2021 MG ZST review
Our independent 2020 MG ZST Excite and Essence review in Australia, including price, specs, interior, ride and handling, safety and score.
If you think long and hard about it, the MG brand has had almost as many lives as the luckiest moggie in existence. From a sporting offshoot of long-dead Morris (MG means ‘Morris Garages’) to an upmarket brand among the British Motor Corporation (BMC) stable to the makers of what was once the world’s biggest-selling roadster (the MGB), MG has been many things to many different people.
Yet I don’t think anyone expected MG to outlive its 20th-century British contemporaries by thriving as a maker of affordable SUVs and small hatches into the new millennium. With production now entirely based in China, MG’s Chinese sales are booming – 270,000 in 2019 – with the ZS small SUV making up almost half that number.
In Australia, it’s a similar story, with almost 10,000 sales last year, and the ZS taking a substantial chunk of that. And this facelifted MY21 model – now called ZST – can only expand that tally. With the bargain-priced MG ZS continuing for around another 12 months, the ZST will act as MG’s small SUV flagship – offering a level of performance and technology far beyond the existing ZS.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?
Just two MG ZST models will be offered from launch – the ZST Essence ($32,490 drive-away) and more affordable ZST Excite ($29,490 drive-away) – both of which start some way north of the ZS’s current positioning.
With the ZS spanning $21,990-$26,990 drive-away, the upgraded ZST is all about stuffing the most equipment possible into MG’s small SUV. Yet the focus here is very much on adding superficial glamour, rather than delivering true luxury.
For example, neither ZST offers a height-adjustable passenger’s seat, a reach-adjustable steering column, a sliding centre-front armrest or one-touch power windows for anyone other than the driver. And the acres of red-stitched upholstery covering the dash, doors and seats is all vinyl … even though it tries incredibly hard to look like leather!
The Excite’s equipment highlights include LED headlights and tail-lights, 17-inch alloys with Michelin Primacy tyres, red brake calipers, front fog lights, rain-sensing wipers, keyless entry and start, an auto-hold brake function, driver’s seat-height adjustment, a 10.1-inch centre touchscreen with embedded sat-nav and wired Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, air conditioning and MG’s full ‘Pilot’ active-safety suite.
For an extra $3000, the Essence brings different-pattern 17-inch alloys, gloss-black mirror caps, a huge panoramic glass sunroof with electric blind, full-digital instrument cluster, six-way electric driver’s seat, front seat heating and red MG logos embroidered into the front headrests.
WHAT DOES IT COST TO OWN?
MG has matched Kia’s industry-leading warranty with seven-year/unlimited-kilometre coverage, including a seven-year/unlimited anti-perforation and paint warranty.
Recommended service intervals are every 12 months or 10,000km, with the most expensive capped-price service across six years’ of ownership being $448 at the four-year (or 40,000km) mark.
If you stick to 10,000km a year, the ZST’s three-year servicing cost is $815.
WHAT’S THE EXTERIOR LIKE?
Much the same as the existing MG ZS, as you’d imagine, seeing they’re the same car ‘topped and tailed’ in ZST form. Both ride on the same 2585mm wheelbase are identically packaged, but due to styling alterations, the ZST is 9mm longer and 9mm taller.
Crucial in making the ZST look more modern are its all-new front headlights featuring 21 LEDs, a more imposing black-mesh front grille with large MG logo, and less chintzy bumper detailing. At the rear, new LED tail-light lenses occupy the same shape as before, though the ZST has a new bumper design. It also allows access to the luggage area via the large MG badge on the tailgate – ala Volkswagen.
Both the Excite and Essence feature the same-size alloy wheels but each has a unique design. Luckily, the wheels on the more expensive Essence are the better-looking of the two!
WHAT’S THE INTERIOR LIKE?
Superficially, the ZST’s cabin is a big step up from the older ZS. That’s mainly due to the vast 10.1-inch touchscreen crowning its centre console but it’s also enhanced by a higher-quality dashboard design – particularly the Essence with its all-digital instrument pack. The Excite’s analogue dials are pretty, but its cramped centre instrument screen seems dated after experiencing the Essence’s high-tech alternative.
