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Old 16-11-2004, 21:11   #1 (permalink)
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More info on the MG ZT

A British car once heralded the dawn of front-engined and front-wheel drive cars for the masses. There are undeniable packaging advantages to this layout, and that was enough for the majority of the world to adopt it as the standard. Even Lotus, albeit for financial reasons, dabbled with the arrangement in the early nineties for its Elan sportscar. One of the biggest proponents has always been what is now named MG Rover.

Fast forward from the widespread adoption of front-wheel drive in the '70s and '80s to 2004: a year in which driver appeal is in vogue once more as the manufacturers attempt to differentiate themselves. There are many fine front-wheel drive cars that appeal to the more demanding driver, but, and this is a big but: the best driver's cars are still powered by the rear wheels only. It appears that MG decided that this was the only way for its range-topping saloon to be taken seriously.

When the ZT and Rover 75 were originally launched, it was generally agreed that the formula was good. We drove the ZT 190 and concluded that the car was indeed one a demanding driver would like. The front-wheel drive chassis seemed to cope very well with the adequate power output, and performance was brisk. It seems that was not brisk enough for MG, and the decision was made to aim higher. The next logical step was to fit a V8. Sadly, Rover's own Buick-based V8 is no more. The well-proven all-aluminium 4.6-litre V8, as found in Ford's Mustang sold in the US market seemed like a good candidate.

We first heard of this project a number of years ago, and I must admit to wondering just how much it would cost to re-engineer a front-wheel drive car to be rear-wheel driven. Prodrive and Roush carried out a lot of the work, amongst others, and the production car showed its head last year. The transformation is unremarkable on the outside; albeit our test car was sprayed with lurid Monogram Chromactive paintwork (2,200). Elsewhere, the styling is subtly different to the front-wheel drive MG ZT versions. There are bespoke alloy wheels, and a small spoiler on the boot, though the biggest clue comes from the four exhaust pipes under the rear bumper. If you look closely you will also spy a "V8" badge on each wing. The ZT was mildly facelifted earlier this year, and it now more than ever looks like a serious sports saloon.

There was nothing much wrong with the interior of the ZT. The shape is individual and curvy; fit and finish are top class and all the switchgear works in a well-weighted fashion. Not only that; there is a sense of occasion in the cockpit thanks to the oval-shaped instruments and sporty wheel and gear lever. The ZT 260 is enhanced with distinctive blue trim, sculpted leather seats; the addition of a proud "V8" badge in the centre of the dash is a nice touch. There is ample space for 4-5 adults and the boot is certainly sizeable enough.

But you can get all this in a regular ZT. Why would you want to spend 6,400 more than the entry-level ZT 190? Turn the ignition key of the ZT 260 and that question is quickly forgotten. The V8 throb is muted, but unmistakable. You will want to open your window and blip the throttle just for the sake of it. The deep bass tone of the engine is omnipresent, though never so intrusive as to detract from the cruising ability of the ZT 260. When accelerating hard you are treated to a refined woofle from those four tailpipes. Personally I'd want to hear the engine more than MG Rover has allowed in this car, but perhaps the after market tuners can provide a suitable exhaust system for that purpose. No doubt drive-by noise regulations have gagged the V8's vocal chords a little.

There is nothing wrong with the power delivery from this engine though. The peak power figure isn't at all disappointing, but doesn't tell the full story. The numbers that matters most are the peak torque of 302lb.ft at 4000rpm and the availability of more than 260lb.ft all the way from 1500 - 5000rpm. This wide plateau gives the car satisfying and effortless performance, allowing overtaking manoeuvres to be safely completed without any need for a gearchange. Indeed, you generally find yourself relying on the engine's pulling power rather than revving it; not that it isn't a thrilling experience to take this unit to its redline. It is perhaps just as well that the engine encourages less use of the gearbox. The Tremac 5-speed transmission is not a fast-shifting unit, and is allied to a heavy clutch. The clutch weighting suits the butch side of the car, but will certainly put off female buyers.

This weightiness pervades most aspects of the MG ZT 260. The steering for instance is not quite finger-light, even at parking speeds. The steering system is different to the front-wheel drive cars, and is deliciously direct. Unburdened with having to control feedback from the driven wheels, it also has plenty of real feel (except around the straight ahead), allowing you to exploit the car's chassis.

Ah yes, the chassis! Let's look at the facts first: there is a new multi-link rear axle and Hydratrak limited slip differential. Up front we have inverted mono-tube McPherson type suspension allied to that new quick ratio steering system. The inclusion of a limited slip differential hints at the chassis engineers' intention. Here lies a truly great driver's car. It is just comfortable enough for everyday and family use, but it comes alive on a twisty road, though its forte is fast sweeping roads. It felt like a larger and heavier Honda S2000 in some respects. The traction control is not needed in the dry at all; the rear end can be played with with confidence: it really is very dependable. Once you get brave it is actually pretty easy to slide the rear safely - it has certainly been developed with that in mind! Understeer is rarely present thankfully.

In the damp, the grippy Continental Sport Contact tyres ensure you don't come unstuck. The traction control is a little heavy handed though for a driver's car, cutting the power for what seems like an eternity. The ABS also comes in too quickly, though I suppose it reminds you that you are driving a heavy sports saloon, not a lithe coupe. This was a little disappointing given the grip from the tyres and the huge ventilated discs front and rear. Though the chassis is stiff, body control is exemplary. Your own self-control could be the only problem...

Of course, if you exhibit the same lack of self-control we tend to manage with such a superb car to drive you will pay for it. The ZT is not a light car, with a kerb weight of nearly 1700kg, so it takes a lot of energy to go and stop and turn quickly. This means expensive fuel, brakes and tyre bills. We managed only 500 miles on three tanks of unleaded, despite some low-speed cruising around Derbyshire. I would expect most owners to average no more than 20mpg. Saying that, the 2.5-litre V6-engined ZT 190 would only travel another 5-10 miles on the same gallon of fuel, and I know which car I'd put my last jerry can of fuel into.

MG Rover has created a truly great sports saloon in the ZT 260. It is good-looking and fantastic to drive; there is space for the family and their luggage. We struggled to think of any real rival at the price. There is a smattering of rally replicas in Subaru Impreza or Mitsubishi Evo flavour, but they probably do not appeal to the same demographic. BMW saloons are closer to the mark, but for 28,000 you can have only a 330i: the 3.0-litre straight-six is a gem and the car is not much slower than the ZT 260, but it does not have the same sense of occasion or indeed the space. The BMW 5-series is a lot more expensive. This is how the ZT should have been from the start. Long live the rear-wheel drive sports saloon.
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