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MG ZST 2023 review: Essence

Is the ZST the biggest threat to popular small SUVs like the Mazda CX-30 and Hyundai Kona? (Image: Tom White)

Daily driver score

3.5/5

Urban score

3.5/5

Since its successful re-boot, the story of MG in Australia is one of conquest.

Now in Australia’s top-ten automakers, MG’s main success has come from offering affordable and attractive cars in a bracket below its more expensive mainstream equivalents from Japan or Korea.

To give itself some long-term success, and keep its place ahead of storied family favourites like Subaru, MG has to do more than just be the cheapest way into a small SUV though, which is why it now offers two versions of its ZS SUV.

The one we’re looking at for this review is the newer, updated, and more expensive version, the ZST - which is essentially just the facelifted version of the regular ZS that's now only offered in one single entry-level grade. With more mainstream pricing than the cheaper ZS, is the ZST worth your consideration over established rivals like the Mazda CX-30, Hyundai Kona, or Kia Seltos?

Read on to find out.

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

It may be more expensive than the ‘regular’ ZS, but the ZST is still a relatively affordable option in the grand scheme of things. We’re looking at the top-spec Essence grade for this review, which tops out at just $33,990 drive-away.

For comparison, the equivalent rivals include the lower-mid-spec Mazda CX-30 G20 Evolve ($32,290 before on-roads), the mid-grade Hyundai Kona Elite ($31,900 before on-roads), or the mid-grade Kia Seltos Sport ($30,290 before on-roads).

10.1-inch multimedia screen. (Image: Tom White) 10.1-inch multimedia screen. (Image: Tom White)

Because you’re getting a bells-and-whistles model for the price of a mid-grade rival, the ZST scores things like synthetic leather seats, a panoramic sunroof, comprehensive safety suite and LED headlights, which some rivals miss out on at this money.

Other standard equipment impresses for this segment, with the ZST also including items like 17-inch alloy wheels, a 10.1-inch multimedia screen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, extended soft trims and synthetic leather finishes compared to the regular ZS, keyless entry with push-start ignition, single-zone climate control, digital instrument cluster, electrically adjustable driver’s seat, heated front seats, and a 360-degree parking suite. Not bad at all.

Standard equipment impresses for this segment, including items like 17-inch alloy wheels. (Image: Tom White) Standard equipment impresses for this segment, including items like 17-inch alloy wheels. (Image: Tom White)

Importantly, and again, key to MG’s success, is the fact that more often than not, MG actually has stock ready to sell at dealers, which is a better proposition than the months-long waiting lists experienced by many rivals.

Is there anything interesting about its design?

The ZST does a lot right when it comes to its refreshed styling. While its ZS predecessor wore its influences on its sleeve a little too much (Mazda, anyone?), the ZST has evolved into more its own form, which more gently borrows from a wider array of rivals.

There’s some Jaguar influence in its face, still a little Mazda in those light clusters, and a more tasteful angular design rounded out by more modern alloy wheels and an abundance of gloss black highlights rather than chrome ones.

The ZST does a lot right when it comes to its refreshed styling. (Image: Tom White) The ZST does a lot right when it comes to its refreshed styling. (Image: Tom White)

It continues the brand’s appeal of offering an attractive vehicle at an impressive price, and knocks it out of the park compared to some rivals.

The interior continues the contemporary theme, feeling much more up-to-date than its regular ZS sibling. The extended soft trims do their part to make the cabin feel a bit more swish, and the digital dash and massive touchscreen combine to make for a modern-feeling interior.

The extended soft trims do their part to make the cabin feel a bit more swish. (Image: Tom White) The extended soft trims do their part to make the cabin feel a bit more swish. (Image: Tom White)

A lot of this is a bit skin-deep though. The synthetic leather material feels particularly like a cheap vinyl, the good-looking-at-a-distance steering wheel doesn’t feel as nice up close, and the big screen is a little low-resolution with a healthy serving of lag between screens and a bunch of ugly menus. Still, there are rivals in this segment with more hard plastics, including the Kia Seltos, Mitsubishi ASX and Hyundai Kona.

