AS CHINA’S auto industry matures, the quality – and quantity – of product from the country has also grown. MG, a brand that used to be as British as bulldogs and warm beer, has been transformed into a subsidiary of Chinese mega-corp SAIC Automotive, and its most promising product since its Chinese-funded revival began is the MG ZS compact crossover.
Judged in isolation it presents a compelling case, with turbo petrol power under the bonnet and attractive design encasing a sizable-for-the-segment cabin. However in a realm as competitive as the compact SUV market, the MG has no shortage of sharp rivals – with the highly popular Mazda CX-3 being key among them. Can China square off against Japan in one of the most important categories around?
Price and Equipment - Winner: MG ZS
MAZDA CX-3: As well as a more convincing safety case that includes a five-star ANCAP rating, AEB, blind-spot monitoring, reverse camera and rear parking sensors, the CX-3 Maxx has dual-zone climate control and sat-nav as standard – items missing from the MG Essence. Even so, with a $900 premium over its rival, price-focused shoppers might still be swayed by the MG’s slightly fatter equipment list.
MG ZS: MG’s strategy is to let price and value do the talking. Top-grade ZS Essence packs a panoramic glass sunroof, rear parking sensors, a reversing camera, LED daytime running lights, a turbo engine and automatic as standard, which is a compelling deal at $23,990. Auto-on headlights and front and rear foglights are another spec advantage, but the four-star ANCAP score and no AEB is not.
Interior and Connectivity - Tied
MAZDA CX-3: The CX-3 has a far more compact cabin than the MG with tight rear seat accommodation and 95L less boot capacity, but that’s offset by a much higher-quality interior and superior ergonomics. There’s no smartphone mirroring, but the Mazda’s 7.0-inch infotainment display looks and feels more mature, is mounted high on the dash rather than halfway down it, and has a nifty rotary controller.
MG ZS: The MG’s interior decor screams ‘Volkswagen Group bootleg’, from the non-reach-adjustable steering wheel that flaunts previous-gen VW design cues to air vents that are eerily reminiscent of the Audi A3’s. Materials quality isn’t an MG strong suit; at least there’s plenty of cabin space. And while the 9.0-inch infotainment system feels decidedly aftermarket it does get Apple CarPlay.
Ride and Handling - Winner: Mazda CX-3
MAZDA CX-3: The CX-3 banks heavily on its dynamic capability, and for the most part the FWD Maxx delivers on that promise. The steering, now aided by G-Vectoring control, is responsive and the suspension tune straddles the line between ‘comfort’ and ‘handling’ rather well. Firm, but not objectionably so thanks to well-calibrated damping, and far more polished than the MG’s set-up.
MG ZS: The ZS rolls on 17-inch alloys, an inch bigger than those on the CX-3, but that’s not enough to explain its significantly harsher and brittle ride. Speedbumps, manhole covers and expansion joints introduce far more thumping than they should. The MG’s tenacious grip on the road comes as a plus, however vague, over-assisted steering ensures there’s very little dynamic sheen.
Performance and Economy - Winner: Mazda CX-3
MAZDA CX-3: The CX-3’s substantial power and torque advantage coupled with an excellent six-speed auto deliver a more effortless driving experience, whether around town or on highways. But it’s a noisy powertrain, despite Mazda’s efforts to add refinement with CX-3’s recent update. In the same mix of driving, the CX-3 burned less fuel than the MG, the Mazda’s stop-start likely playing a part.
MG ZS: The MG’s 1.0-litre turbo has a relatively fat mid-range that sees it work well around town. But the engine lacks refinement and quickly runs out of puff beyond 5000rpm. The six-speed auto wants for calibration finesse, hunting up hills and suffering from low-speed lurching. And while a downsized turbo promises economy, this one works the snail too hard to deliver in the city.
Warranty and Servicing - Winner: MG ZS
MAZDA CX-3: Mazda’s warranty term is for the first three years of ownership, with no limit on kilometres; both have a 12 month, 10,000km service interval. The Mazda’s visits to the service department alternate between $286 and $314, however brake fluid needs to be replaced every 40,000km/24 months at $120 a pop, bringing the average cost to $360 per annum over the first six years.
MG ZS: The MG claws back some points with its generous seven-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty, which brings welcome peace of mind for a new model from a revived brand. MG doesn’t yet have
a capped-price service plan for the ZS (or an extensive dealer network), but says average servicing costs over the first six years should be in the order of $426 per year.
Verdict - Winner: Mazda CX-3 Maxx
Driven back-to-back, the Mazda’s virtues throw some harsh light on the MG’s shortfalls. The ZS is far from woeful, but there’s definitely room for improvement in refinement, suspension tuning and transmission calibration. Cabin quality is also well behind that of the Mazda, and the copycat interior design is also pretty plain-Jane. That said, it’s a solid step up on Chinese efforts of years past.
And for many, the ZS’ affordability and huge warranty will get them across the line – even if average servicing costs are higher than the Mazda. Between these two, it’s a closer race then you might expect – though the CX-3 still comes out on top.