Since 1924 MG had made its name with sports cars and sporty saloons. That tradition changed when they released the MG ZTT wagon: so much more than merely a badge-engineered Rover 75, on which it was based.
The MG name is synonymous with two-seater sports cars, yet throughout the company’s history there were always saloon models. These were usually re-badged versions of their more pedestrian cousins, with suitable engine and suspension upgrades to justify the MG octagon.
After MG ceased production altogether in 1980, with the last MGB and the closure of the Abingdon factory, it was soon found that the name was too valuable an asset to let it remain dormant. The MG octagon soon reappeared on the hot version of the Metro in 1982 and the even more potent Turbo version early the following year (see BMCE Issue 6).
There followed MG versions of the Maestro and Montego, and even a one-off Montego Estate prototype, but no factory production MG wagons before the ZT. However, to confuse the issue, there was apparently a small number of MG Montego Estates sold only in New Zealand.
Following the successful release in 1995 of the all-new MG F roadster, came the return of the MG sporting saloon in the form of the MG ‘Z’ series of 2001.
By 2000 the MG marque was part of the Phoenix Consortium’s reborn MG-Rover company that grew from the ashes of Austin-Rover after the carve-up and sale by BMW. Two years later saw the release for the first and only time of an MG Estate, or in modern MG-speak a Tourer: to Aussies, a wagon.
It regularly comes as a surprise to many, even some reasonably knowledgeable car buffs, that MG ever made a wagon!
Although a fairly recent addition to the MG lineup, the MG ZT-T can proudly take its place alongside the MGs of the past, despite its mixed heritage lost in the BMW group and then within the Rover fold.
While both the ZT saloon and Tourer were clearly based on the Rover 75, the two marques followed distinctly different, but parallel paths. The MG ZT is a vastly different car from its Rover cousin, thanks to distinct ‘tweaking’ from MG at the Longbridge factory.
The V6-engined ZT (there was also a K-series four cylinder version, not sold in Australia) was the larger of the trio of ‘Zed’ models released in Britain in 2001, and destined as the ‘flagship’; the smaller ZR (based on the Rover 25) and the medium-sized ZS (Rover 45) being the other two series in the range. The top-of-the-range ZT comprised the sedan (codenamed X10 in the design office) and the ZT-T tourer (X11) – both offered in 180 automatic and 190 manual guise.
It was the V6-engined ZT that had the most appeal in Australia, perhaps because of our predisposition towards larger family cars such as the Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon. But the ZT was never intended to be a serious threat to those two market leaders – it was more of an enthusiast’s sedan or wagon intended to gain a niche in the medium/large car market.
That being said, upon its release in Australia, the short-lived Sports Car & Racer magazine decided it would be fun to put the ZT up against the two flagship models from Ford and Holden, the thumping V8 HSV Club Sport R8 and FPV Falcon GT, with surprising results.
In the words of the highly credentialed David McCarthy; “The MG has a huge power deficit, but makes up for that with its free revving V6, sublime gearbox and perhaps one of the best front drive chassis around. It is a helluva lot easier to punt to the limit than the others and this shows up when you drive them back to back.”
Comparing the ZT with Holden and Ford, both of which had essential traction control to overcome side-stepping tail-happy tendencies, McCarthy wrote; “The MG does not have traction control (nor is it required) and the ZT puts every single kW down without drama…the big surprise is that the MG can keep each of them in sight…it’s as simple as this, if the MG is in front on a windy road you can’t get past it, if it is behind you can’t get away from it.”
As McCarthy reported, “the MG ZT is based on the Rover 75 and the transformation is startling when you realize that the design brief for the 75 never included a high performance sedan variant…and the 75 is far from being called a rewarding sporty drive.”
It was Peter Stevens at Longbridge who placed his mark on the styling of the 75 to create the MG, while Rod Oldaker supervised the chassis-design team and focused on this aspect of the car to make it worthy of the badge.
This included stiffer suspension mounts, fitting anti-roll bars, bigger wheels and brakes, up-rating the dampers and increasing the spring rates by 70% over the Rover.
There is no doubt that these points were enough to separate the MG from the Rover. It should never be said that the MG ZT is just a fancy-pants Rover 75.
On the outside, the stylish MG grille clearly announced that this was an obvious successor to the line of sporting saloons. This time, as a very first for MG, there was also a wagon version.
There were new Xenon halogen projector headlamps, lower driving lamps and indicators incorporated into the front bumper, which was completed by a lower spoiler. The body was remarkably free of chrome bits and strips – unlike the Rover 75.
All ZT models carried a distinctive interior package, with sports seats that could be described as ‘body-hugging’. The heavy bolstering of the seats offered excellent support when pushing the car into and out of twisty bends.
There was a new dashboard layout, now using a special Technical Grey finish. It was a little surprising to some that a woodgrain finish, often associated with past MGs, was not employed, as that option was utilised on the Rover 75 models.
This was to differentiate the Rover as the luxury version, while the MG was the more earthy sporty version. Still, for UK market MGs, the console and fascia could be optioned in Black Oak, set off by a Black Oak wood steering wheel with the large MG logo in the centre. New instrument gauges were backlit illuminated in white and a leather-covered gearshift, handbrake and steering wheel were used for the Australian models.
For the UK version, new ‘Summit’ fabric sports seats could also be specified on some models, and black leather trimmed sports seats were part of the SE version released there. All of these improvements met with considerable approval from the motoring scribes and the public alike.
The ‘+’ pack, as tested by McCarthy, added leather/Alcantara trim for the sports seats, an electric glass sunroof, a trip computer, rear parking sensors and automatic dipping mirror. For an additional cost, a buyer could have automatic climate control. This latter ‘option’ seems to have been standard on Australian-released models, given our climate.
