You’re looking at Australia’s best-selling small SUV – or at least, part of the best-selling range of small SUVs on offer in Australia.
The MG ZST wears a unique badge, but it’s essentially a heavily-updated version of the ZS that’s been sold in Australia since 2018 – but with more power, more equipment, and a more stylish design. It’s longer and taller, and its structure has been made stiffer to boot.
Four variants are sold Down Under, the most expensive of which is on test here. It looks good, too.
Although it’s still sharply-priced, the 2022 MG ZST Essence isn’t designed to sell purely on price. It’s designed to be alluring from the outside, and win people over with its polished drive.
Given it goes head-to-head with strong sellers such as the Hyundai Kona, Kia Seltos and Mitsubishi ASX, and has fresh competition from the Haval Jolion in the budget-oriented compact crossover world, that’s not a simple task.
As it turns out, the ZST is mostly up to it.
How much does the MG ZST Essence cost?
Pricing for the ZST kicks off at $25,490 drive-away, but the Essence on test is priced at $33,490 drive-away.
At $33,490 drive-away, the Essence goes head-to-head with established players such as the Kia Seltos Sport with Safety Pack ($33,790 drive-away), Hyundai Kona Elite ($31,600 before on-roads), and Mazda CX-30 G20 Evolve ($31,990 before on-roads).
It also takes on the Haval Jolion Ultra ($32,990 drive-away), which comes similarly loaded with equipment and packs turbo power.
2022 MG ZST pricing:
- MG ZST Core: $25,490
- MG ZST Vibe: $27,490
- MG ZST Excite: $30,490
- MG ZST Essence: $33,490
All prices are drive-away.
What do you get?
The range-topping MG ZST Essence features the following:
- Unique 17-inch alloy wheels
- Panoramic sunroof
- Digital instrument cluster
- Embossed MG logo on headrests
- Heated front seats
- Six-way power driver’s seat
That’s atop the following standard features elsewhere in the ZST range:
- 10.1-inch touchscreen infotainment display
- Wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto
- Satellite navigation
- Rain-sensing wipers
- Automatic headlights
- Automatic high-beam
- LED headlights and tail lights
- Leather-wrapped steering wheel
- Keyless entry and start
- Rain-sensing wipers
- Six-speaker sound system
- Front fog lights
- Leatherette upholstery
Is the MG ZST Essence safe?
The ZST hasn’t been crash tested by ANCAP or Euro NCAP, but the ZS on which it’s based has a four-star rating from testing carried out in 2017.
It’s worth mentioning though the ZS EV, which also features the same suite of active safety technology as the ZST, scored a five-star rating based on testing carried out in 2019.
Standard safety equipment on all ZST models includes:
- Autonomous emergency braking
- Blind-spot monitoring
- Rear cross-traffic alert
- Lane-keep assist
- Lane departure warning
- Adaptive cruise control
- Traffic Jam Assist
- Surround-view cameras
What is the MG ZST Essence like on the inside?
There’s plenty of sizzle for your $33,490 behind the wheel, that’s for sure.
The ZST cabin is neatly laid out and features plenty of interesting touches, led in the Essence by the MG crest embossed on the headrests. The steering wheel has been lifted from the Mk6 VW Golf GTI parts bin, and the big screen in the middle of the dashboard looks high-end.
There’s plenty of soft touch plastic on the dashboard, and plenty of red contrast stitching.
It doesn’t necessarily all feel as good as it looks, though. The leatherette is scalding hot if the car’s been left in the sun, even by the standards we expect in Australian summer, thanks in part to the flimsy sliding sunroof cover.
The driving position leaves a bit to be desired for longer-legged people. While William Stopford loved them, their short bases and tilted-down angle meant I never felt particular well supported. It’s a shame, because they’re otherwise well bolstered, and offer a decent amount of backrest adjustment.
It’s a shame the steering wheel doesn’t adjust for reach to further tailor things. It’s a common complaint with lower-end Chinese models (we’re looking at you too, Haval) and something rivals have offered for years now.
The infotainment technology is good, but not great. The central touchscreen has bright graphics, but its cameras are grainy and its responses to inputs are slow compared to what we’ve come to expect from rivals.
Apple CarPlay looks good and is snappy enough, but MG has some work to do on the technology front if it’s to mix it with the best. It’s also hard to see in direct sunlight, and then sometimes too bright in dark conditions.
The digital instrument binnacle is exclusive to the ZST Essence, and offers just the right amount of information. It’s sharp to look at, and does a good job elevating the cabin above what’s offered elsewhere in the class – although built-in maps would add a touch of Volkswagen-style class to the system.
Storage is good around the cabin, from the space under the dashboard to the cupholders, door pockets, under-arm bin, and glovebox. You get two USB-A ports up front, but unfortunately no wireless phone charging.
