Resculpted bumpers and a new body kit – standard on the V6, optional for the rest – integrate tidily to lend the car just the right amount of muscle, while the new bootlid makes the rear end surprisingly modern. This is a facelift that works.
But it’s rather less effective inside. There wasn’t enough development money for a soft-surfaced fascia, so you get a hard-feel, but decently textured, new upper dash whose Audi TT influences are obvious, if somewhat undermined by the crude breakout for the passenger airbag.
Still, the silvered airvent bezels look good, and the faux- textured aluminum of the centre console and the gearlever surround is just about acceptable. But the automatic air conditioning display, standard on the ZS 180, is just plain weird. It’s eccentrically asymmetric, featuring a line of buttons that trace a faintly descending arc from right to left beneath the LCD readout. It all works well, though.
The ancient Honda Civic column stalks remain, and now have slightly roughened texture that looks marginally less cheap, but if you were hoping for steering-wheel mounted stereo controls, or even a trip computer, forget it – in some areas, the ZS is resolutely old-tech.
And so, in a way, are its dynamic manners – but in an entirely positive sense. This is a car untroubled by electric power steering, dynamic stability control, an electronic throttle or even traction control, though it does, of course, have anti-lock brakes.
On top of that it has such finely judged damping, such precise steering, such well-judged brakes – and a power delivery untouched by trick engine management algorithms – that you can just grab it by the scruff, drive it hard and have yourself a whole lot of fun.
Especially because its handling is just as capable as it ever was. The only chassis alteration is to the wheels, whose extra half inch of width increases the tyres’ contact patch, and the same well-balanced, game car is there. It’s firmly sprung but absorbent – amazingly so, given the 45-section tyres – and almost entirely viceless, unless you count the faintest smidgeon of torquesteer.
Best of all is the way you can safely steer it on the throttle, trimming your line just so to fling the car around with confidence. Apart from the Ford Focus, it’s hard to think of another car in this class that’s so well sorted for drivers. And that includes the new Vauxhall Astra Turbo I tried the day before.
Faults? Well, there are a few. The V6 doesn’t pull with the cleanest bite from low revs, though it sounds pretty good. The five-speed gearchange could be slicker, and there’s wind rustle and a bit too much background commotion above 85mph.
Rear room is significantly diminished by the oversize Rover 75 chairs, and the stereo looks rubbish and sounds worse. The ride will be too firm for some, and despite the make-over, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the interior looks tacky and under-developed. And of course, this is hardly a EuroNCAP five star car, achieving three stars with four airbags.
But the ZS 180 is as appealingly straightforward as the billboard campaign that’s running for it right now. ‘Enjoy the rush hour’, it says. And in this car, you will. If you like driving briskly, and love cars that respond predictably and engagingly to your efforts, the ZS is worth serious thought.
The only problem, cabin apart, is the price – especially since the better-looking four door costs a ridiculous £800 more than the £16,495 hatch. Against the cheaper Honda Civic Type-R, and the Seat Leon Cupra 180, it doesn’t look quite so clever. But with the fattest of fat discounts, the MG ZS 180 is a better proposition than you’re thinking it might be. Really.