Interested in an MG ZST ESSENCE?
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    Pros
    • Still affordable, even if prices are up
    • Long warranty
    • Good packaging for its size
    Cons
    • Media screen menus are fiddly
    • Not the best small SUV to drive
    • No current ANCAP rating
    Specs
    7.3L
    115kW
    162g
    Not tested

    The small SUV segment is constantly evolving, and brands cannot risk standing still in light of an ever-expanding list of competitors.

    There have been new small SUVs launched by new brands, such as a striking looking Chery Omoda 5, which also has a pretty eye-catching price-tag. The GWM Haval Jolion is also making a big name for itself in the small SUV segment, with thousands of sales this year so far. 

    Another small SUV that catches plenty of eyes is the one tested here, also from China, and its pricing has just been adjusted as well.

    The biggest-selling small SUV on the market is the MG ZS, which also includes the ZST on test as well as the ZS EV electric version. So far in 2023, the ZS line-up has accounted for a staggering 9823 sales (to the end of May), which equates to 18.9 per cent of the small SUV market.

    It must be doing something right, then? Let’s go over that in this review.

    How does the MG ZST fare vs its competitors?
    View a detailed breakdown of the MG ZST against similarly sized vehicles.

    How much does the MG ZST Essence cost?

    The 2023 MG ZST Essence is the top-spec model in the affordable small SUV range, at $34,990 drive-away.

    So, $35K for a small SUV seems like about the kind of money you’d expect to pay for say, a one-up from base model. But that’s the cost for this top-spec version, and it includes on-road costs.

    Easy to see why this car is popular, even if it has just copped a price hike ($1000-2000) due to increased shipping and handling costs.

    What could you get if you were shopping around that sort of price and wanted a different small SUV? It’s a long list, but here are some of the standouts.

    If it was my money, I’d be getting my backside to a Volkswagen dealership and driving home in a T-Cross 85TSI Life, which you can get for $33,490 drive-away at the time of writing. It’s a cleverly packaged tiny little SUV with a sliding second-row seat, a great turbocharged engine and it’s a lovely, enjoyable thing to drive – unlike the other rivals on this list.

    The Chery Omoda 5 mightn’t be a great thing to drive, but it has a heap of standard gear, technology and five-star safety too. So it seems to look pretty enticing from $32,990 drive-away for the entry-level BX.

    And yes you can get a heck of a lot of GWM Haval Jolion for this kind of money. The Lux Hybrid or the ‘sportier’ S grade will set you back $36,990 drive-away, and they have the same five-star safety kit and lots of tech and spec inside. Again – could be better to drive.

    A high-spec Mitsubishi ASX also falls into the “it could be better to drive” category, but it is a tried-and-tested offering, and you’ll get the sporty looking GSR version with the better 2.4L engine for about $35,240 drive-away according to the Mitsubishi wesbite at the time of writing.

    When it comes to colour choices, the very eye-catching Horizon Orange Metallic seen in these images is a $700 option, as are Brighton Blue Metallic, Diamond Red Metallic and Sloane Silver Metallic. Only Pebble Black and York White are no-cost options.

    2023 MG ZST pricing

    • MG ZST Core: $26,990 (+$1000)
    • MG ZST Vibe: $28,990 (+$1000)
    • MG ZST Excite $32,990 (+$2000)
    • MG ZST Essence: $34,990 (+$1000)

    Prices are drive-away

    What is the MG ZST Essence like on the inside?

    Inside, the ZST Essence feels pretty nice – it’s understandable why you’d feel wowed by this cabin if you’re cross-shopping it against an ASX, for example.

    The fake leather trim is very clearly not made of cowhide, but the trim is well put together, there’s red stitching through the cabin to tie it all together, and there’s a nice textured finish across the dashboard as well.

    The steering wheel has a pretty hard leather-like finish on it, though the buttons are easy enough to get the jist of, including the fact that the blinker and wiper stalks are ‘back to front’ and the cruise control stalk requires a bit of practice.

    But annoyingly, the steering wheel isn’t offered with reach adjustment, so some drivers mightn’t be able to get properly comfortable – I wish I could pull the steering wheel toward me a bit so I could sit in a more comfortable position for my legs, for example.

    Cabin storage is good, and incorporates a pair of cupholders between the front seats, a small storage tray behind them and in front of the shifter, a covered centre console bin and big door pockets with bottle holders, too.