Rear seat space is excellent relative to similarly-priced alternatives, with space for adults behind regular-sized adults in the outboard seats. Headroom is good despite the sunroof, and there’s plenty of legroom – although the lack of air vents is a missed opportunity, and could be exacerbated by the hot seat trim and flimsy sunroof cover in summer.
Although it can make the cabin feel like an oven, that oversized sunroof does feel properly premium. It floods the cabin with light on grey days, and opens nice and wide when you want to let more of the outside in.
There’s also no fold-down central armrest, nor a central rear headrest. That’s good for visibility, but not great if you plan to use the seat regularly. The USB charge ports are handy, however.
Boot space is impressive. You get a claimed 395 litres of luggage space with the rear seats in place, expanding to 1187L with them folded flat.
It’s a broad, deep space with room for golf clubs, and the inclusion of a space saver spare is handy if you’re venturing out of town.
What’s under the bonnet?
The MG ZST Excite and Essence are powered by a 1.3-litre turbocharged three-cylinder petrol engine with 115kW of power and 230Nm of torque, sent through the front wheels through a six-speed torque converter automatic.
Claimed fuel economy is 7.1 litres per 100km on the combined cycle, but we saw 8.5L/100km in the real world.
Unlike the entry-level car and its naturally-aspirated engine, the 1.3T in the Essence drinks more expensive 95 RON premium unleaded fuel. It has a 45L fuel tank.
How does the MG ZST Essence drive?
The red brake calipers, Trophy badging, and GTI steering wheel all give the impression the ZST has some sporting intent. Although it’s not a sports car, the engine goes some way to backing up that impression.
It’s a punchy little thing, with a distinct three-cylinder growl and plenty of mid-range punch when you’re in a hurry. There’s a hint of turbo lag off the mark, forcing you to wait a beat after leaning on the accelerator off the mark, but once it’s up and running the ZST has a bit to offer.
The engine is relatively smooth and quiet when you aren’t in a hurry, with no awkward or unseemly vibrations sneaking into the cabin, and it’s mated to a six-speed auto that shuffles unobtrusively through the gears.
Vision out is excellent in every direction, and smaller drivers will enjoy what’s quite a commanding driving position. Combined with light steering, the all-round vision makes the ZST feel at home in the confines of the city. It’s a shame the rear-view camera is a bit ropey, because it’s the only part of the package that saps your confidence.
Ride quality is decent, albeit not standout. The ZST soaks up bigger bumps with aplomb, and doesn’t feel harsh over potholes or expansion joints. It feels more grown up than some of its small SUV rivals on big wheels, which is a big tick for MG.
The car is a relaxed highway cruiser, with impressive noise suppression at 100km/h and a planted big-car feel.
Its handling is acceptable, but again not standout. The steering is a bit vague around centre, and the way the body rolls around the outside front tyre makes the car feel a bit ponderous if you turn into a corner too quickly.
Although the Michelin tyres are quality items, this isn’t a sports car, nor is it among the sportier SUVs on offer around this price.
As is the case inside, the technology in the MG lets it down somewhat on the road. For starters, the lane-keep assist is constantly bonging and binging at you as it de/activates based on your speed, and the “Lane Keep Quit” message shows up on the digital dashboard far more often than it should.
It’s not the smoothest system in the world, and even in its least sensitive setting feels too keen to take the reins.
The adaptive cruise is better, smoothly maintaining a gap with the car in front and sticking closely to your set speed if there’s nothing around to follow… but the fact it bongs every time you take charge by pressing the brake is annoying.
Some more refining is still required when it comes to MG Pilot.
How much does the MG ZST Essence cost to run?
The MG ZST is backed by a seven-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty, with seven years of roadside assist.
Servicing is required every 12 months or 10,000km, whichever comes first. Some rivals offer longer 15,000km intervals, although turbocharged versions of the Hyundai Kona and Kia Seltos both have the same 10,000km requirement.
Five years of servicing in the 1.3-litre costs $1566 using the MG Australia capped-price service plan.
CarExpert’s Take on the MG ZST Essence
It’s not hard to see why the ZST is such a strong seller in Australia.
It’s not perfect, but the Essence has more than just its price going for it. In fact, its price could be considered a weakness.
The turbocharged engine is gruff but punchy, the interior is spacious, and its seven-year warranty offers a degree of security very few rivals can match.
I don’t know the Essence is the ZST to buy, though. The sunroof turns the cabin into a greenhouse in summer, and the rest of its inclusions are nice-to-haves rather than essentials. The sweaty vinyl seats, slow infotainment, and average driving position don’t feel all that range-topping to my eyes… or should that be arse?
Although it’s a good car on its merits, sharp pricing is still a part of the ZST’s appeal. Saving $3000 and opting for the Excite might just make that appeal stronger.
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