2018 MG ZS Essence Review
Dan DeGasperi’s 2018 MG ZS Essence Review with Price, Specs, Performance, Ride and Handling, Ownership, Safety, Verdict and Score.
In a nutshell: A reborn MG brand comes out swinging in the small SUV segment with a turbocharged, sunroof-equipped and affordably priced ZS Essence range topper.
2018 MG ZS Essence Specifications
Price $23,990+ORC Warranty seven-years, unlimited km Safety 4 stars Engine 1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder Power 82kW at 5200rpm Torque 160Nm at 1800-4700rpm Transmission six-speed automatic Drive front-wheel drive Dimensions 4314mm (L) 1809mm (W) 1644mm (H) 2585mm (WB) Tare Weight 1245kg Fuel Tank 48L Spare full-size 15-inch steel Thirst 6.7/100km claimed combined, 8.6L/100km tested
MORRIS Garages, or MG, has managed to have both a hallowed history and a patchy past. Quintessentially British and best remembered for its sporty two-seat roadsters – a formula the Japanese perfected with the Mazda MX-5 – it was passed around from owner to owner before Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC) bought naming rights to it in 2005.
MG has since gone through a failed relaunch of the brand in Australia by a third-party importer, and now it arrives back here complete with SAIC factory-backed support, and the lure of a seven-year warranty for new, mainstream products such as this ZS small SUV.
It’s a far cry from sports cars past, but the flagship MG ZS Essence tested here even boasts a turbocharged engine and a panoramic sunroof to rival another Mazda – the CX-3 small SUV.
What’s The Price And What Do You Get?
The entry-level ZS Excite is priced from $20,990 plus on-road costs, or at the time of writing $22,990 driveaway nationwide. It only gets a 1.5-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine and four-speed automatic transmission, however, and with 150Nm of torque developed at 4500rpm to shift 1255kg of small SUV, it appears woefully underpowered.
On paper the step-up to this ZS Essence appears worth it, priced from $23,990+ORC, or at the time of writing $25,990 driveaway. It gets a 1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder engine developed in conjunction with General Motors (GM), with its 160Nm produced from 1800rpm, while it drives the front wheels via a six-speed auto and weighs a lesser 1245kg.
Both MG model grades score 17-inch alloy wheels, LED daytime running lights with automatic on/off headlights, foglights, roof rails, rear parking sensors, rear-view camera via an 8.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay (but not Android Auto) smartphone mirroring technology, plus cruise control, leather-wrapped steering wheel and faux-leather seat trim. This flagship adds push-button start (but not keyless auto-entry) and a panoramic sunroof.
At the time of writing, its two main rivals can be purchased between $26,590 driveaway (a run-out Mazda CX-3 Maxx) and $30,990 driveaway (a Toyota C-HR), in all cases with an auto. Even a pre-facelift CX-3 Maxx comes with autonomous emergency braking (AEB), blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert, digital radio and integrated satellite navigation all missing here, however, although it does lack CarPlay and auto on/off headlights. It might be $5000 pricier than the model tested here, but a C-HR even gets 17s, rain-sensing wipers, active lane-keep assistance, active cruise control and auto up/down high-beam also absent here.
What’s The Interior And Practicality Like?
The ZS Essence may be cheaper than a CX-3 and C-HR, but compounding its lack of equipment is an interior design that leaves this Chinese-made product trailing Japanese-built rivals. On the upside, build quality appears good – shutlines are decently tight and there were no rattles – and MG clearly has the confidence to offer a seven-year warranty.
While the steering wheel may be a near-facsimile of a previous-generation Volkswagen Golf GTI’s while the speedometer/tachometer cluster and circular air-vent design are poached from the outgoing Audi A1, the soft-touch dashboard plastics are neatly attractive. There are little details too, like softly-padded armrests with faux-leather door inserts, that ensure this interior doesn’t fall below-average for the segment.
The only criticism is simply that it doesn’t feel like a circa-$25K cabin, but rather sub-$20K. Without much in the way of active safety kit, no keyless auto-entry and no climate control, plus average leather, the ZS is left clinging to its panoramic sunroof as its standout feature.