The same also applies to the driving position. The Essence’s six-way electric seat delivers superior adjustment and makes it easier to counter the tilt-only steering column, though the Excite is far from uncomfortable. The fact that you have to mould to it, however, rather than having the ZST assist in finding the right position, does make it feel inexpensive.
The back seat tells a similar story. There’s a huge amount of legroom and foot room for a small SUV yet the seat itself is rather flat and the backrest too reclined for genuine comfort. It delivers a great view out though – especially the Essence with its enormous sunroof – which kiddies and smaller adults will constantly appreciate.
HOW SAFE IS THE MG ZS?
While the MG HS medium SUV recently scored five stars in Australian NCAP crash testing, the ZST is yet to thrust into ANCAP’s barriers. MG Motor Australia is super-keen for that to happen given that its close relation, the MG ZS, only received four stars, so clearly MG is expecting five out of five.
What you do get, though, is six airbags along with the top-deck ‘MG Pilot’ active safety suite in both ZST models, meaning forward collision warning, autonomous emergency braking, lane-departure warning, active lane-assist, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, auto high-beam and speed sign recognition, as well as category-first traffic jam assist.
There’s also a 360-degree surround-view parking camera in both models, a rear-view camera and rear parking sensors.
WHAT’S THE INFOTAINMENT LIKE?
That vast 10.1-inch screen promises cutting-edge sound and tech, which you don’t really get … but the ZST is more capable than you’d think.
While it takes time to accustom yourself to the combination of touchscreen operation and tab switches beneath it, once you’re up to speed it all works with reasonable simplicity.
The wired Apple CarPlay in both ZSTs we drove wasn’t without its glitches but once operating properly, it worked with acceptable speed and accuracy. Better still is the sound quality from the ZST’s humble six-speaker stereo. It may not be highly sophisticated but bass production from the virtual subwoofer proved surprisingly powerful. And the pair of USBs at the base of the centre stack feature a little tray in front of them to put your phone.
There’s also a USB port mounted up near the interior rear-view mirror, which is perfect for charging dash cams, and the sprogs in the back get a pair of USB ports too.
WHAT IS THE STORAGE LIKE?
Internally, the ZST offers respectable front door storage, with enough space for sub-1.5L bottles in plasticky bins, as well as a pair of cupholders between the front seats, the aforementioned tray at the base of the centre stack and a lidded bin that also acts as a centre-front armrest… if your elbow will stretch back far enough.
The rear seat gets meagre door storage (600ml water bottles or Coke cans are about the extent of it) and a seat-fold mechanism that simply flops the backrests onto the rear cushion. There’s no Honda HR-V-style folding theatrics here! You do get a little tray at the back of the centre console though… which looks suspiciously like the blank for where rear air vents would go.
The ZST’s boot is surprisingly deep and while it’s a long way from, say, a VW Golf in the quality of its presentation, affordable space is key here. And a 359-litre boot isn’t too bad in a small SUV like this. The total luggage volume with the rear seat dropped is 1187 litres.
WHAT ENGINES ARE AVAILABLE?
Unlike the ZS, which offers a pair of engines – a 1.5-litre four-cylinder with four-speed automatic and a 1.0-litre turbo three-cylinder with six-speed automatic – the ZST is a one-engine-fits-all proposition.
Thankfully, that engine is completely different to the anaemic ZS offerings – a new 1.3-litre turbo-petrol three-cylinder producing a rousing 115kW at 5200-5600rpm and a chubby 230Nm from 1800-4400rpm. It’s mated exclusively to an Aisin (Japanese) six-speed automatic.
WHAT ABOUT FUEL ECONOMY?
Despite its 40 per cent power hike over the ZS 1.0-litre turbo, MG says the ZST’s combined-cycle fuel consumption is a respectable 7.1L/100km. That’s just 0.4L/100km more than the lethargic 1.0-litre, though the effortlessness of the ZST’s 1.3 turbo means that real-world driving could actually make it the economy winner.
