I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear the words ‘MG ZS’, I still think of a Rover 45 with an octagonal badge, a plastic body kit and a bit more go. That original MG ZS was one of the last desperate throws of the dice by the management of MG Rover, and while it wasn’t too bad, especially when fitted with the 2.5-litre KV6 engine and ZS 180 badge, it could never quite shake off the fundamental staidness of the donor car, which is the sort of limitation you have to live with when you develop cars on a shoestring.
But now there’s a new MG ZS, made by MG Rover’s Chinese-owned successor company, MG Motor, and this one obviously wasn’t developed on such a limited budget. The current ZS is also available in electric form as the ZS EV, and after getting the chance to try it for a few days, I think its arrival is a pretty significant event.
When it comes to the car itself, the two key numbers are £22,495 and 44.5kWh. The £22,495 refers to the car’s current starting price after incentives, while 44.5kWh is the capacity of its battery pack. I don’t think any other electric car offers as much battery per pound as this. The ZS EV is cheaper than the electric version of the Hyundai Ioniq, the outgoing Volkswagen e-Golf and the entry-level Nissan Leaf, all of which have smaller battery packs. The ZS EV’s keen pricing currently relies on an extra ‘MG grant’ on top of the government’s £3,500 Plug-in Car contribution, but that shouldn’t detract from the fundamental message that the ZS EV is a bargain.
So what do you get for the money? With its roomy SUV-style body, the ZS EV is probably more practical than the competitors I just mentioned, but slightly less polished in terms of trim and design detail – although it’s much better in this respect than early Chinese-era MGs. It’s pretty decent to drive as well. What we see here is how battery power is a great leveller, because an electric powertrain gives top-notch refinement, great acceleration and a certain effortlessness of performance to any car, whatever its price tag or whatever badge it wears on its bonnet.
Most of the rest of the ZS EV falls into the ‘nothing to write home about, but nothing to grumble about either’ category. Most people will get on with it just fine – I know I could. The 44.5kWh battery gives a WLTP range of 163 miles. As a broad guide, I’d treat that as an achievable figure, but one that is a bit on the optimistic side. Equipment levels are high and the ZS EV recently grabbed itself a top five-star Euro NCAP safety rating as well.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ZS EV seems to have given MG’s UK sales a bit of a boost. During 2019, MG’s new car registrations – while still modest at 13,075 cars – were up almost 45 per cent on the previous year. The ZS EV secured two thousand orders in its first two months, and 659 examples were delivered, so it looks set to account for a significant proportion of MG’s activity both now and in the year ahead. Whether it’s part of the plan or not, I suspect the ZS EV might give MG the chance to present itself as a mainly ‘electric’ brand in the UK, which could be pretty advantageous as the switch from diesel and petrol accelerates.
Of course, the ZS EV is in most respects a Chinese, rather than British, achievement. The DNA match between a rasping 1963 Abingdon-built MGB in British Racing Green and a silent 2020 electric SUV from China is pretty much zero. But other quintessentially British brands such as Dr Martens and HP Sauce have retained their popularity despite switching production off-shore, so why should MG be any different? Most people still think Ford is somehow part of the ‘home team’, despite the fact it’s an American company that hasn’t made a fully built car here since 2002, though admittedly it still makes diesel engines at Dagenham in Essex.
And that Chinese link provides one clear benefit – the ability to draw on the resources of parent company SAIC (Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation), a huge manufacturer based in the world’s biggest car market, and one that is playing a leading role in electrification. That’s what’s put an MG badge on a pretty reasonable car with a decent-sized battery at such a keen price. And that’s why everyone, car buyers and rival car manufacturers alike, needs to sit up and take notice.