The MG ZS 180: proof that the underdog isn't always underpowered
You've got to love an underdog. They steal our hearts with their valiance, audacity and charm, staring down the more powerful and larger adversaries with determination and guts. Wherever you find them- J.K Rowling, Albert Einstein and er..Rocky, you can't deny that they've earned their right to be revered through history for being the dark horse in the race. It's really no different in the world of cars. Every so often a model- or indeed a company comes along that seeks to overthrow even the most advanced and higher-ranking rivals. That was certainly the case for MG in 2001.
One year after the acquisition of the struggling Rover Group in 2000, the company needed to reverse its fortunes and start the cash flow. In order to do this, they turned to possibly one of the only desirable names left from the ruins of British Leyland- MG, which had been winning over customers with stylish yet nifty roadsters, such as the B, RV8 and F. MG Rover's plan was to hand a range of rather pedestrian Rover models- consisting of the 25, 45 and 75- over to MG, who then tuned their engines up, beefed them up on the exterior with the addition of bodykits and spoilers, and slapped an MG badge on the bonnet and steering wheel, all accompanied with a mad paint scheme and rave music. And in doing so, the ZR, ZS and ZT were born.
While the three models were on the whole well received, the ZS was the model that stood out the most. Packing a punchy 1.6 litre block under the bonnet, the ZS could reach 60 in 9.8 seconds and if the throttle was kept down could go to 119 mph- and that was just on the base model. However, the standout model of the ZS range was unarguably the range-topping 180. With a 2.5 litre KV6 producing a cool 175 bhp, the ZS 180 was a genuine performance machine that gained a cult following even after MG Rover's demise. It's also the car that I found in front of me on a bitterly cold Friday morning.
Run your eye along the bodywork and the first most noticeable element is the shopping trolley-like Rover 45 styling, which was obsolete even in the days of monocles and pocket watches. However, add more layers onto the overripe skeleton, and you can see that this car possesses a tad more cred than the 45. A vented, hardy front grille adorns the front of the bonnet, with a wire mesh guard settling behind it. Razor-sharp intakes form a pincer movement on the huge, gaping grille under the number plate, which curves the front bumper around into flared wheelarches surrounding spoked wheels pointier than Zorro's arsenal, an amazing effort considering the dire financial straits in MG Rover at the time. Inside, the materials aren't brilliant, but the driving position sits you low and with great visibility all round. When I grip the gearstick, it feels light and easily shiftable, while the steering wheel is small and has a flexible feel to it. Overall, it's functional and fits well the image of the exterior.
Not the best quality but it does the job well (MG)
Once on the road, the acceleration from the V6 is pert and responsive, and the engine whines in approval every time I press down on the throttle, and every lift off is met with an aggressive grunt from under the bonnet, so much so that I'm scared to take my foot off the pedal. Eventually, it's better to keep my foot planted on it. The steering is everything I could've hoped for- the car feels pointable and wieldy. There's minimal feedback, even on rough road surfaces- with a touch of understeer when rounding a tight bend, then the wobbles from my overcorrection on the way out.
The ride is brilliant in itself- firm and taut when rounding bends, with just the right amount on body roll to bring you around the corner smoothly, but not so rigid so you end up gripping the steering wheel tightly with terror. It makes sense, as the ZS was designed for the touring car championship, with the 180 becoming part of MG's XPower division, competing in touring car races across the land. You can feel the racing sensibilities throughout the car- the gearshift is quick and slippery, almost as if the gears are being switched by a greased python, while the car stays planted through nearly every corner, taking it in its stride.
After almost a whole morning and afternoon of hooning about, I finally had to get out, and deliver the verdict..
MG ZS 180: the verdict
The ZS 180 is pure, unfiltered fun. And it wasn't manufactured to be that way or engineered to masquerade as a stripped-down racer- it's that way because it was done on a shoestring budget. This car equals any hot hatchback or small sports saloon from a similar time in terms of pure fun and power. It came into battle with almost nothing, and it represents a dying brand breathing its last few breaths. The ZS 180 is a true underdog that truly shows the competition what it's made of. And that's all I'll say on it.
And that's a wrap! Thanks so much for reading, I really appreciate it. Cheers, and I'll see you in the next article!