Fun in the Sun

27th August 2020

This article was originally published in Safety Fast! in March 2009. Reproduction in whole or in part of any article published on this website is prohibited without written permission of The MG Car Club.

Neil Mattock takes a Sunspot MG ZR 160 for a spin.

When, in late December, Safety Fast! Editor Andy Knott asked me if I would like to take an MG ZR 160 hot hatch out for a comparison test drive, I didn’t hesitate to say yes! As a fan of the ZS 180 and indeed a late saloon owner I was keen to get behind the wheel of its smaller brother as, on paper, the two cars are quite closely matched in terms of power and acceleration. I had driven a couple of ZRs in the past, as service courtesy cars, but these were the 105 (1.4 litre K-Series) variant. The ZR 160 features the 1.8 Litre VVC (Variable Valve Control), also seen in the MGF and TF in it’s 160hp guise.

After a couple of false starts (and quite a lot of snow!), we managed to get the car (kindly loaned by Summit Motors in Maidenhead) over to my office in High Wycombe for a lunchtime drive. At first sight the 2004 Mk I ZR 160 looked stunning, finished in ‘Sunspot’, a monogram colour that at a first glance could be mistaken for Trophy Yellow, but a closer inspection reveals the ‘flip’ nature of the finish. Fortunately, after almost two weeks of appalling weather, we had some sunshine that really made the colour stand out further. The ZR was in excellent order having only covered around 12,000 miles from new and remained as standard in terms of the induction and exhaust systems.

As soon as I got behind the wheel of the ZR, the first obvious difference between it and the ZS was the driving position. The ZR seemed much higher, possibly due in part to the lack of seat height adjustment. On the turn of the ignition key the 1.8 litre VVC K-Series eagerly leapt in to life with a rather pleasant burble coming from the standard twin pipe back box. Another instantly noticeable difference between the ZR 160 and ZS 180 was the clutch biting point, much higher here on the ZR, so I had to take care not to over rev the car on pulling away. Both the ZR 160 and the ZS 180 share the reliable PG-1 close ratio gearbox, so here at least was a recognisable feel.

Once out on the open road, and after I had familiarised myself with the driving position and controls of the ZR, I really started to enjoy and feel at home with the car. To get a balanced evaluation I had planned a route before hand to take in different driving styles, I had decided to take the ZR out in to the Chilterns, through High Wycombe and on towards Amersham along the A404. Then from Amersham along the sections of dual carriageway of the A413 to Great Missenden and then back to High Wycombe via the twisty country roads.

The engine was lively and free revving, the ride firm but not harsh, the steering sharp and precise and the handling, like all Zeds, excellent. Looking around the car it’s, as with all Zeds a practical car which you could use everyday with a big boot, folding seats and the option of a five door version. To get the real benefit of the power and torque, unlike the KV6 of the ZS 180, the VVC really needs (and likes) to be revved hard. The 1.8 litre VVC K-Series generates 160Ps at 6900rpm compared to the 2.5 litre KV6, which generates 180Ps at 6500rpm. Though the main difference here is the torque, where the ZR develops 174Nm @ 4700rpm compared to the 240Nm @ 4000rpm of ZS. This means that you have to change gear in the ZR more often and to make the most of the ZR you really have to wring the engines neck with the noticeable punch of the VVC kicking in at 5500rpm and pulling the needle right round to the 7500rpm redline.

However what the ZR lacks in torque it makes up in other areas the major advantages over the ZS, being fuel economy and emissions. The ZR will deliver 37.6mpg on a combined cycle compared against the 29.7mpg of the ZS. From an emissions and therefore road tax point of view, the ZR 160 has a CO2 figure of 179g/km which brings it in to the £170 per year band with the ZS at 227g/km, need I say any more!

Sadly all too soon my lunch time drive was up, and it was time for me to hand the keys back, the car really did grow on me, and the more I drove it the more the little ZR made sense. In summary all in all I found the ZR 160 a great package, providing good sporty performance and eye-catching looks. It is as content to run around the town as the open country roads and, importantly, it won’t burn a hole in your pocket to buy or run. So, if you haven’t driven one, I recommend you do and, no doubt like me it will leave a big smile on your face!

Photos Colin Grant and Andy Knott

Many thanks to Mike Smith of Summit Motors for allowing us the opportunity to drive the ZR 160. Summit Motors always have a good selection of Modern MGs on their forecourt for sale 01628 629707.