By on February 13, 2002

 This of course isn't MG's first badge engineering exercise. Although the Montego and Maestro only linger in our memories as beige nightmares, the MG badge did adorn the more tasty variants including the rather mental Tickford Turbo Maestro. Check them out here: MG Links

The UK ads for the MG-ZT promise 'fire breathing, full bodied, red blooded' pleasures. In a country where driving fast is as socially acceptable as puffing a Cuban cigar in a children's hospital, MG's message is welcome news for petrolheads. Still, let's not get carried away; it's only advertising. Or is it? Does the MG-ZT actually live up to the hype? Or is it an empty marketing exercise, shamelessly exploiting one of motor sport's most distinguished marques?

 The entire concept is a bit worrying. The ZT is based on the Rover 75, BMW's ode to corporate hubris. No shade of eyeball assaulting paint can disguise the ZT's humble origins as a mid-market luxury barge built for the blue rinse and flat cap brigade. If ever a car was voted 'least likely to thrill anyone ever', the Rover 75 is it. And yet…

MG sent the demure 75 off to the School of Hard Looks for a first-class degree in Restrained Aggression. The graduate's mesh front grills and a lowered stance betray its high-speed aspirations without resorting to Japanese-style flared arches or razor-sharp wings. Subtle detailing and perfectly proportioned curves give the machine what MG [re]designer Peter Steven calls 'outside lane credibility'. Max Power Muppets have a better word for it: 'wicked'.

 Inside, it's dull city. The ZT's interior is the automotive equivalent of those grey waterproof jackets favoured by England's elderly- totally practical and instantly forgettable. Someone in Rover's Marketing Department must have decided English retirees find oval shapes irresistibly soothing. Every single control is oval-shaped: air vents, gauges, horn, heater controls, door pulls, side mirrors, turning stalks, window buttons, the lot. There's plenty of space for luggage, but not enough rear legroom for a four-year-old.

The few attempts to inject a measure of sporting intent- the 'technical finish' fascia, the sports seats' lurid blue bolsters, the red on white dials – are less convincing than a coffee can exhaust on a Nova. Still, the doors clunk with Aryan solidity. There are no paint or glue drips, or nasty unfinished edges. Nothing broke, fell off, failed or rusted during my occupancy. The [thankfully] octagonal MG badge hasn't adorned anything this well built since, um, ever.

The ZT's racy gear knob may not overcome the interior's drabness, but it's connected to a five-speed Getrag gearbox that slots home like a rifle bolt. The slick shifter hooks you up to a 2.5 liter, 24-valve, transverse-mounted, quad cam, six-cylinder engine. Maximum power is 189bhp @ 6500rpms. As the torque figures indicate-181 ft. lbs. @ 4000rpms- the urge is evenly spread throughout the rev range.

For the non-technical, that's barely enough grunt for a lightweight roadster. Lest we forget, the ZT is a four-door saloon. Fifteen hundred kilos is an awful lot of weight for a small capacity six to schlep around. As a result, when it comes to speed, the ZT is only slightly more than merely adequate.

The 0 – 60 sprint takes 7.8 seconds. That's excellent compared to the Rover 75's 8.4 seconds, but laughable for a car that's supposed to brand you a hooligan. Standstill to the ton requires 22 seconds – a scant two seconds faster than a 2.5 litre Ford Mondeo. Hit the autobahn, stick the ZT in fifth, plant your foot and… you'll eventually achieve a hardly-worth-the-risk 141mph. Strangely enough, the gearing is biased towards cruising. When you leave the motorway and give it large, you'll be lucky to get 20mpg.

In its defense, the somewhat leisurely MG-ZT feels faster than the numbers suggest. The power delivery is smooth and satisfying, right up to the red line. Okay, the engine note is about as raucous as a night out with a Rover driver, but you're never left waiting for something to happen. Extracting maximum power is as simple as 'stamp, go, change; stamp, go, change'. The ZT's steering also helps maintain the momentum, providing just the right amount of feel and feedback.

MG's engineers have made the now familiar pilgrimage to the Nurburgring to fettle the ZT's suspension for ride quality and control. It was worth the trip; the Z-axle (rear) and McPherson struts (front) keeps things flat and happy through the twisties yet provide adequate comfort for the long haul. The car's ventilated discs are equally well sorted; you can scrub off speed like burnt egg off Teflon. The 18' wheels generate significant tyre roar, but it's a minor price to pay for such astounding levels of poise, grip and control.

The MG-ZT's systems all work harmoniously. A performance-minded driver will find it easy to extract maximum pleasure from the ZT's surprisingly tame power plant. In short, the MG-ZT is a well-built, mechanically sophisticated car, but not the rabid TVR-wannabe its advertising suggests. Not to put too fine a point on it, the MG-ZT is the perfect four-door for British enthusiasts with £20k to spend- as long as they forget the words 'Subaru Impreza Turbo'.

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