New car review: MG ZST Essence

Feature-packed SUV has plenty to offer value-conscious buyers.

Car maker MG is clearly doing something right, with local sales volumes doubling since early 2020 and the brand briefly climbing into the top-10 best sellers list in early 2021. 

That’s not a bad effort from a manufacturer with only three SUVs and a small hatchback in its local line-up, but which now seems to be stepping up the pace of new models having recently launched Australia’s most affordable electric vehicle, the $43,990 MG ZS EV.

The MG ZST compact SUV tested here isn’t electric, but it is also relatively new, having made its debut late last year as a companion model to the existing MG ZS.

The ZST brings additional equipment and advanced safety features over the older and cheaper ZS along with a new powertrain, increased body rigidity and styling revisions.

Interestingly, the new ZST and the older ZS continue to sell alongside each other with the latter now positioned as a price leader. 

Driveaway prices for the three ZS petrol models range from $21,990 to $25,990, compared with the ZST which starts with the $29,490 Excite and rises to the $32,490 Essence.

While the new model is still quite affordable by class standards, the ZST is bumping up towards quality competition like the Kia Seltos, Mazda CX-30 and Subaru XV.

Hence why both ZST trim levels come impressively well-equipped with features including six airbags, keyless entry, push-button start, rain-sensing wipers, faux leather interior trim with contrast stitching, LED headlamps, red-finish brake callipers, satnav, 17-inch alloys and a 10.1-inch multifunction colour touchscreen. 

MG ZST.

The standard kit doesn’t end there either, extending to Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, five USB ports, 360-degree camera, rear park sensors, six-speaker audio, anti-theft alarm and tyre pressure monitoring.

Also standard on ZST is the MG Pilot driver assistance suite which includes forward collision warning with AEB, lane departure warning, rear cross-traffic alert, blind-spot monitoring, intelligent cruise control, traffic jam assist, intelligent headlamp control and a speed assistance system. 

If you’re thinking “that’s a lot of standard kit for a $29,490 entry model”, you’re spot on but stepping up to the Essence brings even more features, including six-way power adjustable driver’s seat, heated front seats, a panoramic sunroof, full digital instrumentation, revised alloy wheel styling and embossed red MG logo on the front head rests.

For all this largesse, there are a few notable equipment omissions, including steering reach adjustment (it’s tilt only), digital radio, a centre rear head rest, and height adjustment for the front seatbelt upper anchors.

Perhaps of more concern is the fact that, despite the MG ZST featuring the MG Pilot safety system, which is disappointingly absent from its MG ZS siblings, all ZS models except the ZS EV carry the same four-star ANCAP safety rating.

Curiously, the MG ZS EV, which also has MG Pilot, has achieved the maximum five stars.

When asked if they felt the ZST should have a higher ANCAP rating due to its additional safety features, MG told us they were “confident in the existing ratings attributed throughout the ZS range”.

However, given the sales momentum MG is generating at present we’d have thought getting the ZST re-tested or re-certified to try to snare that desirable five-star ANCAP safety rating would be a priority. 

Both ZST models are powered by a new 1.3-litre turbocharged three-cylinder petrol engine with outputs of 115kW/230Nm delivered to the front wheels via a six-speed auto. 

MG ZST

This may seem modest, but it is up significantly on the lacklustre outputs of the 1.0-litre turbo and 1.5-litre naturally aspirated engines in the older ZS. 

The little three-pot screamer proves quite perky, too, with a useful spread of torque once you get past some initial lag getting off the line.

There’s even some character to be heard in the unmistakable three-cylinder engine note.

However, like its ZS siblings, the ZST requires premium petrol and its official fuel consumption is only on par with the 1.5-litre engine and a smidge higher than the smaller 1.0-litre engine.  

The MG ZST’s road manners are a blend of supple ride with sufficiently capable handling, although it lacks the dynamic sophistication and polish of the leading players in this class. 

That sense is heightened by overly light steering that offers little in the way of road feel, but most buyers are unlikely to be perturbed by this. 

Overall, the MG ZST is an easy and predictable vehicle to drive.

The ZST proves to be one of the more spacious small SUVs thanks to modest dimensional gains over the older ZS, benefitting rear seat passengers and load space. 

MG ZST

Lift the octagonal MG badge on the rear hatch to access the cargo area and you’ll find a usefully proportioned 359 litres of space, expanding to 1187 litres with the rear seats folded flat.

While the front seats are nice and comfortable, rear seat passengers don’t fare so well thanks to a backrest that is a little too steeply reclined and has no angle adjustment to remedy the problem.

Beyond this, the interior is neatly finished and contemporary looking with soft-touch trims on the doors, armrests and atop the dash pad plus a generous amount of red stitching on the seats and elsewhere.

Overall, while the MG ZST tries hard to deliver a premium look and feel it doesn’t quite nail the bar set by rivals such as Mazda. 

Buyers will, however, be pleased to have the reassurance of a seven-year unlimited-kilometre warranty. 

When you put this together with the car’s keen purchase price, comprehensive standard equipment and very reasonable driving manners, it’s easy to see how the ZST will find favour with value-conscious buyers. 

And why the MG brand itself is likely to continue its great march up the sales charts. 

Key stats

MLP: $32,490 (recommended driveaway).

ENGINE: 1.3-litre turbo petrol, three cylinder. 

ANCAP CRASH RATING:  4 stars (2017).

FUEL CONSUMPTION (combined cycle, litres/100km):  7.1 (162g/km CO₂).

FOR: Affordably priced, attractive looks, standard safety features, perky performance, interior space, long warranty.

AGAINST: Equipment omissions, performance and dynamics fall short of the best in class, requires premium fuel, four-star ANCAP rating.