MG are renowned for building enduringly popular, nippy little sports cars. Rover on the other hand have always had somewhat of a geriatric reputation in terms of the vehicles they produce and it’s fair to say that the word ‘sporting’ doesn’t immediately spring to mind when discussing the marque. So, when it was announced in 2000 that a performance-oriented version of Rover’s refined but rather flaccid 75 saloon would be produced by the newly formed MG Rover company (along with similar versions for all cars in the range) scepticism ran rife.
MG Rover was created in May of that year following the famous £10 buyout of what was essentially the remnants of the original Rover Group by those Phoenix Consortium lot. BMW meanwhile had promptly made like Elvis and left the building after selling everything that wasn’t nailed down and so the top brass at MG Rover, in what many saw as a last hoorah for the British company, had the idea of creating a line of sporting ‘Z’ cars based on the existing Rover catalogue. Ultimately, however, it turned out to be one of their better decisions.
Reminiscent of the Montego turbo in the 80s, MG Rover took the standard 75 and free from BMW’s previous orders not to make sporting saloons, reworked the car, albeit with a limited budget and timeframe. The design remained ostensibly the same with only the addition of a new bumper and grill, trim pieces, boot spoiler and beefier wheels and low-profile tyres to differentiate it from its donor, whilst the interior was updated with new leather and alcantara seats, dash and gauges. The bulk of the improvements were saved for the mechanicals with the suspension and brakes receiving an overhaul and a choice of engines ranging from the standard Rover 75 lumps through to the tuned 190 V6, peaking with a quite frankly ludicrous V8 offered in the ZT 260. So how did it all go down?
AN INTRODUCTION TO THE MG ZT
British automotive design legend Peter Stevens was handed the crayons and appointed design director at MG Rover, becoming responsible for creating this new performance range of cars. Stevens certainly knew his onions when it came to car design, famously penning the lines of the McLaren F1 and so with not enough money and a deadline of yesterday he set to work alongside product development director Rob Oldaker and a dedicated team in what was basically an exercise in survival for the company, hoping to entice investors to open their wallets.
The ZT and ZT-T estate were launched simultaneously in 2001 with the same 2.5-litre, KV6 engine found in the 75 in either detuned 160bhp form or juiced-up 190bhp flavour which benefited from tweaked camshafts as well as intake and throttle improvements. The car looked the part too, eschewing the understated lines of the 75 for a more aggressive look – not an easy task considering what they had to work with. Repurposing the 75 into a performance machine must have been akin to ice skating uphill but the results speak for themselves and the project was a success, especially in the handling department – the ZT is responsive and stable when cornering and possesses oodles of grip. Other engine options were introduced over the car’s lifespan including a 1.8-litre petrol (in both naturally aspirated and turbo form) and a 2.0-litre diesel but save for the later, aforementioned 260bhp V8 available in the 2003 rear-wheel-drive ZT260 none of the engines are particularly pant-wetting in the grand scheme with the ZT190 dispatching 60mph from standstill in 7.8 seconds. They are, however, refined, smooth and lively enough and have a broad appeal with a choice of manual or automatic transmissions. The final amendments came in 2004 in the form of a facelift that nobody really cared about which, for all intents and purposes, merely changed the appearance of the front end.
Overall, it’s a good car. Great in fact. Humble pie was dished up in spades and the ZT was well-received by the public and motoring press alike. Sadly, it was too little, too late for MG Rover and by 2005, with no hope of foreign investment, the party was well and truly over for both the ZT and the company that created it.
WHAT SHOULD I LOOK OUT FOR?
The bodywork holds up pretty well but that’s not to say these cars are impervious to rust as they’re getting a little long in the tooth now. Areas to scrutinise include the sills and inside the wheel arches where crud can get stuck and fester. Earlier cars tend to be better built as post-2003 ZTs fell afoul of MG Rover’s ‘Project Drive’ cost-cutting exercise and as such were impacted negatively. Water can also get into the cabin due to the three plenum drain holes becoming blocked which will result in a rather soggy ECU, which is bad. Obviously.
V6 engines are robust but drive belt replacement is a giant pain so make sure there is evidence of renewal if applicable (documented as every 90,000 miles or six years). The 1.8-litre engines have a measly coolant capacity so even the smallest of leaks can lead to overheating and head gasket issues so conduct the usual checks; mayonnaise in the oil filler cap, smoky exhaust etc.
Suspension problems can be an issue as the rear trailing arms tend to rot so get underneath the car for a proper inspection. Also check the front coil springs as these have been known to rust through and snap.
Interiors generally wear well and build quality is decent but electrical gremlins can rear their head so check everything works as it should. There are plenty of rough, neglected examples out there which will be obvious when looking at things like interior condition, tyre wear patterns and service history.
WHAT ARE PRICES LIKE?
Prices went through the floor after the demise of MG Rover and many were used as daily bangers, but they are now on the up and even though you can still pick up a dog for less than a grand, good examples can be found for around £2000. For a ZT in top condition aim to budget £3-5K.
Expect to pay more for the silky smooth, V6-engined cars but the 1.8 turbo is only slightly slower than the 190 whilst returning better fuel economy. Fancy flip paint and the higher ‘+’ and ‘SE’ trim levels that included climate control and electric rear windows will also jack the price up so bear that in mind. The 260 V8 is a different kettle of fish entirely and is still top of the pile with prices dipping into five figures. Justified? We think so. It’s a beast.
Servicing and running costs remain low but as mentioned earlier, a labour-intensive drive belt replacement can really bump up the cost of a garage visit. On the whole, prices will continue to rise so bag a bargain now while you can.
WHY SHOULD I BUY ONE?
Because it’s a bit of a performance steal, provided it has the right engine of course. More than just a 75 in Nike trainers and a fresh haircut the ZT is cheap, practical, reliable and looks good to boot with a choice of engines, gearboxes and trim levels to suit everyone’s driving style and budget. There is also great support as ever from The MG Owners’ Club. It might not be the fastest saloon car in the world but it’s a rewarding drive thanks to its impressive chassis and handling characteristics. Besides, if you want true excitement then there’s always the 260 in all its mad, V8, sideways glory.
Not only has the MG ZT already cemented its status as a future classic in our eyes, it’s also part of domestic motoring history, a swan song, the last vestiges of a truly British institution.