Review and road test of the MG ZR (2001 - 2005)
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
The MG ZR is a car that should never have worked quite as well as it has. Logic would dictate that a sporty car based on the Rover 25 would be off to a tough start in life, but MG's engineers excelled themselves. In turning the modest 25 into the hooligan ZR and pricing it at a level that was accessible to many, the ZR has done good business for the revitalised MG Rover. With a huge range of models and used examples now beginning to filter onto the used market, the ZR is well worth further investigation.
(3/5 dr hatchback 1.4, 1.8 petrol 2.0 diesel [base, +, Trophy, Trophy SE])
The MG ZR is a vehicle very much created from the wreckage that was BMW's stewardship of Rover. With such a difficult parentage, it would perhaps have been understandable if the ZR proved a duffer. It's no secret that the development budget for the car was almost non-existent, the Phoenix Consortium, as MG Rover's rescuers were then dubbed, having to get the maximum bang for their buck.
They did a good job. The range consists of three and five door versions of the 101bhp ZR105, the 115bhp 1.8-litre ZR120, the 158bhp ZR160 and the 99bhp ZR2.0TD turbo diesel. A Stepspeed push-button CVT transmission was latterly made available on the ZR120. Trim levels comprised a choice of standard or '+' specification and a range of lurid paint schemes were instantly popular. A signal coloured 'up yours' to BMW was one interpretation of the in-your-face ZR.
In the summer of 2004, a heavily facelifted model was launched. There were minor tweaks to suspension and brakes but the alterations were mainly cosmetic. The headlamps changed to sculpted BMW-style clear-lensed units covering twin lamps rather than the separate pods the original ZR sported. The rear end was made more distinctive with the number plate position moved downwards to allow for a bootlid with a bold MG badge on the centre line. Inside, a series of improvements were made including four Audi TT style round vents on the dash.
At the start of 2005, MG Rover introduced the Trophy and Trophy SE models which ran concurrently with the existing range but rendered those models virtually redundant. The Trophy derivatives offered more equipment for less money and even borrowed some of the sporty styling accessories that had been reserved for the ZR 160 model. Production ended with the demise of MG Rover in 2005.
What You Get
The engineers at MG Rover have worked their magic under the skins of the cars to devastating effect. Aside from the aggressive spoilers and big alloys, most of the changes that truly transformed the ZR were made to the parts that most buyers would need a hydraulic ramp to see. The car was lowered by 20mm and fitted with stiffer springs and meatier dampers. Suspension bushes are made of rigid polyurethane instead of rubber to give more road feel and sharper reaction to the driver, who can now react to said changes more effectively thanks to a quicker and more accurate steering system. Bigger brakes mean that you can now scrub off that excess speed in less time - the mark of a serious sporting model.
There's only so far that the development budget would go, however, and it seems that the piggy bank was getting somewhat empty when it came to the ZR's interior. You'll notice a revised instrument panel with white dials and some added brightwork on the fascia, but compared to something like a Seat Ibiza Cupra, it all looks a bit 1992. The pedals and gear stick feel beautiful, the gearchange action having been reworked for a more positive feel, but something feels wrong with the driving position. Instead of hunkering down into the car, you feel as if you are perched aloft, with the base of that steering wheel brushing your thighs. Adjusting the seat and the wheel has little effect, and the culprit is a structural cross member located under the seat. You'll get used to it, but it's not ideal.
Of all the MG models, the ZR seems to wield its spoilers, bibs and skirts with most aggression. The Rover 25GTi was always a quietly handsome piece of work, and the ZR takes this understated elegance and transforms it into LOOK AT ME exuberance, especially if you opt for a yellow one. Opt for the range-topping ZR 160 model and the seventeen-inch wheels fill the arches superbly, tiny foglights peer out like bullet holes, and the roof spoiler juts back in a Gaussian arc. Some may find it slightly OTT, but this is a GTi from the old school, a no-flannel fun car that puts a smile on your face every time you wriggle beneath the wheel.
At this juncture, we should explain the ZR range fully, as it's rather complicated. All models are available in three-door form, and for a premium, five-door guise is also available. There are four engine choices, a 102bhp 1.4-litre (ZR105), a 115bhp 1.8-litre (ZR120), a 100bhp 2.0-litre turbo diesel (ZR Turbo Diesel) and that 158bhp 1.8-litre ZR160. The ZR120 is available with MG Rover's Stepspeed CVT gearbox, and all models bar the ZR160 are also available in '+' guise which adds remote central locking, electric front windows, sunroof and mirrors, a seat height adjuster, leather steering wheel and alloy gearknob plus those mean front fog lights.
What to Look For
The MG ZR, being largely based on proven Rover 25 mechanicals has yet to show any significant failings. Unlike the 25, the ownership profile of the ZR is a little younger and you should check that the car hasn't been leathered to within an inch of its life around a racetrack. That's not to say the ZR can't handle the occasional track day, but make sure the brakes, tyres, and suspension have all got plenty of 'oomph'. Check that the servicing work has been done, that there's no accident damage and you should be able to land a decent car.
(approx. based on ZR105) For most parts the prices are quite reasonable and worth the money. Expect to pay around £95 for a full clutch assembly, £485 for a full exhaust system (including the catalyst), around £80 for a headlamp and up to £115 for a radiator. Brake pads should cost about £55 for the front and £50 for the rear, an alternator is around £175 and a starter motor around £140.
On the Road
The MG ZR range serves up surprises aplenty. Take the ZR TD as an example. Although it may seem odd to have an MG diesel model, the two-litre turbo diesel is a hoot to drive, the torque bringing a whole new dimension to cars of this size. You'll feel the added weight of the engine when cornering hard, but it's undoubtedly a novel experience. It's capable of hitting 60mph in 9.7 seconds whilst averaging 54mpg, making the ZR Turbo Diesel a quirky but affordable addition to the range. The star turn is, predictably, the ZR160, which offers a hefty wallop from just £14,560 for the three-door. This is the model that most drivers will opt for, the three-door shell looking agreeably more sporty than the five-door, and the ZR160's sprint to 60mph of just 7.4 seconds is even quicker than an Audi A3 1.8 T Sport. The chief rivals for this model are the more expensive Renault Cliosport 172 and the banzai Honda Civic Type-R, both of which offer more power but at a significant price premium.
As befits its old school appeal, the ZR160 feels something of a hooligan to drive, forever wheedling and pleading with the driver to fling it into a corner with reckless abandon. You'll hear some bump and thump coming back from the road and the steering wheel with buck and jitter in your hands when you corner enthusiastically, but it all feels alive and full of the most infectious joie de vivre. In an age where cars become ever fatter, more remote and more anaesthetised, the ZR is a throwback, something that will reward the keen driver whilst keeping them on their toes. Really push the limit and the car will complain with some understeer, but it's nothing that can't be remedied with a quick lift of the throttle.
The MG ZR is a fun new buy and an even better used proposition. It's a great time to buy when the car's overcome its initial slug of depreciation and landing a bargain ZR is going to put a huge smile on your face. It's nowhere near the cutting edge of compact hot hatches but when something is this much fun, who cares? Most advertising catchlines don't approach the truth. MG's 'Outrageous Fun For All' just about encapsulated the appeal of the ZR range.
MG ZR (2001 - 2005) review by ANDY ENRIGHT