The mid-range MG from the Phoenix era tends to be overshadowed by the more sophisticated Rover 75 cars but the ZS was a well regarded effort especially in V6 form.
Much has been written about the Phoenix-era cars which emerged from Longbridge under the MG Rover banner and one common thread from the twilight years is just how well the company managed to use slender resources to create credible MG-badged sports saloons from the Rover range.
The highlights of the range were the Rover 75-based cars, marketed as the MG ZT in saloon form and ZT-T in estate trim, but convincing MG-branded versions of the rest of the range were also strong sellers.
At the bottom of the range was the Rover 25-based model marketed as the ZR and between it and the ZT sat the MG ZS, based on the Rover 45 – itself created as an update of the Rover 400. The recipe which created the ZS was a simple one and was shared with all the MG models: take the base Rover, add a sharper chassis, a sportier style including the all-important MG grille. Add suitable wheels and wait for favourable press reactions.
Like the other MGs, the ZS was offered with a range of engine options, the mainstay of the range being the 1.6-itre K-Series four-cylinder in 110 or 120 bhp form, alongside the 2-litre L-Series turbodiesel. The smart move though was dropping in the 2.5-litre KV6 engine which at a stroke created something unique.
The cooking Rover 45 was offered with V6 power but only in mild-mannered 2-litre form, whereas the 2.5-litre unit in the MG was good for 177 bhp. When Volkswagen discontinued its VR6-powered Vento saloon, this made the MG the sole V6-powered small sports saloon on the market and as such it was an intriguing prospect. Compared to the four-pot ZS models, the V6 received uprated 282mm front and 260mm rear brakes, a quickshift, thicker rear anti-rollbar, sports seats and foglights as well as 17-inch rims.
In truth the ZS 180 as it was badged sold in much smaller numbers than the four-cylinder cars, but received firmly positive reviews from the press, which reserved criticism for the price: in post-2004 facelifted form the hatch was £16,495 which made it more expensive than the crushingly capable (although admittedly very different) Civic Type R and the Seat Leon Cupra R with an identical 180 bhp.
The facelift was a mixed blessing in truth. Yes, MG Rover needed to do something to update the car’s style but didn’t quite have the resources on hand to do a complete job. The external revamp was pretty successful, with a bold new smoothed rear end, sharper headlight shapes and on the V6 model, bold flared arch lips and wing vents to set the MG apart from the Rover version. Those chunky circular wheelarches had more than a hint of Audi TT to them, something which was carried through to the interior which received a sweeping, plainer black plastic dash top and silver-rimmed cicular vents.
Look closely though and the MGR plastics couldn’t hope to square up to Ingolstadt in quality terms, which the ancient Japanese minicab-spec Honda column stalks remained to remind you of the car’s origins as the Honda Domani. On the plus side, the restyle did do away with the rather Ripspeed rear boot spoiler of the ZS180, although a more discreet version was also offered.
Did it matter though? No, not at all: it was perfectly pleasant and a clever update of the car which under the skin really was beginning to date. As an ilustration, even the ZS180 came without even the option of electronic stability control. Autocar road testers reckoned this was to the MG’s advantage though: without electric power steering or electronic throttle, the car’s feedback and response were judged to be all the better for being of the old school. In fact a little-publicised fact is that since Honda had ceased production of the Domani (on which the 400/45/ZS was based) back in 2000, parts supply issues had forced part of the redesign.
In the Rover way of that era, the ZS was judged to be well balanced, offering a relaxed ride teamed with capable handling despite the weight of a V6 motor up front. Autocar in 2004 even compared the newly facelifted car to the then-current Focus for its ability to be driven fast without drama which is praise indeed.
Unfortunately, the updated 45/ZS was destined for a short shelf life, with Rover collapsing in May 2005 and Honda moving swiftly to remove part of the production equipment from the premises in order to prevent its intellectual property falling into the hands of (largely Chinese) bargain hunters sniffing around the remains.