    Unlike in the Jolion or even the ZS EV, there’s a regular ‘stick’ style gear selector, and there’s an electric park brake and auto-hold button too.

    As for the media system, it could be better. Sure, it’s a big bright screen and it looks pretty tidy when you’re using Apple CarPlay, but there’s a heap of stuff seemingly hidden behind menus – like, you have to go through the screen to operate the seat heater controls in the Essence grade. 

    Further to that, I had a couple of instances of the screen blanking out, particularly while adjusting things in the climate control menus. 

    But thankfully there are climate control and fan toggles in the row of buttons under the screen, as well as the front and rear demister buttons, plus there’s also a volume toggle and a home button in that section – however, you must use the screen for recirculation A/C (annoying if you do a lot of highway driving).

    The huge panoramic sunroof features an opening front half and large fixed rear glass section that goes all the way back over the rear headrests, and it adds a lot of wow factor in the cabin.

    But if you’re a parent, you might find it annoying that it comes at the expense of rear lighting, which can make it a bit of a task when getting a child in or out of their seat at night – and the interior lighting otherwise is dull halogen stuff.

    As for second-row occupant space, I could fit easily enough behind my own driving position (at 182cm or 6’0”), and I had enough leg, toe and head room so as not to feel cramped, which is impressive in a small SUV like this. Three adults across would be possible, but maybe not comfortable. 

    Parents will be happy with the outboard ISOFIX points and three top-tether hooks, and the doors open pretty wide as well, making easy work of loading children into and out of their seats.

    As for boot capacity, the luggage space is pretty big for a little SUV like this. MG claims the figure is 359 litres, but it looks bigger than that when you lower the boot floor to its lower position. 

    Under the boot floor there’s a space-saver spare wheel, and at the sides of the cargo zone there are netted sections for additional semi-stable/secure storage. A good spot for the bread or milk – stops it flying across the boot area.

    What’s under the bonnet?

    It used to be that the “T” in “ZST” meant you got the turbo engine; but that changed a while ago because the brand wanted to offer a broader range of variants so there’s non-turbo entry grades that have arrived since launch.

    As such, the more expensive versions of the MG ZST line-up – the Excite and Essence – are powered by a 1.3-litre turbocharged three-cylinder petrol engine with 115kW of power and 230Nm of torque.

    Both make use of a six-speed automatic gearbox (a torque-converter unit, not a DCT or CVT) and send grunt to the ground via the front wheels.

    The cheaper Core and Vibe models have a less impressive 1.5-litre non-turbo four-cylinder engine making 84kW of power and 150Nm of torque. Those versions use a CVT automatic transmission and are also front-wheel drive.

    How does the MG ZST Essence drive?

    It isn’t the best small SUV to drive, but it’s not really supposed to be, either.

    I don’t know many people who are shopping for a little high-rider like this who are prioritising driving dynamics and engine outputs as their key decision makers. There are a lot of $35K-ish options out there that would be able to tick that box, with that said.

    This is a budget-focused SUV, but in my opinion it still drives better than its fellow (and newer) Chinese compact crossover compatriots: the GWM Haval Jolion and Chery Omoda 5. To sum it in one fell swoop, I’d say the drive experience is fine – not overly special, but not diabolical either.

    The engine is pretty decent in most situations, with a thrummy character and suitable responsiveness at urban and open road speeds. It’s definitely perky enough, and feels like it does its best work below 80km/h, whereas at higher speeds if you need sudden acceleration you might find the engine can feel a bit breathless.

    The fact it has a conventional six-speed automatic transmission makes it a lot easier to live with than the DCT and CVT offerings mentioned above, and it is a far more predictable and simple transmission in terms of shifting and moving between drive and reverse while parking.

    It did have a bit of an annoying tendency to jostle between fifth and sixth gears under even throttle at 110km/h or so, though.

    Ride comfort is fairly suitable for most situations – I drove it over urban, highway, back road, freeway and even some chopped up country patches, and the suspension did a good enough job of keeping the occupants in their seats without being too bumped around. 

    However, I will say that the rear suspension does have a bit of a tendency to rebound pretty abruptly when encountering sharp edges, and it is a bit bouncier generally at lower speeds than it is at highway pace.

    The steering is okay, too – not too heavy, not too light. It’s predictable enough at all speeds in terms of the reactiveness you’re going to get, and unlike say, a Hyundai Venue, it doesn’t have that annoying tendency to get a lot heavier when you’re doing slow-speed moves.

