BACK TO THE FUTURE’ CLASSICS OF THE LAST 30 YEARS
Kim Henson extolls the virtues of another ‘modern classic’ from the three decades that have passed under our wheels since the Western Group of Motoring Writers was born. In my series of 12 features entitled ‘Back to the Future Classics’, and appearing on our Western Group’s website throughout 2013, I am writing about a variety of different models, all held in high regard when they were first introduced, and since. This is my own selection, and while it cannot hope to include all worthy contenders, nevertheless it is intended to represent “12 of the most significant future classics launched in that time”.
In July 2001, together with fellow motoring writers from far and wide, I was in Cardiff, attending the worldwide press launch of MG’s new ‘Z’ cars.
In truth, as ar as some journalists were concerned, the prospects didn’t sound too exciting, with the launch introducing three new cars based on contemporary Rover models, which were probably best described as ‘worthy yet unexceptional’.
However, the MG Rover team was confident that the world’s motoring press – and car buyers – would be impressed by the newcomers. The emphasis was on sportiness throughout – to the extent that the company’s contemporary promotion fell foul of the Advertising Standards Authority because it was said to promote ‘excessive speed’…
In fact the new cars were re-engineered versions of existing Rover hatchbacks and saloons, specifically developed to provide greater visual appeal and – more importantly – uncompromisingly to be fun to drive too. The three new MGs were endowed with excellent performance potential and with sports suspension set up for good handling handling and driver enjoyment – as opposed to an emphasis on ride comfort, as with the original Rover versions.
This approach upheld the long tradition of MGs being sporting vehicles derived from ‘everyday’ models.
At the time MG Rover was struggling and the new cars were seen as a vitally important step along the road to gaining new buyers, and long-term survival.
When the ‘Z’ cars were launched, MG was already selling the MGF two seater sports car (soon to be replaced by the updated TF). Therefore the addition of three new saloon/hatchback models (size-wise, all in different market segments) to the line-up was a very positive step to broaden the appeal of the brand.
ZR, ZS, ZT
The new models were all developed from existing platforms in the Rover line-up, so the ZR was based on the 25 hatchback, the ZS had its origins in the four door 45 saloon (originally a Honda-derived design), and the much larger ZT four door saloon (or five door ZT-T estate) was built on the underpinnings of the much acclaimed Rover 75.
All the newcomers were offered in a range of bright new colours, and all were enhanced by bodywork changes that included distinctive new MG grilles, plus the addition of spoilers and side skirts. In combination with a lower ride height, due to the modified/lowered sports suspension, plus the standard fitting of good-looking aluminium alloy sports wheels, this gave all the newcomers a dynamic, eye-catching new appearance, compared with the more staid models on which they were based.
The inside story was a revelation too; the traditional Rover ‘comfort’ approach to interior design was dropped in favour of sporty ‘Technical’ finishes. All the same, some commentators still felt that the ZR and ZS interiors were a little ‘dated’.
Additional standard equipment was found in all variants with a ‘+’ suffix in the model designation (thus ZR+, ZS+, ZT+).
Pricing was deliberately highly competitive across the board, so that the new line-up offered remarkably good value for money.
The entry level ZR (above right) was the 105, powered by Rover’s 1.4 litre K Series twin overhead camshaft engine, developing 101 bhp and priced at £9,995 (in three door form). A 115 bhp, 1.8 litre ‘120’ version was also offered (with or without ‘Stepspeed’ sequential CVT transmission), as well as sprightly and particularly frugal 99 bhp 2.0 litre turbo diesel variants (111 bhp versions were also developed). Topping the tree in performance and price was the ZR 160, featuring Rover’s 1.8 litre ‘VVC’ engine (with variable valve timing), providing 158 bhp and costing £14,345 in three door guise, rising to £14,845 for the five door.
For all versions customers could choose between three or five door hatchback body shells.
The MG Express, based on the ZR and in effect a ‘hot hatch van’, arrived in 2003.
The ZR was facelifted in 2004, the revised version being identifiable by a fresh approach to the bumpers, lights and interior. New, high specification Trophy and Trophy SE versions were also now offered.
The ZS line-up started with the 120, again featuring the 1.8 litre K Series power unit, and with optional Stepspeed transmission. By contrast the ZS 180 (right) was endowed with Rover’s compact 2.5 litre V6 engine (KV6), delivering 175 bhp. Four door saloon and five door hatchback variants were offered; the hatchbacks were cheaper, at between £12,495 (ZS 120) and £15,595 (ZS 180), compared with the saloons, costing between £13,295 and £16,395.
During 2002, fuel-efficient 99 bhp, 2.0 litre turbo diesel versions of the ZS arrived, and the ZS range was updated in 2004, with exterior changes and interior upgrades. New variants included the ZS 110 (1.6 litre, 107 bhp) and the TD 115 (2.0 litre turbo diesel, 111 bhp).
The largest model of the bunch was the ZT, sold in 160 and 190 form, both being equipped with the 2.5 litre V6 engine, producing 158 bhp or 188 bhp respectively. Customers could choose between a four door saloon version and a five door estate (designated ZT-T). Launch prices started from £18,595.
