MG ZS EV – an electric car that won’t break the bank

Increasing concern over climate change makes the much-vaunted move to the electrification of our cars, and sooner rather than later, now almost inevitable.

The world’s car manufacturers are, therefore bringing new electric models to the market at an ever-increasing rate. Yet, for many people, they remain an unaffordable luxury, however much they may want to do the right thing for our planet. Until recently, the electric versions of cars have carried a massive price premium compared to their conventional petrol or diesel-powered brethren. Although operating costs should be considerably cheaper for electric power, that high initial purchase price remains a considerable barrier. Typically, few electric models have been available with a price tag of less than around £30,000. This is a difficult pill to swallow when petrol cars of similar performance and equipment are on the market for not much more than £10-£15,000.

However, in recent months, a new entrant into the electric car marketplace has emerged. That manufacturer offers a very well-equipped compact family electric model at a much more competitive price, starting at £22,500. The company in question is MG – a name once renowned for many decades for fun sports cars. Sadly, however, MG became less prominent due to the declining fortunes and eventual collapse of their parent company – initially British Leyland and later the Rover Group.

After Rover collapsed into Administration in 2005, the Chinese company SAIC bought some of Rover’s designs. The design rights to the then-current MG TF sportscar were sold to another Chinese firm, Nanjing Automobile Group. SAIC merged with Nanjing in 2007, and in 2008, assembly of a version of the TF was restarted at Longbridge in Birmingham, using kits of material from China.

The Longbridge factory commenced production of a mid-sized saloon, the MG6, in 2011, followed by a small hatchback, the MG3 in 2013, both again from Chinese kits of parts. Despite the very competitive pricing of the MG6 and MG3, UK sales were limited, and many people wondered whether the fledgeling MG business would survive. However, in 2015 the company announced a mid-sized SUV, the GS, followed in 2017 by a smaller SUV, the ZS. Again, sales were limited, however, in July 2019 an all-electric version of the ZS went on sale in Britain.

Hitting the market at a time when public attention was becoming focussed on green issues, the MG ZS EV comfortably undercut on price nearly all the electric cars then on sale. It nevertheless offered

a reasonable range of up to a claimed 163 miles on the latest WLTP test cycle from a 44.5kWh battery, together with an impressively high specification and an attractive 7-year-warranty.

Unsurprisingly, the ZS EV has begun to catch the eye of customers, helping MG to become the UK’s fastest-growing car manufacturer of 2019.

With a starting price of typically £5,000 less than similarly-specified competitors, it’s easy to dismiss the ZS EV as being unacceptably cheap and cheerful; however, this is far from the case.

Externally, the ZS features clean, fuss-free styling which belies its size. At just over 4.3m long it is almost the same length as, for example, the class-leading Volvo XC40. Granted, the doors may not close with quite the same clunk of solidity as those of the premium brands, but from the outside at least, there is little evidence that the ZS is built down to a price.

Internally, there is again little evidence of penny-pinching. Indeed the controls, for example, feel reassuringly solid, particularly the rotary metal control to select forward and reverse, which would not be out of place in an Audi. Indeed, the only noticeable example of cost-cutting is that the door trims are made mainly of hard plastic rather than the soft-trimmed items found on more upmarket brands. However, unless you are in the habit of fondling your door trims regularly, this is soon forgotten once aboard, although hard items such as spectacle cases can rattle around in the door bins at their base.

Almost Audi-like: this is the switch to select forward or reverse

The seats are quite supportive, and there is ample room for five passengers inside. The boot is a reasonable size and features a large hidden underfloor compartment with ample space not just for the necessary charging cables but plenty of other items besides. Dog owners may find the lip up from the boot floor to the tailgate sill makes it a little difficult for Fido to hop aboard, but the ZS is by no means unusual in that respect.

Full flat floor it ain’t, but the boot is nevertheless a decent size.

The controls are generally well-placed and easy to use, although the steering wheel can only be adjusted up-and-down, not fore-and-aft. The instruments are generally clear, and at first glance free from the weird and wonderful (and relatively meaningless to most of us) graphic displays of power distribution which other manufacturers feel obliged to provide. The speedometer is, however, flanked by a similar-sized dial which can easily be mistaken for a rev counter. This indicates the instantaneous power being used and which you can use as an economy meter to encourage a light right foot, should you so wish.

No, that’s not a rev-counter on the right – it just looks like one!

On powering up, the ZS occupants are treated to a cacophony of beats, bleeps and bongs as the car goes through its system checks, a time-consuming process although you can at least drive off while these checks are taking place. Again, nothing unusual as most electric cars do the same, albeit a bit quicker, except that the ZS seems determined to ensure that it alerts you to remove the key from the vehicle once you switch off, the alarm, persisting even when you are outside the car.

A decent infotainment system is fitted in the centre of the facia, featuring an 8″ colour screen incorporating satellite navigation, although this could be slow to boot up when selecting the navigation system. Still on the subject of the nav system, unusually for an electric model, there seemed to be no facility to identify the nearest charging stations. This means that having Zap-Map or a similar App on your smartphone is almost essential. Also rather unusually, there is no App for the car to let you set it charging, or preheat it, remotely.

