MG ZST Essence 2021 road test review

Blue MG ZST front

Tim Nicholson

Posted October 29, 2021

Now one of the best-selling SUVs in Australia, we get behind the wheel of the MG ZST.   

MG Motor has gone from bit player to the fastest growing automotive brand in Australia. The Chinese-owned manufacturer is now among the top 10 sellers each month and two of its models are the most popular offerings in their respective segments. The MG3 tops the light car class and the ZS is now the best-selling small SUV in Australia by a decent margin. Good looks, brand recognition and a big focus on value have catapulted MG into the mainstream. But is the MG ZST all style and no substance? 

Thumbs up

Value for money, standard safety gear, appealing exterior design, spacious, well-executed cabin. 

Thumbs down

Poor ride quality, underpowered engine, handling, hidden cruise control stalk, patchy adaptive cruise control, no steering wheel reach adjustment.  

MG ZST Essence.
MG ZST Essence.

How much does the MG ZST cost? 

Last year MG added the stylish ZST variant to its expanding ZS range. The regular ZS is the entry model, while the ZST is pitched as a more premium offering. There’s also the ZS EV, which is Australia’s most affordable electric vehicle.

The ZST is keenly priced from $25,490 to $32,990 before on-road costs across four front-wheel drive model grades – Core, Vibe, Excite and Essence. The Core and Vibe use a 1.5-litre naturally aspirated petrol engine, while the Excite and Essence gain a more powerful 1.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine.

The ZST is differentiated from the regular ZS by exterior design tweaks and interior upgrades. As a result, the ZST is the looker of the range.

We tested the flagship ZST Essence which has a healthy list of standard features for the price. Lined up against a few similarly priced front-wheel drive competitors, the ZST is more generously equipped than the likes of the Suzuki Vitara Turbo and Mitsubishi ASX XLS Plus, but can’t match the level of gear in the Hyundai Kona Elite.


What safety features does it have? 

The ZST carries over the same 4-star ANCAP rating achieved by the petrol-powered ZS is 2017. All ZST model grades are fitted as standard with MG’s Pilot active safety suite with a lane keeping aid, blind sport monitor, autonomous emergency braking and more.

While there are no complaints about the calibration of the lane keeping aid, the ZST’s adaptive cruise control is overly sensitive. It slows the vehicle to a speed that is significantly less than the speed of the vehicle ahead. 


MG ZST Essence.
MG ZST Essence.
MG ZST Essence.

What's the space like inside?

While they are essentially the same car, the ZST’s interior is a clear step up from the more basic ZS. A larger touchscreen, digital controls and nicer materials are welcome and ensure it doesn’t look or feel cheap.

The dash layout is simple yet effective and there are neat touches like the circular outboard air vents, soft-touch materials, and piano black and chrome surrounds. Faux carbon-fibre inserts give the illusion of sportiness, even if its not to be found in the drive experience. More on that in a bit.

The steering wheel is the only element in the cabin with real leather, yet it still feels a bit low rent. Disappointingly, the ZST misses out on steering wheel reach adjustment, and the cruise control stalk is hidden behind the thick steering wheel spoke. It’s challenging to see the cruise buttons while driving. Cruise control buttons should live on the steering wheel itself with the audio and other controls.

Storage is a mixed bag in the ZST. There’s plenty of room for large bottles in the doors, but it has a small central bin and seriously narrow cupholders. We couldn’t fit two regular flat whites in side by side.

Faux leather seats with red stitching – also found throughout the cabin – have decent upper body support but could do with more under thigh bolstering.  

MG’s digital instrument cluster is well executed but could do with larger icons and graphics.

The 10.1-inch multimedia screen has appealing graphics and functions well for the most part. Navigating the menu is easy, but for some reason, the home button is an analogue button housed under the screen. Surely an in-screen home button would make more sense.

The second row is surprisingly spacious, with acres of headroom and more than enough legroom. The seats are comfortable and there’s good bottle storage in the doors, map pockets and a pair of USB outlets, but no rear air vents.  

The tiny window behind the C-pillar is completely redundant and the pillars are so thick they create a blind spot when driving.

Cargo space of 359 litres with the rear seats in place isn’t bad but it’s less than the ASX (393L) and Vitara (375L). The boot features handy deep storage nooks behind the wheel arches. The ZST comes with a full-size spare wheel as standard.


Blue MG ZST rear

The MG ZST has a more modern, appealing design than the regular ZS.

How does it drive?

While the two entry ZST variants get the underdone 1.5-litre naturally aspirated engine, the Excite and Essence are powered by the more appealing 1.3-litre three-cylinder turbo offering up 115kW/230Nm – slightly more power and torque than the Vitara.

Unfortunately, those figures don’t translate to engaging performance.

From a standing start, the ZST has turbo lag and it’s not particularly responsive. The engine struggled when we encountered steep ascents. It scrambles for traction when accelerating on any road surface, regardless of conditions.

The ride height makes for a good driving position, and performance in an urban setting is more than adequate. But it’s fair to say this is not the car to choose if you fancy a back road blast. The ZST feels top heavy when cornering, with lots of lateral movement. Steering isn’t particularly sharp and lacks connection to the road.

An overly stiff suspension tune means the ride is harsh on any road surface, with every little bump and imperfection felt in the cabin. There’s no excuse for this sort of poor ride quality in an urban-focused compact SUV.

The engine sounds like it’s working hard when pushed and the cabin doesn’t have sufficient insulation to keep engine and road noise out.

MG claims a fuel economy figure of 7.3 litres per 100 kilometres on the combined cycle. We ended the week on 9.7L/100km. The 1.0-litre unit also requires 95 RON premium ULP. 

The verdict

The MG ZST Essence is an undeniable bargain. You get a lot of car for your money, including a solid suite of safety gear. The exterior design and cabin execution work in its favour too. Unfortunately, the vehicle’s on-road performance is where it comes unstuck. And that’s very hard to forgive, especially with so many high-quality options in the small SUV segment for similar money. 

MG ZST Essence 2021


List price: $32,990 before on-road costs.

Price as tested: $32,990 before on-road costs.

Model range: $25,490 to $32,990 before on-road costs.


1.3-litre three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine, six-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive. 

Power: 115kW@5200-5600rpm.

Torque: 230Nm@1800-4400rpm.

Wheels: 215/55 R17.


95 RON PULP, 45-litre fuel tank. 

Consumption:  7.3L/100km (government test), 9.7/100km (RACV test).

Emissions: 162g/km CO2 emissions.

Standard safety

Autonomous emergency braking, forward collision warning, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, lane keep assist, rear cross-traffic alert, blind spot warning.

Standard features

Keyless entry and start, heated power exterior mirrors, 360-degree surround view parking camera, rear parking sensors, rain-sensing wipers, automatic headlights, digital instrument cluster, 10.1-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and sat-nav, six-way power adjustable driver’s seat.


Seven-year/unlimited kilometre warranty. Seven years carped-price servicing. Service intervals every 12 months/10,000km.

The information provided is general advice only. Before making any decisions please consider your own circumstances and the Product Disclosure Statement and Target Market Determinations. For copies, visit As distributor, RACV Insurance Services Pty Ltd AFS Licence No. 230039 receives commission for each policy sold or renewed. Product(s) issued by Insurance Manufacturers of Australia ABN 93 004 208 084 AFS Licence No. 227678.