10.1-inch multimedia touchscreen system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity as well as built-in sat nav and five USB ports (including one positioned for a dash cam), plus there’s a six-speaker stereo system.

  • There's a USB port for a dash cam. There's a USB port for a dash cam.
  • Under the climate controls are two USB ports. Under the climate controls are two USB ports.
  • There's a total of five USB ports in the ZST. There's a total of five USB ports in the ZST.

Both grades also get push-button start and keyless entry, leather-look seat trim, 17-inch alloy wheels, LED exterior lights, gloss-black body highlight elements.

And in the Essence you get a few other niceties including a fully digital dash cluster, six-way electric seat adjustment for the driver, heated front seats, LED indicators set in black wing mirrors, plus there’s an opening panoramic sunroof, and a 360-degree surround view camera and all-around parking sensors.

The Essence variant scores a fully digital dash cluster. The Essence variant scores a fully digital dash cluster.

And unlike earlier MG models, the active safety suite is on point. More on that below.

Is there anything interesting about its design?

Yeah there is. It looks like an MG ZS, but sleeker, smarter, more expensive looking… and - don’t write me off here - I think it actually has a hint of Mustang at the front end.

That’s mainly due to the graphic elements - the shape of the grille, the tapered headlights, the neat and tidy shapes used. It’s a good looking front end.

While the ZST looks similar to the ZS, there are new tail-lights and a different back bumper. While the ZST looks similar to the ZS, there are new tail-lights and a different back bumper.

And while the body looks identical to the cheaper ZS at a quick glance, there are more changes to pick up at the rear, with new tail-lights and a different back bumper. But all in all, it’s a very similar looking car to the ZS.

Is that a bad thing? Not if you ask me. I think it’s one of the more handsome small SUVs out there, though I have always felt the wheel-arches are too small, and the wheels, too - at 17-inches on both grades - could be bigger.

Both ZST variants wear 17-inch alloy wheels. Both ZST variants wear 17-inch alloy wheels.

A bit of “ask the audience” while I had the car suggested to me that the styling is one of the big reasons people are buying MG SUVs in decent numbers. That, and the octagonal badge with those two familiar letters.

And once those people sit inside a car like the ZST Essence - especially if they’re upgrading from something a decade or so old - they’ll likely be even more impressed. They’ll even get that famed MG badge emblazoned on the leather seats in this grade.

The cabin design looks high tech in the Essence grade. The cabin design looks high tech in the Essence grade.

The cabin design in the ZST is pretty smart. It looks high tech in the Essence grade, with a large touchscreen sitting proud on the dash and a digital instrument cluster in front of the driver. Check out the interior pics and let us know what you think in the comments.

How practical is the space inside?

There is a fair bit of wow factor in the cabin of the MG ZST Essence. The eye-catching elements that will give you that ‘wow’ factor include a bright, colour and fully digital instrument cluster, a similarly pretty (and large) media screen, and that leather seat trim with nice red stitching.

All of that combines to offer a fairly premium feeling cabin at first impression. Oh, and the big panoramic sunroof really lightens things up in there, too. Personally I’d take an auto dimming mirror (which the ZST doesn’t have) over a sunroof any day, but I get the appeal. I do like the heated seats, though.

In fact, I think the cabin sit-in experience will get a lot of buyers to sign on the line. It looks and feels good, especially compared to some of its rivals. And it won’t just be those up front that are happy - in the back there are two USB ports, while there are three up front (including one up in the mirror housing for a dash cam).

The MG badge is emblazoned on the front leather seats. The MG badge is emblazoned on the front leather seats.

The material quality is quite good for the most part. There’s soft padding on the elbow pads on all four doors and the centre console lid, and there’s also soft material on top of the dashboard which is a nice touch. It’s also interesting - the chequer-plate style carbon look fabric on the dash is intriguing, plus there are even soft padded sections so you don’t bash your knees on the transmission tunnel housing.

Up front there are two small cupholders between the seats, a small covered centre bin, and a couple of additional storage caddies between the seats as well. The door pockets are large but not shaped to suit a 600mL bottle, so things might move around a little bit.

The ZST offers a fairly premium feeling cabin. The ZST offers a fairly premium feeling cabin.