More tasteful angular design rounded out by more modern alloy wheels and an abundance of gloss black highlights rather than chrome ones. (Image: Tom White) More tasteful angular design rounded out by more modern alloy wheels and an abundance of gloss black highlights rather than chrome ones. (Image: Tom White)

How practical is the space inside?

The ZST has an appealing shape, and its cabin space has been significantly re-worked from its ZS forbear to increase interior dimensions.

Up front initially feels pretty good with lots of width and headroom for my 182cm tall frame, but I was disappointed to see the ZST maintains the signature weirdly-tall seating position from other MG models, and the lack of telescopic adjust for the steering is a real bummer, especially since the stock position for the wheel is so close to the instrument cluster.

The cabin space has been significantly re-worked from its ZS forbear to increase interior dimensions. (Image: Tom White) The cabin space has been significantly re-worked from its ZS forbear to increase interior dimensions. (Image: Tom White)

The ergonomics are good, as MG has thought to include a slew of shortcut toggles below the big multimedia screen so not absolutely everything is touch-based as it is in the larger HS.

There are decent bottle holders in the doors, two more in the centre console, a large bay area in front of the shift stalk for phones and wallets which houses dual USB ports and a 12v outlet, as well as a small storage box under the armrest.

A neat touch is the hidden USB port in the camera cluster behind the rear vision mirror for the easy fitment of a dash cam, but there’s no USB-C connectivity in the ZST.

Rear passengers score two USB ports, but no adjustable air vents, and there are two bottle holders in each of the rear doors with pockets on the backs of the front seats. (Image: Tom White) Rear passengers score two USB ports, but no adjustable air vents, and there are two bottle holders in each of the rear doors with pockets on the backs of the front seats. (Image: Tom White)

The rear seats offer excellent space for this segment, offering more than enough head- and legroom for myself behind my own driving position. Width is also good here, and soft trims continue into the rear doors, but there’s no drop-down armrest in the centre position.

  • Boot space is 359 litres. (Image: Tom White) Boot space is 359 litres. (Image: Tom White)
  • 2023 MG ZST Essence I Boot 2023 MG ZST Essence I Boot

Rear passengers score two USB ports, but no adjustable air vents, and there are two bottle holders in each of the rear doors with pockets on the backs of the front seats.

Boot space is a decent 359 litres, bigger than the Mazda CX-30, but smaller than the Hyundai Kona and over 100 litres smaller than the impressive Kia Seltos.

What are the key stats for the engine and transmission?

This is perhaps my favourite part of the ZST, its new 1.3-litre three-cylinder turbocharged engine and six-speed traditional torque-converter automatic transmission.

1.3-litre three-cylinder turbocharged engine and six-speed traditional torque-converter automatic transmission. (Image: Tom White) 1.3-litre three-cylinder turbocharged engine and six-speed traditional torque-converter automatic transmission. (Image: Tom White)

The engine produces a decent 115kW/230Nm, and the six-speed is a smooth off-the-shelf Aisin unit - far preferable to the clunky dual-clutch automatics which plague the brand’s ZS and HS ranges. The ZST is front-wheel drive only.

How much fuel does it consume?

With a punchier engine comes a bump in fuel consumption, and the ZST consumes 7.1L/100km on the combined cycle. I can tell you from previous testing, sub-7.0L/100km can be achieved on the freeway, but in my primarily urban testing of the ZST for this review, my car returned a less impressive figure of 9.5L/100km.

With a punchier engine comes a bump in fuel consumption, and the ZST consumes 7.1L/100km on the combined cycle. (Image: Tom White) With a punchier engine comes a bump in fuel consumption, and the ZST consumes 7.1L/100km on the combined cycle. (Image: Tom White)

The ZST also requires mid-shelf 95RON unleaded fuel for its 45-litre tank.

What safety equipment is fitted? What safety rating?

The entire ZST range now gets the full ‘MG Pilot’ safety suite which includes auto emergency braking (4 - 150km/h) with pedestrian detection (4 - 64km/h), lane keep assist with lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring with rear-cross traffic alert, traffic sign recognition, and adaptive high beams. It also scores an adaptive cruise control suite.

