2021 MG ZST Essence review

The MG ZST Essence is the flagship variant of Australia's most popular small SUV, but does its bargain price come at the expense of quality?

MG ZST review
Gallery18
7.5/10Score
Score breakdown
9.0
Safety, value and features
8.0
Comfort and space
7.0
Engine and gearbox
7.0
Ride and handling
8.0
Technology

Things we like

  • A lot of SUV for $30k
  • Safety tech
  • Space and comfort

Not so much

  • Ride a little hard
  • No steering-wheel reach adjustment

The MG ZS bounced back from the depths of COVID-19 lockdown to hit the first quarter of 2021 running with a 300 per cent jump in sales to leapfrog the likes of the Hyundai Kona and Mitsubishi ASX with a bullet to be Australia’s biggest selling small SUV.

With a starting price of $20,990, the ZS brings a box-fresh package for a used-car price and in the process has beaten the ASX at its own game.

Late last year MG introduced a more sophisticated variant called the ZST, which brings more power and more high-tech features to take on upper-spec turbocharged small SUVs.

MG ZST 10
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The ZST comes in two flavours, the Excite and Essence. The Excite retails for $28,490 with that price bringing a punchy 1.3-litre, three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine, LED headlights and taillights, MG Pilot advanced driver assistance with AEB and adaptive cruise control, a 360-degree camera and keyless entry with push-button start.

For $3000 more you can get the ZST Essence that has all that plus a full-sized panoramic sunroof, digital instrument cluster, front-seat heating, and powered driver’s seat adjustment.

To get all that in a Kona or Seltos you’d have to spend around $40,000 while even the top-spec ASX with its not-so lively 2.4-litre engine will set you back $33,490.

Archive Whichcar 2020 09 02 Misc MG ZST 2 1
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"The ZST defies any prejudices people may have about Chinese-built cars."

Outside the ZST differs from the standard ZS with a sportier front end and fancy black garnish on the grille, mirrors, side mouldings and bumper inserts, LED exterior lighting and 17-inch alloy wheels behind which are sporty red brake calipers.

The ZST defies any prejudices people may have about Chinese-built cars. It’s well put together and there’s a nice solid thunk when you close the doors or tailgate.

But it’s inside where the ZST represents the most showroom appeal to anyone on a $30k-ish budget, starting with the attractive clutter-free interior featuring synthetic leather seats and full-grain leather steering, each with contrasting stitching.

MG ZST 27
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The overall quality is an improvement over the more affordable ZS versions and it looks fresher too – the ZST actually feels like an updated version of the ZS rather than simply an upper-spec version. There are some hard plastics on the doors but touchpoints are soft, as is the dashboard top and fascia.

A floating 10-inch touchscreen replaces the smaller one in the ZS that’s embedded in the dashboard.  It displays in-built satellite navigation, audio, air-conditioning and other assorted settings plus your favourite apps and music via Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

It’s big and bright and is tilted towards the driver but it is mounted a little low, meaning you have to look down while navigating.

MG ZST 20
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The touchscreen in this Essence version is complemented by an attractive digital gauge cluster that’s pretty basic in terms of the functions it displays and the stalk-mounted adaptive cruise control switches rely on feel, though you do quickly get the hang of things.

Despite being leather, the good-looking steering wheel feels a little hard. It’s also let down by only being height adjustable, which can make things difficult if you have long arms or legs.

The ZST’s synthetic leather seats are soft and comfortable. The backrests and cushions provide good side and hop bolstering but they’re broad enough that anyone with wider hips doesn’t feel squished in.

MG ZST 19
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There are physical buttons for audio and air-con too as well as a couple for the 360-degree camera, traction control electronic park brake and auto start-stop system but all other functions are easily operated from the screen.

The front seats are heated and the driver has power settings, though these do not extend to lumbar support.

Down back you’ll find one of the roomiest rear-seat spaces in a small SUV.  Leg and knee room is great for a small SUV and that space between the front and rear pews helps with getting in and out or loading children into car seats.

The seats are also soft with good under-thigh support. The backrests don’t adjust but are raked back enough so you don’t feel as though you’re on a park bench.

There is no fold-down centre armrest and while you wouldn’t want to try and squeeze in three adults, three kids would fit just fine. If you need to use child car seats there are ISOFIX anchors at the outboard seats and three top tethers.