Beyond features, though, the MG does have another standout virtue – space. From the decently comfortable, softly padded front seats to the similarly cushy rear bench, there is an enormous level of legroom in between plus a 359-litre boot volume further behind. In both instances it soundly eclipses the Mazda (with its 264L luggage area) while beating the C-HR for rear-rider stretching space but not under the tailgate (it has 377L). That said, the fact the Essence can deliver it inside a 4314mm-long body, 46mm shorter than the Toyota, is great.
What Are The Controls And Infotainment Like?
If MG could add Android Auto to the standard Apple CarPlay, plus integrated satellite navigation with voice control and a digital radio, the ZS Essence could quickly become the segment benchmark for infotainment technology.
It certainly has the ‘bones’ to do so, because the 8.0-inch touchscreen ousts the CX-3 and C-HR with its high resolution and quick response rate, while the rear-view camera is among the clearest in the class. As it stands it doesn’t really offer enough for the pricetag, while there’s only a single USB port and the ‘Yamaha 3D’ six-speaker audio system is ordinary.
What’s The Performance Like?
The 1.0-litre turbo is so quiet and smooth that the way it builds speed and surges ahead is deceptive. Three-cylinder engines can offer suffer (or provide delight, depending on your perspective) from a slightly buzzy character, but the refinement of this engine is impressive.
With just 82kW of power at 5200rpm, in addition to the aforementioned 160Nm from 1800rpm until 4700rpm, it’s certainly no quicker than any rival in this class. For example, a CX-3 gets a 110kW/192Nm 2.0-litre non-turbo four-cylinder and weighs 26kg less, while a C-HR deploys an 85kW/185Nm 1.2-litre turbo four-cylinder but is 140kg heavier overall.
Off the line there is some degree of turbo lag, while at the other end of the scale, overtaking from higher speed requires some patience. However, everywhere in between, the engine just efficiently gels into the background, aided by a six-speed auto that is fluent enough – with the exception of some oddly dual-clutch-auto-esque lurchy behaviour when parking.
There’s no need to cane it, or listen to it roar often just to get it to move. Rather it’s just a decent mill, but no more. Similarly, its on-test fuel consumption of 8.6 litres per 100 kilometres exceeded its combined-cycle claim by 1.9L/100km, but that’s neither superb nor terrible – it’s just average.
What’s It Like On The Road?
The engine and transmission are the clear on-road highlight with the ZS Essence, followed by a steering system that is decently direct, malleable and meaty at low to middling speeds, only offset by a propensity to ‘lane wander’ and require little corrections on the freeway.
However, it’s the suspension tune of this MG that most disappoints. It’s far too soft and unresolved for Australian conditions, pitching forward under brakes and wobbling occupants from side to side over pock-marked backsteets and patchwork freeways – such as at 80km/h on a roadworks-plagued stretch between the Melbourne CBD and the airport.
Yet its 17-inch alloys can also crash and jar over sharp edges, particularly at low speeds.
On relatively smooth roads – in other words, undemanding conditions – this small SUV does feel silky and cushy, almost luxurious. That might impress over a quick spin around the block, but this suspension otherwise lacks the depth and discipline that South Korean brands Hyundai and Kia deliver courtesy of Australian-tuned suspension designed to fit our harsh local conditions and native preference for chassis control as well as initial compliance.
Does It Have A Spare?
Yes, a full-sized 15-inch steel wheel.
Can You Tow With It?
Yes, but only 500kg unbraked or braked. This isn’t a towing vehicle at all.
What about ownership?
MG offers a seven-year unlimited kilometre warranty as standard, which is the benchmark in the new-car market.
It does not include a capped-price servicing program, and the 12 month or 10,000km service intervals are 5000km short of expectation, however the first three check-ups come at a reasonable $270, $390 and $270 respectively, according to one Victorian dealer – and best use that as the benchmark.
What about safety features?
The ZS only achieved a four-star ANCAP safety rating last year, with the independent safety body noting a good side-impact performance and good frontal impact results to the driver head, and passenger chest and legs. However, in the latter test it noted only an acceptable performance to the driver chest and lower leg, and passenger head, while rating driver upper leg protection as marginal.
It has six airbags and electronic stability control (ESC) with ABS standard, but without AEB, blind-spot or lane-keep assistance technology offered by rivals.