It’s leaps and bounds ahead of the old ZS which has none of these active features, but I was surprised to find there’s still no separate ANCAP rating for the ZST. The old ZS scored four stars in 2017.

The ZST has six airbags, two ISOFIX and three top-tether child seat mounting points on the rear row, as well as the expected stability, traction, and brake controls.

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

Following in the footsteps of challenger brands before it, MG offers an above-average warranty of seven years and unlimited kilometres. This matches rivals like Kia and fellow Chinese upstart, GWM Haval. It also includes roadside assist.

MG offers an above-average warranty of seven years and unlimited kilometres. (Image: Tom White) MG offers an above-average warranty of seven years and unlimited kilometres. (Image: Tom White)

The ZST requires servicing once a year or every 10,000km, costing between $253 and $461 for the life of the seven-year capped-price coverage. It averages out to a very reasonable annual cost of $309.14.

What's it like to drive around town?

It seems hard to believe I’m going to tell you here the ZST offers one of the best engine and transmission combinations in its price-point in the small SUV segment. This new 1.3-litre turbo unit feels modern and slick, and beats the living daylights out of rival’s wheezy old 2.0-litre naturally aspirated engines or those paired with an anaemic CVT transmission. 

The six-speed it’s paired with is relatively seamless between gears and, because it’s a traditional automatic, it’s also smooth to take-off and holds the revs well.

As a result, the ZST is quite a bit of fun to drive, particularly in the confines of a city or suburbia, where this little SUV is at its best and free of the kinds of annoying traits some rivals have.

The ride has also improved out of sight compared to the old ZS. It would have been kind to call that car ‘a bit frumpy’ but the new one is tighter, more controlled, and better sprung, too.

However, it still doesn’t have the finesse or precision of its Japanese or Korean rivals. The steering in particular has a dull, doughy feel, making it feel clumsy to turn-in. The pedals feel a bit vague and don’t offer great feedback, and while the ride is vastly improved, it still has a soft edge which makes it a bit bouncy over larger bumps.

This little SUV is at its best and free of the kinds of annoying traits some rivals have. (Image: Tom White) This little SUV is at its best and free of the kinds of annoying traits some rivals have. (Image: Tom White)

The super-tall seating position does it absolutely no favours, and while it does offer the commanding view of the road many SUV buyers are searching for, it’s certainly best suited to peering around city streets than it is tilting you about in the corners on a nice country road.

The media screen is big and close to the driver, and while the low resolution doesn’t make it look as nice as it could, it does make the touch areas huge so it’s easy to operate things like the radio or Apple CarPlay.

I also enjoyed its remarkably comprehensive 360-degree parking suite, which combines with generally good window visibility to make for a very easy-to-park little SUV.

The digital dash initially looks nice, too, but lacks customisation and offers a weird mix of fonts and stylistically un-matched screens.

Still, the ZST is impressive from behind the wheel. It could certainly use some sandpapering, particularly in the handling department, but it has elevated MG to more than a genuine threat to many of its storied rivals.

There’s a lot to like about the ZST. It offers an impressive equipment and safety list in a top-spec package at a price which is closer to the entry-point of many of its rivals. 

There are areas which are still in need of attention, from software to driving dynamics, but as a city-friendly SUV with plenty of creature comforts, it should put the competition on notice.

$24,990

Based on new car retail price

VIEW PRICING & SPECS

Daily driver score

3.5/5

Urban score

3.5/5
Price Guide

$24,990

Based on new car retail price

Disclaimer: The pricing information shown in the editorial content (Review Prices) is to be used as a guide only and is based on information provided to Carsguide Autotrader Media Solutions Pty Ltd (Carsguide) both by third party sources and the car manufacturer at the time of publication. The Review Prices were correct at the time of publication.  Carsguide does not warrant or represent that the information is accurate, reliable, complete, current or suitable for any particular purpose. You should not use or rely upon this information without conducting an independent assessment and valuation of the vehicle.