There are some other criticisms up front. The steering wheel isn’t adjustable for reach, and I couldn’t get my ideal driving position as a result (I’m 182cm / 6’0”). For my legs to be positioned right, the wheel was a bit too far away. Oh, and the stalk for the cruise control could be better placed (many rivals have cruise control buttons on the steering wheel, not a stalk hidden out of sight). 

And the media screen, which bright and pretty quick, works well when you’re using smartphone mirroring (for me it was Apple CarPlay, and I had a couple of issues connecting/reconnecting at times), but also the native menus aren’t very intuitive - there are screens upon screens that take some learning, and while there was built-in sat nav available to use, I didn’t. Also, because the screen controls plenty of elements of the air-conditioning (there is a row of buttons below, but not all of the usual suspects are there), I found finding the recirculation control in the screen to be a bit tedious - I’m always switching between outside air and recirc on the freeway if there are stinky cars and trucks around.

The 10.1-inch multimedia touchscreen system features  Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The 10.1-inch multimedia touchscreen system features Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

The ZST Essence’s 360-degree surround view camera is good and certainly helps when you’re doing urban parking jobs, but if you happen to drive out of town and there are bugs around, you might find the front camera is prone to splatter-vision. 

Second row space is very good for the size of the car with lots of legroom and toe room for someone my size behind a similar sized driver, with minimal transmission tunnel interference meaning three across shouldn’t be too much of a squeeze (unless they’re larger-than-average people). Even the headroom was okay, despite the intrusion of the glass roof. 

Second row space is very good for the size of the car. Second row space is very good for the size of the car.

The front seatbacks have map pockets, there are bottle holders in the doors, but there are no central cup holders and no fold down armrest, but there’s a small open storage cubby. No rear air-vents, either - but unlike some premium branded small SUVs you even get soft elbow pads on the doors in the back!

The MG ZST’s boot space is good. The cargo capacity is claimed to be 359 litres (VDA) up to the cargo cover with the seats up (the boot has a dual-level floor setup, too), and that volume expands to a (not flat) space of 1187L to the window line with the back seats folded down. Check out our loaded up image to see how usable the space is - we put in the CarsGuide luggage set (124L, 95L and 36L suitcases). There’s a space saver spare wheel under the floor, too. 

  • Boot space is rated at 359 litres (VDA). Boot space is rated at 359 litres (VDA).
  • All three of our suitcases could fit in the back. All three of our suitcases could fit in the back.
  • Underneath the boot floor is a space saver spare wheel. Underneath the boot floor is a space saver spare wheel.

What are the key stats for the engine and transmission?

There’s a 1.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine under the bonnet of the MG ZST. That’s why it has a T as part of the name. But wait… the regular ZS has a turbo engine. So maybe the T stands for Trophy - there’s a random Trophy badge on the passenger-side rear pillar (not on the driver’s side though!).

Anyway, the ZST’s 1.3L motor produces 115kW of power at 5200-5600rpm and 230Nm of torque across a wide range - from 1800-4400rpm. Those figures are decent for the class. The engine itself? Well, more on that in the driving section below.

The turbo 1.3-litre four-cylinder produces 115kW/230Nm. The turbo 1.3-litre four-cylinder produces 115kW/230Nm.

The MG ZST is only available with a six-speed automatic, and it is front-wheel drive/two-wheel drive (FWD or 2WD). There is no all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive (AWD/4WD) version available.

How much fuel does it consume?

The claimed fuel consumption is rated at 7.1 litres per 100 kilometres. That’s okay for the class, but certainly not what you’d call miserly. 

Over my time in the car, where I drove a lot of highway kilometres as well as plenty of urban driving, I saw a return of 8.2L/100km.

The fuel tank capacity is 45 litres, but requires 95RON premium unleaded petrol. It meets Euro 5 emissions standards, and oddly enough doesn’t have engine start-stop.

What safety equipment is fitted? What safety rating?

The big news here is MG Pilot. What is that? The brand’s suite of active safety technology, which it has bundled under the MG (thankfully not auto-) Pilot banner. But even with a range of safety tech inclusions, the ZST runs with the brand’s existing four-star ANCAP crash test rating for the ZS model (from 2017). 

MG Pilot features auto emergency braking (AEB) that operates at speeds from 4km/h to 150km/h, as well as pedestrian and cyclist detection at urban pace (4km/h to 64kmh). The company’s lane keep assist with lane departure warning (both operable above 60km/h, but active lane keeping active when cruise control active), plus there’s blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert, adaptive cruise control, traffic jam assist, traffic sign recognition, and adaptive high beams.

