The MG ZS arrived in 2001 during a particularly turbulent time in MG’s history. Following BMW’s ownership and subsequent sale of the Longbridge operation, the newly formed MG Rover Group had to develop a range of new models, quickly and on a shoestring. A new range of Z models were launched, based on the recently refreshed Rover 25, 45 and 75 models. The ZS sat in the middle of the new, making the transformation from solid but staid Rover 45 – itself developed from the ageing Honda Domani-based Rover 400 – to youthful and brightly coloured sports saloon.
Many were ready to write the ZS off as badge engineered folly, but something quite surprising happened: The company actually managed to engineer a convincing sporting saloon. It was clear that the ZS offered far more than the sum of its parts would suggest.
It may have been a re-nosed 400 on the outside, but the comprehensive suspension revamp made for a fast, fluid and sporty machine. The more aggressive exterior styling and massive rear wing opened up the brand to a much more youthful audience – further differentiating the ZS from its Rover brother.
Not without faults, the MG ZS still possesses an undeniable charm over a decade after production ended. Thanks to its well-balanced chassis and sharp steering feel it can still make for a great daily driver for the budget conscious enthusiast. Read on to see what to look out for.
Which one to buy?
Available in either four-door saloon or five-door hatchback body styles, the ZS came with various engine sizes, ranging from 107bhp to 174bhp. A five-speed manual gearbox was standard across the range, with a CVT gearbox available as an option on the 1.8-litre ZS120. Sporty drivers will head straight for the ZS180; producing 174bhp from its 2.5-litre V6, it was by far the quickest in the range. A 0-60 of 7.3seconds may not have been class leading, but the torquey power delivery and V6 soundtrack made for a very enjoyable sporty saloon.
The entry level ZS110 with a 1.6-litre 107bhp (Irish and Portuguese buyers could choose an even more anaemic 102bhp 1.4-litre) was no ball of fire but the nicely resolved suspension and steering were still there to be enjoyed. Of the four-cylinder petrol powered cars, it’s best to go for the ZS 120 – the additional power and torque provides a better all-round drive. Frugal types will appreciate the ZS TD, which offers strong in-gear punch allied with 50+mpg fuel efficiency. Two power outputs were offered, and either one is a good choice for those looking to keep running costs low, however finding a clean example is more of a struggle.
The interior was a mix of sporty seats and fake carbon fibre trim, with increasingly dated underlying dashboard and switchgear, while the running gear upgrades were comprehensive. Bigger brakes, stiffer dampers, polyurethane bushes and a quicker steering setup were introduced. The car was then lowered by 20mm, providing even the entry level ZS with a very sporty chassis, without having to resort to a bone-jarring ride – for that there was the ‘Plus’ option.
A range-wide facelift by Peter Stevens in April 2004 brought new bumpers, body kit and headlight units as well as an improved interior. The large rear wing on the ZS180 was now an optional extra and the lower powered diesel model was discontinued. Barely a year later MG Rover went bankrupt ending all MG ZS production.
While you might be tempted to find the latest car you can, it’s actually the earliest cars that were the best built. Throughout production, the company’s ‘Project Drive’ initiative saw various components cheapened or even removed, so consider this when searching.
Performance and specs
Engine 2497cc 24 valve DOHC V6
Power 174bhp @ 6500rpm
Torque 177lb ft @ 4000rpm
Top speed 139mph
Fuel consumption 33.2 mpg
Gearbox Five-speed manual
Dimensions and weight
• Parts availability for the ZS range is good, specialists are always on hand for most items and the overall reliability of the cars means that other than regular maintenance there are only a few things to watch out for.
• The K-series engines have been long known for their tendency to blow head gaskets. There were a number of reasons, and fixes should have been carried out. If a car has had a recent gasket change, don’t think this is any guarantee though. For reliability an uprated MLS gasket must be used, along with an uprated oil rail.
• Check under the radiator cap for any creamy residue which could signify water and oil mixing and a damaged head gasket.
• The Security Control Unit can develop faults which usually show up as erratic electronic behaviour. Whereas before a pricey replacement was on the cards, repaired units can now be sourced from specialists such as Sterling Automotive.
• Manual gearboxes tend to be trouble free, although CVT transmissions as fitted to some ZS120 models can be finicky.
• The suspension and brakes have no particular recurring faults and most owners were pleased with their cars handling and braking ability. That said, the more powerful models such as the ZS180 will be harder on their underpinnings.
2001: MG ZS launched initially in ZS120 and ZS180 models, available as a five-door hatchback and four-door saloon. Five-speed manual gearbox standard with a CVT option available on ZS120. ZS180 fitted with aggressive body kit including large rear wing, optional on other models. ZS TD model in either 99bhp or 110bhp versions introduced
2004: Facelifted MG ZS featuring new interior trim, bumpers and body kit
2005: MG Rover declares bankruptcy and MG ZS production comes to an end with just over 25 000 units built
Owners clubs, forums and websites
• www.mgownersclub.co.uk – MG Owners website
• www.zscentral.com – MG ZS enthusiast site
• www.mgcc.co.uk – MG car club
• www.xpartautoservicecentre.com – MG parts specialists
Summary and prices
If you’re looking for a super cheap runabout, then a tired but roadworthy ZS can be yours for as little as £400. For those not wanting to live in fear of an imminent breakdown, it’s worth spending a bit more – as good cars can be found for not much more than £1000.
Values are similar across the range, and it’s the condition and mileage that influence prices most. Of the four-cylinder cars, ZS120 or ZS TD models are the ones to go for, while those in a hurry will need to look for a ZS180. These tend to sell for between £1500 to £2500, and a good one can make for a superb budget sports saloon. Facelifted cars offer a much-improved interior and exterior design, and while choices are limited there are still some good enthusiast-owned cars out there. Well priced and a refreshing change from the usual suspects, the MG ZS remains an enjoyable sports saloon to this day.
Words: John Tallodi