    There might be a way to turn it off permanently, but I found the surround-view low-speed camera system could be a tad interruptive to the drive experience. Essentially; at lower speeds it’ll switch the cameras on to show you your surroundings on the screen.

    That’s okay, except when you’re, say, listening to a song or podcast and you want to hear what was just said, or if you’re in unfamiliar territory and you need to see what the next instruction is on the sat nav or via your smartphone maps, then it tends to be a bit of a bugbear. You can hit the little 360° button down near the gear selector.

    What do you get?

    ZST Core highlights:

    • 10.1-inch touchscreen infotainment display
    • Wired Apple CarPlay, Android Auto
    • 4-speaker audio system
    • Bluetooth
    • 1 x 12V charger
    • 2 x USB ports in first row
    • 2 x USB ports in second row
    • Fabric seats
    • 17-inch alloy wheels
    • Keyless entry and push button start
    • Rear parking sensors
    • 360-degree cameras
    • Automatic headlights
    • Adaptive cruise control
    • 60/40 split folding rear seats

    ZST Vibe adds:

    • Rain-sensing wipers
    • 6-speaker sound system
    • Satellite navigation
    • Front fog lights
    • 17-inch two-tone alloy wheels
    • Leatherette upholstery

    ZST Excite adds:

    • 1.3T engine
    • Red brake calipers
    • Gloss black exterior highlights
      • Black door mirrors with integrated turn signals
      • Black side sill extensions and rear diffuser
      • High-gloss black grille

    MG ZST Essence adds:

    • Panoramic sunroof
    • Model-specific 17-inch alloy wheels
    • Digital instrument cluster
    • Embossed MG logo on headrests
    • Heated front seats
    • 6-way power driver’s seat

    Hopefully that helps you decide if the top-spec model is worth the money.

    Is the MG ZST Essence safe?

    There is no current ANCAP safety rating for the ZST.

    The older-generation MG ZS had a four-star rating based on 2017 testing, but that version didn’t feature the standard safety tech on offer as part of the MG Pilot suite, standard on all ZST models.

    As such, there’s no applicable breakdown on crash protection scores and safety performance for the petrol ZST model but the pre-facelift ZS EV – which has largely the same tech included – scored five stars in ANCAP testing in 2019. Confused? Sorry.

     Standard safety features include:

    • 6 airbags
    • Adaptive cruise control incl. intelligent cruise assist
    • AEB incl. Pedestrian, Cyclist detection
    • Blind-spot monitoring
    • Forward collision alert
    • Lane departure warning
    • Lane keep assist
    • Rear cross-traffic alert
    • Surround-view camera
    • Traffic sign recognition

    How much does the MG ZST Essence cost to run?

    All MG models are covered by a seven-year, unlimited kilometre warranty, and roadside assistance is also included for the duration of the warranty plan, at no extra cost.

    Service intervals are short at 12 months or 10,000km, whichever occurs first, and while there is seven years/70,000km of capped-price servicing available.

    The average cost per visit is about $325 for the Excite and Essence with the turbo engine, and $315 per service for the 1.5L non-turbo Core and Vibe. 

    What about fuel costs, then? The official combined cycle fuel consumption figure for entry-level 1.5L versions is 6.9 litres per 100km, and the 1.3L turbo models claim to use 7.3L/100km. Over my week with the turbo top-spec model, I saw a real-world return of 7.7L/100km across a few hundred kays of mixed driving.

    Fuel tank capacity for the 1.5L models is 48L, while turbo versions have a 45L tank. All versions can run on 91 RON regular unleaded petrol.

    CarExpert’s Take on the MG ZST Essence

    I think there are a few key reasons this car is selling so well.

    It’s affordable, offers really compelling value for money, has a lot of wow factor, a long warranty, and it looks pretty smart too.

    It could be better to drive – but that’s arguably not one of the main reasons someone is looking at a car like this. So, put that aside and you might be impressed with how well the ZST stacks up against its competition.

    I reckon I’d be able to do without spending this much on one, but I know from experience the turbo engine is better than the atmo base models.

    Click the images for the full gallery

    MORE: Everything MG ZST

    Matt Campbell
    Matt Campbell is a Senior Contributor at CarExpert.
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    7.7
    Overall Rating

    Cost of Ownership8
    Ride Comfort7.5
    Fit for Purpose9
    Handling Dynamics7
    Interior Practicality and Space8
    Fuel Efficiency7.5
    Value for Money8
    Performance8
    Technology Infotainment6.5
    Pricing
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