The ZST Essence’s 360-degree surround view camera helps when you’re doing urban parking jobs. The ZST Essence’s 360-degree surround view camera helps when you’re doing urban parking jobs.

Now, that safety stuff (and the more powerful turbo engine, but the safety stuff is more important!) is what sets the MG ZST apart from the regular ZS. That car has no active safety tech fitted. So buy this one if you value your safety, and the safety of other road users.

MG has fitted the ZST with six airbags (dual front, front side and full-length curtain), and if you have kids there are two ISOFIX and three top-tether baby seat mounting points. 

Where is the MG ZST made? The answer is China, which is where the brand is headquartered (it is part of SAIC - one of the largest automotive manufacturing companies on the planet).

What does it cost to own? What warranty is offered?

MG argues a strong case to potential owners, with a seven-year/unlimited kilometre warranty allowing it to compete against the likes of Kia. Mitsubishi is the only brand that betters MG in this space, with a 10-year warranty (albeit with conditions).

The seven-year plan is also backed by roadside assist, and there is a seven-year service plan included too. According to the company, the servicing - due every 12 months/10,000km (shorter intervals than some rivals) - averages out at about $297 per visit over the first seven years, which is pretty decent value…it  lives up to the brand promise, then.

What's it like to drive around town?

I had to look up the specs to double check this wasn’t a three-cylinder engine, because it certainly sounds like one.

It doesn’t have the smoothness of some other turbocharged rivals (yes, even three-cylinder ones) and there is some turbo and transmission lag to contend with, especially during rolling acceleration. 

The powertrain often took a little time to figure out what was needed next - for instance, when you’re thinking about overtaking, and suddenly plant your right foot: you might actually end up going “oooh nope not quick enough!”. I did, several times. Plus, at higher speeds, the auto was busy between fifth and sixth gears up hills – it doesn’t have quite enough torque to remain in top gear and push on, but the shifts were mostly pretty smooth. 

But at lower speeds the engine and transmission worked together really well, and it offered enough grunt to get away from a standstill without much fuss. As mentioned above, there’s no engine start-stop to get in the way of smooth take-offs, but that also means you’re not saving fuel when you’re just sitting in traffic. 

The ZST's driving experience is equal to that of a Honda HR-V. The ZST's driving experience is equal to that of a Honda HR-V.

The ZST’s suspension offered good comfort. The setup is nice and soft riding, and while there is some body roll in the bends, it’s not too wobbly in side-to-side movements. It did get the wobbles up going over speed humps or larger bumps because the damping is a bit underdone - the front axle can bobble about after a bump and it takes a little while to settle down. But it’s not crashy, which is a plus. 

The steering was accurate enough and light enough so as to prove pretty easy to keep on the straight ahead when you’re on arterial roads or at low speeds , though I found myself making quite a few little adjustments to the steering at highway pace. And lower speeds the steering is really quite good it’s easy to judge accurate and well weighted making it easy to park in urban situations

The ZST’s driver assist technology worked okay, although the lane keeping system was somewhat overbearing. The active cruise control also lagged when you pulled out from behind a car. Better to have it than not, I say.  

While I mentioned the engine can be a bit vocal, that’s mainly in low speed situations in traffic. Otherwise, it was relatively quiet, with just tyre noise depending on the surface, and not too much wind noise as speeds rise.  

Overall, the drive experience is at least equal to that of a Honda HR-V - if not maybe a little better. And in the MGs case at least there is all the adaptive safety technology that you would expect (unlike the Honda). Better than an ASX to drive? Yep. As good as a Seltos or CX-30? Not quite. But the brand is getting better with every new model.

The MG ZST is a decent small SUV that offers strong value, a likeable look and a long warranty, too. It isn’t as nice to drive as some rivals, and there is still a question over the head of the brand in terms of long-term ownership, resale and reliability - but if you like the look of it and you think it’s worth your money, the fact it is backed by a seven-year ownership promise could well help push you over the line. 

Personally I’d be getting a Kia Seltos if I was shopping at this price and size point. But put it this way - I think I’d like driving the MG ZST on a daily basis more than a HR-V or ASX.

$28,883 - $32,990

Based on 137 car listings in the last 6 months

VIEW PRICING & SPECS

Daily driver score

3.6/5

Urban score

3.9/5