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MG ZST Essence 2021 review


Nathan Ponchard reviews the turbocharged MG ZST small SUV and finds that it delivers promising improvements over the middling ZS.

Good points

  • Impressive turbo three-cylinder engine
  • Class-leading space
  • Much-improved interior design
  • Long warranty

Needs work

  • Obstructive transmission calibration
  • Heat intrusion into the cabin
  • Low-rent switchgear
  • Ride and handling lack finesse

As the first genuine example of how MG facelifts a car, the 2021 ZST shows promise.

Closely based on the circa-2017 ZS small SUV, the ZST (from $28,490) is a slightly odd addition to MG’s line-up in that it’s essentially the replacement for the ZS – at least globally – yet in Australia, the ZST sells alongside the continuing ZS (from $20,990) as MG’s small SUV flagship…

… providing you ignore the all-electric ZS EV ($40,990), which costs over $10K more than a top ZST, but is built from older ZS bits. Confused?

MG ZST 2021 rear 3/4

The electric version will make the transition to the newer ZST shape in due course, and the entry-level ZS should disappear by the end of the year, replaced by lesser-engined versions of the updated ZST.

So for now, the ZST exists as a portent of what MG’s small SUV line-up will look like across the board in 2022.

While the body’s centre section is pure ZS, and likewise interior packaging and seating, the ZST brings a few noticeable improvements. More angular LED headlights, a better-proportioned grille shape and more attractive bumpers, along with new LED tail lights (filling the same ZS shape) make the ZST look classier.

MG ZST 2021 front 3/4 ocean

Inside, the makeover is more comprehensive. The ZST still suffers from the same problems that blight the regular ZS – insufficient window tinting and acres of vinyl trim, combining to make the cabin baking-hot in summer temperatures – but the ZST’s fresh dashboard design and different trim textures definitely make a difference.

The statement piece is a new 10.1-inch touchscreen glorifying the centre console, garnished with wired Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, a pair of USB ports at the base (plus a tray to put your phone), and two more USBs for rear passengers, as well as a hidden one in the rear-view mirror for charging dash cams.

While sound quality is respectable (given that there’s only six speakers and a ‘virtual’ subwoofer) and processing speed is much improved over the glacial response of the ZS system, its more about looking superficially impressive than actually being high-tech.

MG ZST 2021 interior

And it’s that theme that permeates the rest of the ZST’s in-cabin experience – unexpectedly handsome, particularly the carbon fibre-esque detail trim, but not that sophisticated. Cue the tilt-only steering column, non-height-adjustable passenger’s seat, one-touch window control only for the driver, and rudimentary, if acceptable, seating.

At least the test ZST Essence’s six-way electric driver’s seat offers (just) enough adjustment to combat the tilt-only wheel (the manual-seat Excite isn’t quite so blessed) while the rear bench enjoys class-leading space and a superb view through the Essence’s vast ‘Stargazer’ glass sunroof.

But back seat passengers only get 600ml bottle holders in the doors (the fronts will take 1.5-litre bottles) and the rear backrest is too far reclined which, combined with a flat seat cushion, impedes comfort for anyone beyond child age. And the same applies with the boot – impressive 359-litre space, but when extended the rear backrests simply flop onto the cushion, delivering a far-from-flat floor.

MG ZST 2021 boot

Push the starter button, however, and the ZST begins to show what it’s capable of. Under the bonnet is a brand new 1.3-litre turbo-petrol three-cylinder engine packing a feisty 115kW from 5200-5600rpm and 230Nm from 1,800-4,400rpm, tied to a Japanese-made Aisin six-speed auto.

It’s 40 percent more powerful than the leisurely 1.0-litre turbo-petrol used in the ZS yet drinks barely any more fuel (7.1L/100km on the combined cycle). And when you ask it to deliver, it does so with verve and charm.

There’s loads of torque, meaning the ZST can waft about with effortless ease, yet there’s also a tonne of performance waiting in the wings – transforming MG’s small SUV offering from slug (every ZS, bar the EV) to slingshot.

MG ZST 2021 rear 3/4 ocean

Pity the transmission calibration isn’t on the same page. All that torque masks the auto’s desire to grab the tallest gear possible, which is a huge saving grace, yet the Sport mode offers no salvation (only perkier throttle response and faster gearshifts) and the tip-shift manual mode is frustratingly disobedient.

Make minimal demands and the ZST is smooth, swift and suave. Increase your expectation, however, and you realise this MG isn’t tuned by drivers.

Its dynamics follow a similar path. On a superficial level it turns in keenly, handles competently and displays enormously improved body control over the floundering ZS EV. Yet there’s a lack of finesse in much of what it does, meaning a little more R&D work on the suspension would go a long way.

MG ZST 2021 seat

At best, it can be quite fun trail-braking its nose into corners, feeling its rear-end adjust slightly, and then powering out using the engine’s thrummy goodness. At worst, there’s a lack of consistency in the way it changes direction and its ride deteriorates on poor surfaces – transitioning from a fidgety firmness to a crashy abrasiveness.

Then there’s the aspect of its price, which perhaps isn’t quite as sharp as many people might expect, despite its standard sunroof and solid suite of safety electronics. List price is $32,490, but the ZST Essence is currently $32,990 drive-away, with the lower-spec ZST Excite priced at $29,990 drive-away.

Given the seven-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, the equipment tinsel and respectable servicing cost ($815 across the first three years, though the ZST’s distance interval is only 10,000km), you get a very roomy and quite appealing small SUV for the money, with a terrific engine.

But the MG ZST will need some comprehensive detail refinements – mainly to its transmission calibration, its suspension tune and the finesse of its electronic safety systems, not to mention its hot-climate trim offerings – before it can truly compete head-on with its best rivals.

MG ZST 2021 front 3/4 night

Overall rating
Overall rating
Overall rating

Variant tested ESSENCE

Options fitted
Metallic Paint
Approximate on‑road price Including registration and government charges

Key specs (as tested)

1349 cc
115kW at 5200rpm
230Nm at 1800rpm
Power to weight ratio
Fuel type
Fuel capacity
45 litres
Front Wheel Drive
4323 mm
1809 mm
1653 mm
Unoccupied weight
1295 kg

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