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Car reviews - MG - ZT - 260 V8 sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Styling, chassis, interior, engine’s enthusiasm if not outright go
Room for improvement
Quality question marks, price-versus-performance equation

7 Oct 2004

THE British have always loved to demonstrate their technological prowess, particularly when it comes to showing their design creativity. And there’s nothing better than taking something designed by someone else, then showing how it could have been done.

Take Rover as an example. The brand has for many years been associated with industry heavyweights far removed from the British establishment, but necessary for its continuity.

Associations with Honda during the 1980s produced such cars as the Rover Quintet, 416 and 825 – all of which followed the last "real" Rover, the 3500SE SD1 hatchback V8.

Rover engineers were quite vociferous in their criticisms of the 825’s Honda V6 engine and were instrumental in changes that saw it being upgraded from 2.5 to 2.7 litres a year after its launch.

That was it for Australian Rovers though, with the brand disappearing from view in 1992.

Then BMW took an interest in the badge and developed the current 75 series to bring the company back into prestige market contention. That episode became history after BMW handed MG Rover to the British Phoenix Consortium in 2000, which then moved ahead with plans to re-establish the marque on an international scale.

In Australia, MG Rover has been a little short of product to make anything other than a minor impact on the niche market, relying on the MGTF mid-engined sports car and Rover and MG versions of the front-drive 75 sedans and wagons.

Sales have not been particularly impressive lately as the local company struggles with product desperately in need of updating and complementation.

That problem is partly addressed by the arrival of slightly new-look 75s and MG ZTs which, along with various changes to specifications and mechanical details, should help draw customers into the various boutique showrooms around the country.

By far the most interesting of the new range is the drastically re-engineered ZT 260. Once again, the British have taken a design and stamped their own identity on it.

In a rare mechanical shuffling of componentry, the engineers at MG Rover have transformed a front-drive design into a rear-drive configuration.

In recent history no similar feat comes to mind, although the British did venture into similar territory in 1970, when Triumph converted the previously front-drive Dolomite into the rear-drive Toledo.

As an exercise in technical proficiency, the ZT V8 is a fascinating statement, although just how MG Rover expects to pay back the investment on a niche model in a niche brand is puzzling.

Clearly what the company wants with the ZT V8 is an aspirational supercar, something of which will rub off on lesser, front-drive V6 ZTs.

If there is a problem, it’s that the $90,000 ZT exists in a market where V8 super sedans are reasonably common fare. Ford (FPV) and Holden (HSV) offer more spectacular V8 sedans for quite a bit less. In fact, it’s something of an irony that the Boss V8 used in the Ford GT is related to the ZT’s Mustang-derived engine.

If the Rover 75 and MG ZT were originally seen as front-wheel drive BMWs, the new V8 walks steadily away from those connotations. In fact, there is a real sense of British-ness sneaking through – right down to the niggling doubts on build quality that seem to be part of the heritage.

The test ZT emitted the odd distant thump from the back end under initial acceleration and the battery warning light flashed briefly but insistently during the week we drove it (a Rover 75 driven immediately after had a warning light problem too - this time related to the airbag system).

Lift the bonnet and there’s no sign of the neat front-drive engine presentation either – just the raw, naked V8, sitting in a north-south alignment with its tangle of wires and ancillaries.

But the ZT 260 is a nicely balanced package. It never feels overwhelmed by the grunt of the 4.6-litre V8 and is designed to please the driver in terms of its ride and handling.

MG describes the suspension as race-tuned. It uses an entirely new, multi-link suspension at the rear, with compound rate springs from race specialist Eibach, and Bilstein monotube dampers to compliment the reworked MacPherson strut front end.

It has been set up so a degree of oversteer can be dialled in, just as the true-blue enthusiast likes it. We think that’s fine, but wonder where electronic stability control, seen just about everywhere else at this price point, got to.

The Mustang V8 imbues the car with easy, flexible performance rather than the pure, instant response of, say, an Audi S4. The V8’s 191kW are nothing startling, but this is not the all-alloy, Boss version of the Mustang engine, using only a cast-iron block, single overhead camshafts and two valves per cylinder.

It’s certainly not a revver, but nor is it tractor-like in terms of torque. The 410Nm maximum comes in at a surprisingly high 4000rpm, which is only 1000rpm away from maximum power rpm.

But the ZT 260 has a nice, rolling gait. It feels quite relaxed at speed and is underlaid by a delicious V8 rumble. The modified Tremec five-speed manual (a four-speed auto will follow shortly) shifts smoothly through the ratios which, although they might not be close-set, are easily coped with by the sheer size of the engine.

Considering the weight of the car – it’s almost 1700kg – and the lightly stressed nature of the engine, it’s no surprise that it feels as relaxed as it does.

It will blast away rapidly from a standing start, reaching 100km/h in 6.3 seconds (0.8 of a second faster than the V6), although it doesn’t actually feel as quick as that. Naturally, it makes light work of passing slower cars on the open road.

There is the fuel consumption to consider too, and the fact that the fuel tank holds a relatively sparse 65 litres. With an official average of 13.3 litres per 100km, this means a touring range of not much more than 400km.

In keeping with the race-bred nature of the suspension, the brakes are pretty special too, with larger, ventilated discs at the front and AP Racing ventilated discs and callipers at the back. The ABS system is four-channel and incorporates electronic brakeforce distribution.

Although the body is precisely the same as front-drive ZTs, the V8 has a subtly aggressive stance with its specific 18-inch wheels and giveaway dual exhausts.

There’s not a lot of detail apart from the odd V8 badge to separate it visually from front-drive ZTs, but the tight, low-slung stance is unmistakable.

Inside it’s all suede and leather, with a full complement of luxury gear including a decent eight-speaker, six-CD sound system with MP3 functionality, power front seats, power sunroof, trip computer, cruise control and a set of blue-faced instruments that are not all that easy to read.

The lovely leather-clad steering wheel adjusts for both reach and height, and incorporates buttons for the audio system and cruise control.

The rear seat folds flat to augment the 432-litre boot, but there’s a surprise in store when you look for the spare. With the space taken up by the rear-drive and the new suspension, there simply wasn’t room for one. MG ZT 260 owners have to settle for a quick-fix spray can to reach the nearest service station.

Is the MG ZT 260 as impressive as the specifications suggest? Probably not quite, but it’s certainly a move upmarket for MG Rover as there can be no denying it is a true performance sedan.

And, who knows, there’s always the possibility that the raunchy, all-alloy 240kW Boss engine could be slotted in somewhere down the track.

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