Tuesday, May 20, 2008

My cars: MG ZS 180

Arguably Longbridge's finest hour - the mid-sized MG just need a tiny bit more time.

It would be an exaggeration to describe the ZS 180 as 'meeting one of my heroes'. However, while it was never exactly bedroom wall material, I distinctly remember taking note when this car first appeared . Roadtesters raved about it - Tiff Needell described it as "the best front wheel drive car I've ever driven". It was also affordable, British and just a little bit different. I’d just learnt to drive when it was released in 2001 and although I never lusted after one like a GT40 or Cobra, I quite fancied the idea of getting a ZS.

Five years later I did exactly that. I was actually on the lookout for a Peugeot 306 GTi-6, but I went to see a locally advertised ZS180 and the owner made me an offer I couldn't refuse. A few days later I found myself driving it home.

Coming down a quiet stretch of the A12 on the way back, the car was in its element. The silky smooth V6 emitted a pleasing thrum and pulled strongly, well into license-losing territory. If you were to be cruel you might suggest the slightly over-the-top factory body kit also looked rather at home on the so-called Essex Autobahn, but the ZS possessed impressive high-speed stability, suggesting that the big wing’s presence was indeed justified. It also provided a strong, stable braking platform that meant speed could be shed as effectively as it was gained.

Out on the back roads the MG put out slightly mixed messages. Its structure felt extremely stiff and this was mirrored by very precise, direct steering. It gripped well, particularly in the dry where the chunky 17in alloys shod with Michelin Pilot Sports provided excellent traction. Their low profile, combined with reasonably stiff springs led to a firm ride, but no more so than other sports saloons. There was very little body roll during cornering and yet the car also remained pleasingly composed over mid-corner bumps, aided no doubt, by MG's bold choice of solid polyurethane suspension bushes.

However, despite its impressively low kerb weight of 1285kg, the V6-engined ZS felt a little nose heavy at times. It had a marked tendency to understeer and the turn in, whilst respectable, was never quite as positive as some of the smaller hot hatches. Worse was to come with the steering, which, for all its precision, felt oddly lacking in feedback. That's not to say it was terrible – it just represented a frustrating flaw in what was, on the whole, a very competent car.

The end result was something that felt a little uninvolving at everyday speeds. In order to make it play, you had to pitch the car more violently into bends than really seemed wise on the road. When you'd done so, the lightly-loaded rear end could prove surprisingly skittish. It was a trait which once again left you feeling the ZS was just on the wrong side of greatness.

Despite this, the MG was far from being a lost cause. As well as offering similar performance to its hot hatch contemporaries, the ZS had the advantage of being a full size 5-door saloon. The interior may have felt somewhat dated, but all the major controls were suitably tactile and it was by no means a bad place to be. Air conditioning, part-leather seats and a good quality stereo all came as standard. To cap it off, the saloon featured a large boot and reasonable rear seating. The only major downside to this was a factory fitted strut brace that went across the back of the rear seats and effectively partitioned the boot even when they were folded down. This once prompted a last minute rethink when embarking on a mountain biking trip to Wales. We eventually had to abandon the ZS in favour of a friend's diminutive Citroen Saxo - hardly the last word in load-luggers.

In truth it was probably a few hundred hours of development time behind cars like the Renault Clio 182 and the Honda Civic Type R, but not (as some of its detractors would like to claim) a polished turd. MG Rover's collapse in 2005 and various unfounded fears over reliability and parts had pushed the 180's price down to half that of its continental and Japanese rivals by the time I bought one in 2006. It might not have represented quite as much car outright, but it was an awful lot more car for the money.

No comments:

Post a Comment