During 2002 a new ZT 180 Sports model was introduced, providing 175 bhp, and the ZT 2.0 litre CDTi, producing 114 bhp. From October the same year, customers could opt for the ZT 135 2.0 CDTI, giving 129 bhp.
In 2003, the amazing ZT 260 arrived, powered by a 4.6 litre Ford Mustang engine mounted ‘longitudinally’, and the whole vehicle was re-engineered from front to rear wheel drive. This machine was identifiable from the rear by its quadruple exhaust outlets
The range was facelifted in 2004.
ON THE ROAD
The dynamic competency of these models can still come as a surprising revelation (especially to sceptics), and this applied even at the launch.
Some of the most cynical motoring writers of the time were converted by unusually comprehensive test drives that included demanding mountain roads in the Brecon Beacons, motorway and fast dual carriageway sections, plus a demanding session on the Pembrey race circuit. It should be noted that the examples available for testing in Wales on the launch were the range-toppers – ZR 160, ZS 180 and ZT 190.
The ZR 160 was praised by the press and buying public for its nimble handling, rapid acceleration (zero to 60 mph in under 7.5 seconds) and incessant eagerness. With maximum power being delivered at 6,900 rpm (tachometer red line at 7,100 rpm), it has always been a car that thrives on revs and progress can be very rapid if maximum use is made of the lower gears. It was also capable of over 130 mph.
The car was relatively economical too, with an official ‘Combined’ mpg figure of 37.6.
My own notes made in 2001 especially praise the car’s handling, which I found was “Predictable, sure-footed and virtually roll-free”. I also liked the slick-acting gearchange, and the car’s eagerness to perform. Although it was an extremely rewarding car to drive at high revs, I also noted that the engine was very flexible, pulling strongly from around 1,500 rpm, when required.
On the downside, the ride quality is fairly firm (with the low profile tyres aiding responsiveness at the expense of comfort) and overall the model is undeniably low-geared, so at 70 mph the engine is spinning at a ‘busy’ 3,500 rpm, and progress at this speed is hardly relaxing.
Although ultimately not as fast as the 160, the less powerful versions of the ZR should not be ignored. They are still fun to drive, providing sporty performance and hatchback versatility. The diesels are especially torquey at low engine speeds, and easily capable of returning better than 50 mpg in real life use.
The ZR was introduced with the young at heart in mind, and when the cars were new, the model found many homes with people new to the Rover brand. Indeed at one stage the MG ZR was the best-selling of all the Rover models.
The ZS was (and remains) the wild card in the pack, and for many people the one which impressed most, possibly because expectations were not that great. Those expecting a mildly tuned 45 were in for a big surprise (especially when driving the ZS 180). For the ZS was a fast yet comfortable sporting saloon with forgiving, positive handling characteristics that were developed on the track. In fact this model was widely judged to be one of the best handling sporting saloons of its era.
Even when driving on twisting mountainous roads in a downpour, the car was rewarding to drive, yet felt reassuringly steady and safe. On the Pembrey race circuit its credentials impressed even more.
Overall gearing is higher than in the ZR 160 – just 3,000 rpm is required at 70 mph, and at that speed the V6 just purrs. At lower speeds, when accelerating through the gears, the superb exhaust note of the V6 engine – sporty but not intrusive – has to be heard to be fully appreciated.
For the record, the ZS 180 would scoot from a standstill to 60 mph in 7.3 seconds, its top speed was 139 mph, and it had a ‘Combined’ consumption figure of 29.7 mpg..
My notes made in 2001 remind me that I found the car very easy to drive, with the exception of reversing, when the huge rear spoiler became particularly intrusive to visibility, and a real nuisance. Interestingly, if they wished, buyers could optionally specify a smaller spoiler… To be fair, the original large spoiler was said to be instrumental in helping to keep the rear of the car ‘glued’ to the road during sporty driving.
Again, the lower-powered versions of the ZS are still enjoyable, and although not as fast as the 180, are still fun to drive, as well as being a great deal more economical on fuel (especially the diesels).
The ZT is a large car, and is a fast, comfortable cruiser. Considering the car’s size (especially when compared with the ZR and ZS) it handles extremely well, too. Some 12 years down the line from the model’s launch, a good example can still make a highly effective family express.
My 2001 notes highlight the model’s comprehensive equipment, a reasonably supple ride quality and impeccable long-distance high speed motoring capabilities.
The ZT 190 could reaching 60 mph from a standing start in 7.8 seconds, on its way to top speed ofover 140 mph. The ‘Combined’ fuel consumption of 28.7 mpg was considered good for this car’s size and performance potential.
END OF THE LINE
Despite these cars’ many good qualities, and their popularity with buyers, Rover’s problems were just too great and too many for the company to continue trading after the spring of 2005. So production of these fascinating and short-lived MG ‘Z’ models ceased, much to the disappointment and sadness of enthusiasts.
MG’s ‘Z’ models are still under-rated by some. However, these boldly-styled cars remain exciting to drive, especially by comparison with the Rovers on which they were based.
They were never perfect cars; in particular the ‘K’ Series and ‘KV6’ Series engines are known to have problems – especially with regard to the original cylinder head gasket arrangements. However, these can be overcome by using upgraded components.
Interest in surviving examples of these individualistic models is increasing; the cars are becoming increasingly revered and sought-after.