The centre touch-screen: nice big “buttons” which are easy to hit on the move.

Electric cars – and hybrids for that matter – depend on brake energy recovery to maximise their range. It therefore makes sense to keep brake recovery set to the highest level if possible. Sensibly, the ZS EV defaults to this maximum setting every time it is powered up. Selection of lower levels of brake energy recovery is however simple, needing only a single switch press. In contrast, some other electric cars make you rummage through several levels of on-screen settings to find the right function.

The switch to select the brake recovery level can be found ready to hand at the bottom of the centre console. It is flanked by a similar switch which selects the desired level of performance – Eco, Normal or Sport. On most electric cars, performance in Eco mode is lethargic, to put it mildly, and best avoided. In the ZS, however, Eco mode provides unexpectedly spritely performance, resulting in it becoming the default setting for our test of the car. Even in Eco mode, care is needed to avoid spinning the front wheels when making an over-enthusiastic start.

On the road, the ZS EV performs well, as is now expected of electric cars, courtesy of the 350Nm of torque available from a standing start. The ride is perhaps a touch on the firm side, but both this and the car’s handling are more than acceptable for a fairly tall (1,610mm) vehicle, and all feels safe and reassuring. Even at the highest level of brake energy recovery, the accelerator pedal is easy to use, with none of the rather forceful deceleration experienced on some other EVs on lift-off. Indeed, the ZS EV would almost certainly benefit from a higher level of brake energy recovery, which would improve the range.

In terms of running costs, the ZS EV claims a reasonable WLTP range of 163 miles from its 44.5kW battery. This is competitive with the like of the Nissan Leaf, which is of course considerably more expensive and less well-equipped. However, the relatively low level of brake energy recovery may account for the ZS EV seemingly making worse use of that electrical energy than some of its competitors. MG’s quoted WLTP (combined cycle) consumption is 3.3 miles per kilowatt/hour. In contrast, the Kia Soul EV ekes out almost 4 miles/kWh, significantly more energy-efficient.

Of course, like all electric cars, the range is greatly affected by operating conditions, with prolonged use of lights, wipers and heating or air-conditioning potentially having a significant impact. The type of driving is also critical: town driving with frequent brake use will give a far better range than high-speed motorway cruising.

Our experience (in January) showed that, at motorway speeds, the power consumption of the ZS EV is around 2.9 miles per kilowatt-hour (kWh) with some use of lights, wipers and heating. This indicates a maximum possible motorway range of the ZS EV to be around 130 miles. However, motorway service areas are typically 15-20 miles apart. With the risk that the (usually single) charging point at any service area may be either occupied or out of action, we think that the safe motorway range is probably only around 80 to 90 miles. However, unlike some other cheaper electric models, even the base model ZS EV will handle a 50kWh rapid charge, so at least the charging process can be reasonably quick – typically 30-40 minutes to reach 80% charge.

The consumption improves when driving more gently on country roads, of course. Here we achieved around 3.4 miles / kWh which suggests a maximum range of about 150 miles, again with limited use of lights, wipers or heating, not too far from the claimed 163-mile range.

As we have said, the ZS’s range, like any electric car, is affected by the use of heating, aircon and other items. To put this in perspective, when the heating was switched off during our test, the range prediction improved by about 15%. However, you would need to be either a masochist or desperate to drive for long in such bleak conditions!

The ZS is fitted with the increasingly common CCS charging port, so can take advantage of the increasing number of CCS rapid charging stations available. However, the charging port sits behind a flap in the front grille which conspires to make access to the port almost a hands-and-knees task. This is a point worth checking out if, like me, you are not quite as agile as you would like to be!

Not the easiest electric car to plug in for charging, particularly in the dark!

We mentioned the specification level of the ZS EV, which competitors struggle to meet. Even the base Excite model, on offer at £22,495 (including the £3,000 Government plug-in car grant) features a full 5-star safety rating. This includes the MG Pilot system of adaptive cruise control, active emergency braking, lane-keep-assist, and other driver aids. Some of these proved a bit temperamental during our test, however, possibly due to road dirt regularly obscuring the windscreen-mounted forward-facing camera on which many of the systems rely. Automatic headlight and wipers are also fitted, although the auto lights seemed to be slow to respond to oncoming lights, resulting in occasional angry headlamp flashes from oncoming drivers.

Apple Car Play and Android Auto are also fitted, usually features only seen on much more expensive vehicles. The top-spec Exclusive model, which costs another £2,000, adds to this with additional safety aids such as a reversing camera, blind-spot detection and rear cross-traffic alert. Heated leather seats – the drivers having electric adjustment – and a panoramic sunroof are also fitted.

All this is topped off with a 7-year warranty from a company which aims to grow fast in the UK with a further 20 dealerships to be added to the current 100 during 2020.

So overall, the ZS EV is a surprisingly effective and pleasant vehicle for driver and passengers alike, smooth and quiet, again putting much more expensive EV’s to shame in the noise stakes.

All in all, the MG ZS EV provides almost the cheapest way into electric car ownership, with few compromises to belie that highly competitive price provided that you can accept that fairly limited range.

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