WHAT’S IT LIKE TO DRIVE?
Given that Chinese suspension tuning is not known for its sophistication, you approach the MG ZST with modest expectations. But there’s some British tuning DNA going on here so the ZST will surprise you with just how pleasant it is to drive… up to a point.
While the electric steering has little true feel, it points keenly and offers three different settings – Urban, Normal and Dynamic. You access them via the centre touchscreen, which soon becomes intuitive, and they provide useful levels of weighting difference. Not surprisingly, Dynamic works best for winding roads but Normal still makes for easy, accurate pedalling. Urban produces super-light steering that’s somehow not entirely putrid.
Dynamically, the ZST handles well much of the time. It turns in promptly, feels nicely balanced and has quality tyres underpinning its road-holding. And it rides okay too, though the bumpier the surface, the busier the ZST becomes.
What it needs, though, are more disciplined dampers to not only control its body movement better but also prevent suspension crash-through over really sharp bumps. Like I said, it’s entirely respectable and well-sorted for urban enthusiasm but begins to wilt the harder you push it on country roads.
If you try and corner the ZST with too much enthusiasm it’ll start to run its nose wide, and then if you brake, it’ll step its tail out before (belatedly) engaging the electronic stability control. Some would call it fun, others might find it unsettling, though the solution starts with more damping discipline.
What doesn’t need any work is the ZST’s new engine – it’s terrific! Smooth, thrummy, torquey and surprisingly quick, it’s the heart of the car and arguably its finest achievement. You could actually take this delightful 1.3-litre turbo triple out of the ZST and put it in a premium-brand car and never know its origins. In fact, it’s so much nicer than the same-size engine in a base Mercedes A-Class, for example, that MG should be very chuffed.
The six-speed auto works well with it too – surfing the little engine’s broad torque spread for effortlessly rapid progress – though the ‘Sport’ mode does little more than sharpen the accelerator and speed up gear shifting. Even in S, it still wants to grab taller gears early. And the tip-shift manual mode doesn’t stop it from upshifting as soon as the tacho approaches 6000rpm.
The transmission calibration is also very tardy when you try and manually downshift. On steep declines it won’t grab second gear, for example, unless engine revs are down around the 4200rpm mark once it’s downshifted. If you’re the type that prefers using engine braking, then perhaps bring a Valium.
WHAT ARE THE ALTERNATIVES?
A heap of them – especially around the $30K mark. In most instances you’ll be looking at base or mid-spec models because the more fully-featured small SUVs are starting to hit $40K (as the Kia Seltos GT-Line, at $42,990 drive-away, proves).
But if we think ZST Essence, then it would be base Ford Puma ($31,990 drive-away), Honda HR-V VTi-S ($30,390), Hyundai Kona Elite 2.0 ($30,600), Kia Seltos Sport with safety pack ($31,490 drive-away), Mazda CX-3 sTouring ($30,840), Mitsubishi ASX GSR ($30,740), Nissan Juke ST+ ($30,740), Skoda Kamiq 110TSI Monte Carlo ($34,190), Suzuki Vitara Turbo ($30,490), Toyota C-HR ($30,290) and Volkswagen T-Cross 85TSI Style ($30,990).
Unless mentioned otherwise, all those prices are before on-road costs, which will add upwards of $3000 unless there’s a deal going.
In terms of competitiveness, the MG is probably closest to the Suzuki in terms of being fairly rudimentary in much of its cabin architecture, though the ZST is up towards the front when it comes to performance and space.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Some might say the MG ZST isn’t quite cheap enough, but at $32,490 for the top-spec Essence, it does have a few USPs that elevate it among the small SUV brigade – namely that massive sunroof and its lovely engine.
The ZST isn’t a sophisticated car yet it’s surprisingly pleasant to drive and live with, and offers the support of the equal-longest warranty in Australia. It’s also not bad looking either, so if you’re down with the fact it only comes in five colours, and like the fact it has the muscle to tackle any freeway slog in Australia, there’s definitely more appeal here than you’d think.