The supurb driver-friendly manual gearbox was complimented by an auto transmission, which on today’s roads seems to be the norm for the average driver. The suspension was deemed to be capable of soaking up the bumps well but some felt it was a little on the soft side for the ‘big’ potholes. There is no doubt that the overall sports suspension was tighter and much firmer than its Rover 75 cousin.
As the NRMA summarised in its on-line review in 2002: “the ride is much firmer in these MGs than it is in the Rover 75. Many owners may happily accept this harder ride in return for the MG’s very capable handling qualities, but it’s something buyers should make sure they’re happy with prior to purchasing.”
One for the family
The rear space and functionality of the wagon model came in for praise as well. “The ZT-T wagon provides easy loading to a large cargo area with a flat, solid floor and a little over 1.8 metres available with the 60/40 split-rear seat folded.”
“There’s excellent attention to detail in the wagon, with a loadspace cover with integral restraint net, a strut-supported load floor, cargo lashing points and sidewall hooks, and extra underfloor, side and tailgate storage compartments.”
The MG ZT-T was a trailblazer for the “sports wagon” category, which included the Volkswagon Passat Estate Sport TDI 1.9 and the BMW 320D. The ZT-T’s quasi-sports improvements to the engine, suspension, handling, seats and interior allowed it to rise above the Rover 75 estate in performance and handling. It’s a car that is easy to love because of its special qualities, beyond treating it as just another wagon.
Styling wise, the inclusion of a pop-up rear window gives it the function of some hatchbacks where the shopping can be placed onboard in the load space without the necessity to release and lift the tailgate. It’s a bigger wagon than the BMW and Mercedes Benz cars of the era and somewhat more distinctive-looking, but nowhere near the internal and external dimensions, of the Falcon or Commodore.
As with all car manufacturers’ offerings, the build quality was under scrutiny when compared with Japanese and European marques. The wide gap where the front bumper meets the bonnet can appear to reflect negatively on the build quality, but this is not the case; it is in the design.
The performance of the brakes was also praised, though criticized for the amount of brake dust produced, and in general terms, the ZT-T gained a ‘tick’ from the NRMA.
“The forte of the MG ZT and ZT-T’s on-road performance is undoubtedly their fine handling”, they wrote. “The Rover 75 handles well, but the extensive chassis and suspension modifications carried out on the MG versions have transformed them into two of the best handling front-wheel-drive sedans and wagons available. Both have high levels of grip, they steer sharply, corner extremely well and above all, remain user-friendly near, or at the limits.”
There was an Australia-only ZT 220S – with a supercharged version of the V6 engine by Perth firm, Sprintex. The 220S was released in limited numbers and we know of only one 220S wagon produced here; still resident in the Perth area.
The supercharged route was discounted by MG Rover, but they realised a more powerful version of the car was desirable.
What they came up with was a different animal entirely, with rear-wheel-drive and the 4.6lt V8 engine from the US Mustang.
The MG ZT 260 could be described as British refinement with American power, and there is plenty of precedent – the AC Cobra, Nash-Healey, Sunbeam Tiger, Jensen Interceptor and Gordon Keeble GK1 being only a few.
But there is far more to the ZT 260 than shoehorning a V8 engine into a British chassis. For starters, a complete redesign of that chassis was required, to turn the car from front-wheel-drive to rear-wheel-drive.
While BMW had owned Rover (and all that came under its umbrella) it had constrained local design ambitions of its English subsidiary to ensure that no British-produced sports car or sports saloon competed with the marketing ambitions of its own branded cars.
In 2001 new owners of the company, the Phoenix Consortium, were keen to throw off the shackles of BMW. Ambitions were given a welcome free rein and MG was heading back into the motorsport spotlight where the reflected glow was intended to shine on some interesting “extreme” and performance versions of production vehicles.
Much of this exciting and turbulent period in the marque’s history is covered elsewhere, including in David Knowles’ new book MG V8. The period is full of challenges for the motoring historian to capture accurately, such was the speed at which so many changes were occurring and the size of the precipice that everything ultimately tumbled over in 2005.
As we have already seen, the MG ZT was the pinnacle of those ambitions in 2001 and rightly so. It was a well-made car that drove exceptionally well and that looked good to boot. It was undoubtedly a deserving recipient of the MG moniker. But for some people there was something still missing. Something to make the car truly special.
David McCarthy put his finger on the problem in his magazine piece when he said, after declaring the ZT tied in second place with the Falcon GT; “it is more a case of the MG’s truly excellent chassis making up for its power deficit…if the MG had another 30kW it would get my vote today.”
The ZT’s superb chassis really only made it more obvious what the car was lacking in power. In typically MG fashion, and British style in general, the MG ZT made the most of its relatively small engine by wringing every last available ounce of power from it.
To this end it has some interesting and innovative componentry to provide the respectable levels of performance and economy expected from an MG. But lets face it, in Aussie terms, 2.5 litres is not a very big engine for a car the size and weight of the ZT, even with all that power wrung out of it.
The simple answer was to fit a V8 engine. Not simple in the execution, as there was no suitable front-drive V8 available.
The only solution was to redesign the car for rear-drive and the cheapest and quickest way to achieve that was to find something available, made by someone else who had already sorted out the legal issues, and who could provide the number of engines and transmissions needed.
As in the past, the Poms looked across the Atlantic to America and came home with the 4.6lt V8 from Ford’s then current Mustang and its matching 3650 Tremec five-speed manual transmission.
The car was very well received in the UK at launch, with most newspapers and motoring magazines managing to get their hands on one. Even Jeremy Clarkson enjoyed some fast and furious moments in one on Top Gear.
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The BMC Experience Issue 11. Oct-Dec 2014 Magazine
All back issues of The BMC Experience are now available in digital format from www.pocketmags.com.