MG ZS EV 80
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Boot space is a handy 359 litres, which is about average for a small SUV.

There is a narrow space-saver spare wheel below the boot floor, which allows it to be adjusted so it’s sitting level with the boot lip or deeper for when you want to carry more, while folding the 60:40 split seats extends available cargo space up to 1187mm.

The MG ZST’s 1.3-litre turbo-petrol engine has an official combined fuel consumption of 7.1 litres/100km.

MG ZS EV BOOT
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Warranty on the ZST is seven years with unlimited kilometres, with seven years of roadside assistance included that isn’t tied to having your car being serviced at an MG dealer.

Service intervals are 10,000km or 12 months, whichever comes first. There's no fixed-price servicing structure in place as yet but the average cost of a regular service over the first seven years on the ZST is about $300, subject to the condition of the car.

What is the MG ZST Essence like to drive?

The ZST is nippy around town and happy on the highway. Its 115kW/230Nm 1.3-litre turbo is 40 per cent more powerful than the 1.0-litre turbo engine in the rest of the ZS range and is one of the more powerful three-cylinder engines found in a small SUV.

It’s coupled with a six-speed automatic transmission that sends power to the front wheels smoothly and rarely leaves you waiting for the right gear, particularly in Sport mode that allows for higher revs before upshifting and gets up to speed sooner.

Athough it's not as advanced as some dual-clutch autos in some of its turbocharged rivals, it feels better than the continuously variable transmissions (CVT) found in others.

Mg Zst
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With MacPherson struts at the front and rear torsion beam, the suspension is pretty basic. The damping feels a little firm, probably to give it sporty handling characteristics, so you do tend to feel every bump but things settle quickly.

The ZST rolls on 17-inch alloy wheels with Michelin Primacy 3 rubber also help smooth things out and are excellent in the wet.

Its steering is light and responsive but there is a little play in the steering wheel and the gear shifter feels a little wobbly and cheap.

MG ZST 4
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What about safety in the MG ZST Essence?

The MG Pilot active safety suite is quite extensive and includes autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go function, lane departure warning with lane-keeping assist, blind-spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert and auto high-beam.

It also has and speed sign recognition that can be set to limit your speed to the prevailing limit

The ZST provides good all-round vision which helps when parking and has a 360-degree parking camera to help ensure you don’t bump into anything or anyone hidden in your blind spots.

ANCAP has given the MG ZST a four-star safety rating but it's worth noting that this is because it shares the 2017 ANCAP score given to the ZS, which at the time did not have any active safety features.

The verdict

The MG ZST appeals to the budget-conscious but it’s more than just an Aldi SUV. It’s well put together, drives well and if you are worried about how it will hold up over time it's worth bearing in mind that it does come with a seven-year warranty.

So how does it bring key features that can only be found in upper-spec turbocharged rivals worth up to $10,000 more?

MG ZST 5
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From what I can tell the main reason is that it comes with all the important technology while leaving things like the transmission and suspension as relatively basic, which appeals to the many small SUV buyers who just want something to get them from A to B safely albeit with a few creature comforts thrown in.

It’s that balance between features and affordability which makes this quite a good value proposition that won’t have you feeling like you’ve compromised on quality. And on top of that, it’s a reasonably fun little car to drive.

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MG ZST Essence specifications

Body: 5-door, 5-seat SUV
Drive: FWD
Engine: 1349cc, 3-cyl, 12v
Power: 115kW @ 5200-5600rpm
Torque: 230Nm @ 1800-4400rpm
Fuel consumption: 7.1L/100km (combined)
Weight: 1295kg
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Suspension: MacPherson strut/torsion beam
L/W/H: 4323/1809/1653mm
Wheelbase: 2585mm
Brakes: Front ventilated discs (280mm) / Rear solid discs (280mm)
Tyres: 215/55 R17 Michelin Primacy 3
Wheels: 17-inch alloy
Price: From $31,490

7.5/10Score
Score breakdown
9.0
Safety, value and features
8.0
Comfort and space
7.0
Engine and gearbox
7.0
Ride and handling
8.0
Technology

Things we like

  • A lot of SUV for $30k
  • Safety tech
  • Space and comfort

Not so much

  • Ride a little hard
  • No steering-wheel reach adjustment

 

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