New 2017 MG ZS crossover prototype early review

Deeply dished grille on MG ZS

► We drive new MG ZS
► Baby SUV from China
► Confirmed for UK sale

Every new Chinese-built MG so far has come with the promise that this will be the breakthrough car. The one that finally lifts sales out of the doldrums and has buyers confidently adding the tottering brand to their shopping list alongside the likes of Hyundai, Kia and Vauxhall. With the new MG ZS crossover, the company might just be right for once.

For a start the small SUV segment is one of the hottest out there right now for sales growth. It’s also one that won’t penalise MG’s lack of a diesel engine too much, unlike the SUVs one size up that the MG GS struggles to compete with.

Instead there’s a budget 1.5-litre petrol manual or, the bullseye powertrain combo for many small SUV buyers, a new 123bhp 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbocharged petrol with a six-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox. Expect the 1.5 to start from around £13,000 when the car arrives in September 2017, while the 1.0 we tested should come in around £16k.

Deeply dished grille on MG ZS

You’ll recognise the ZS name from MG’s past, but the face is harder to place. The pointy front-end of the last three cars has been dumped in favour of a large, dished grille (see above) that makes the car look much less nose-heavy. Stylistically the ZS would be a hit if it didn’t look so criminally under-wheeled, even with 17s. Sounds frivolous, but that could hobble it in a fashion-led segment.

We’d love to be able to say our assessment was made after an 500-mile thrash across China that fired our critical faculties to peak operating temperature, but we can’t. Instead we were restricted to driving the car on a coned course at MG owner SAIC’s absolutely ginormous proving ground near Shanghai.

The acres of run-off allowed us at least to look for the handling limits of the car and the ZS responded well, even in its softer Chinese set-up. The steering had some heft when you wanted it, the car followed the steering line in tightening bends without losing front-end grip, and abrupt throttle lifts didn’t worry it into oversteering.

The smooth 1.0-litre turbo engine we drove had decent pick-up and didn’t feel underpowered, as it shouldn’t with 123bhp pulling 1290kg. Incidentally, that engine was developed in collaboration with General Motors, meaning it’s the same one we liked in the Vauxhall Corsa.

We’ll find out about the ZS’s ride comfort, wind noise, and general driving live-ability closer to its September 2017 UK launch, but new-era MGs have generally been good in that respect.

The amount of space in the MG ZS wins it the loudest applause. A six-foot passenger could sit behind a six-foot driver and have knee space to spare. At 4.3 metres long, the ZS is longer than a Renault Captur (4.1m) but shorter than a Vauxhall Mokka (4.4m) and the same as a Honda HR-V, which likes to think of itself as a class size above.

Inside MG ZS boot - the seats fold down to leave huge loadbay

Unhelpfully, MG has not yet announced a size for the boot with the rear seats up (it’s 1160 litres seats down), but it looked enormous for a car of this category and it still found room for a space-saver spare.

Browse MG cars for sale

The cabin quality was a mixed bag, but the hard plastics of the slightly wobbly glovebox lid and the storage bin between the two front occupants are a fact of life at this price point. The handbrake felt pretty flimsy, too, but mostly the interior looked accomplished enough for its rival set.

The heater controls were tactile and moved with precision. We liked the playful, body-coloured jet-engine casing of the turbine-bladed dash vents that posher models get.

MG ZS cabin

Our Lux model came with an 8in touch-sensitive display that lets you swipe between screens. In China these read-outs supply all kinds of cloud-fed information, but it remains to be seen whether we’ll get something similar in the UK. It’ll come with Apple CarPlay however.

Other kit on this model included keyless entry, panoramic sunroof, electric windows front and back, and a couple of USB chargepoints.

MG’s problem is that it now makes some perfectly good cars that compete against other perfectly good cars from brands that have lots more dealers, are far more widely known and can reliably be expected to return a decent amount of your money come resale time.

On first impressions the ZS is exactly the right car to nudge folk into overlooking those practicalities for the sake of a cheap entry into a fashionable sector. Could this… Could this… really be the breakthrough car for China-era MG? It just might, you know.

More MG reviews by CAR magazine

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