No sooner had the Phoenix Fourhanded over that famous tenner to BMW and bought Rover than the old MG saloon brochures were being pulled out of filing cabinets and dusted off.
Not since the MG Metro, Maestro and Montego had ceased production in 1990 had there been an MG saloon car, though the idea was certainly part of Rover Group’s plan to rejuvenate its model range prior to BMW taking over the reins of the company in 1994.
Under the leadership of anglophile BMW boss Bernd Pischetsrieder, Rover would instead be steered upmarket, as a manufacturer of classy and comfortable saloon cars but not overtly sporting ones, with performance-orientated tin-tops instead reserved for the German brand. It was dictated within the company that Rover should not, in any circumstances, compete with BMW, despite the fact that the British brand had some of the finest chassis engineers in the world and had proven its ability to engineer front-wheel-drive suspension set-ups that were among the best in Europe.
But when BMW left the building, the cleaners were still sweeping up the streamers from the engineering department’s party poppers when the MG Z-Car range became a reality. Using a similar concept to the MG Metro, Maestro and Montego of 10 years earlier, but this time without red seatbelts, the resurgent MG Rover would come to market with three great value performance cars based on the 25, 45 and 75 saloons.
Development of the cars began in June 2000, just two weeks after MG Rover was formed, and the rejuvenation of the MG brand was core to its marketing plan. The 25-based ZR would be the accessible one with prices starting below £10k and incredible finance and free insurance deals to tempt in younger motorists. The ZS, based on the 45, would be the mainstream model yet at the same time found itself becoming arguably the best-handling front-wheel-drive hatchback of the early 2000s (if you don’t believe that, try one…) and the ZT would be the flagship. A sports saloon that would appeal to the heart as much as the head, keep fleet managers happy and deliver the Bavarians a swift boot to the backside.
Indeed, the Z-Car launch marketing campaign was anything but apologetic. The flagship of the range, photos of which were revealed in January 2001 after just seven months in development, was the ‘Full-fat, maximum strength, high caffeine’ MG ZT. MG Rover had taken the 75 and done what its engineers had always wanted to - and turned up the wick. Initially available as a V6 only, the ZT was offered in 160 and 190 forms, both featuring the brand’s 2.5-liter KV6 engine but in different states of tune. Its trump card was an amazing chassis, developed by a team led by MG Rover’s engineering supremo Rob Oldaker.
The cars were officially launched in March 2001 and went on sale two months later, to a surprisingly positive and optimistic media (if only such sentiment had lasted), with the MG ZT shortly followed by the ZT-T, based on the new 75 Tourer - another car that had been kyboshed by BMW to stop it stealing sales from the 3-Series Touring.
In February 2002, the range was expanded to include the ZT 180 Sports Auto, using the Rover 75 drivetrain but with a faster-shifting auto box, while in August 2002 the fleet market was fully catered for with the ZT CDTi, initially available with a 115bhp engine based on the BMW M47 unit and later a 130bhp version.
A four-cylinder petrol came in 2003, with a choice of a 120bhp normally-aspirated model that had rather ordinary performance, but was a great value and still had a brilliant chassis, or a 160bhp turbo, which replaced the low-powered V6 and was a surprisingly sweet and lively companion.
By 2003, though, MG Rover was starting to struggle. A cost-cutting exercise called Project Drive saw the ZT lose certain features and the quality starts to deteriorate, meaning it’s the earlier cars that are often the better built.
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