With three and five-door body shapes, and a choice of three engines, the new MG ZR range expands choice in the hot hatch race with a vengeance - and includes a sporty turbo-diesel variant, too.
I drove the cars in and around Johannesburg, and we can tell you they are good-looking, they are quick, and they are VERY precise.
In fact, were it not for their hatchback shape, you'd feel for all the world as if you were driving one of the MGTF open top sports car, so completely together are these cars on the road.
MG-Rover managing director Piet Rademeyer told me this is the first in a whole new line of smaller MG and Rover vehicles that will be brought into South Africa to complement the bigger Rover 75 and sister MG ZT sedan and station wagon cars, and the two-seater MGTF sports cars.
The MG ZR cars are aimed right smack at the Alfa 147, Audi A3, Peugeot 206 GTI, and the Opel Corsa GSi, and come in with two levels of power output in their 1.8-litre petrol motors, as well as a 2-litre TDI version.
The models are the MG ZR 120, which has an 88 kW engine, and comes in at R170 000 for the 3-door and R180 000 for the 5-door.
Next up is the MG ZR 160, which produces 118 kW, and is priced at R209 500 for the 3-door, R214 500 for the 5-door.
Last, but certainly not least, is the 83 kW MG ZR 2.0 TD. This is only available in 5-door, and costs R205 000.
All the cars have the same basic design, a spunky hatchback shape with a distinctive "bi-plane" spoiler above the tailgate window, and, at the front, a bold grille that is unmistakably MG, carrying the trademark bright finish mesh, with the traditional MG octagon badge, and with its surround painted to match the body colour.
Bib spoilers are fitted at front and rear of all models, with an air-splitter central section at the front. Aerodynamic sill skirts are standard on the ZR 160
All ZRs feature body coloured side rubbing strips, door handles and mirrors, bumper inserts, tailgate lift, aerodynamic tailgate spoilers, front and rear bib spoilers, while the headlamp bezels are painted black.
As mentioned, responsiveness is a keynote on the new cars, and the British engineers have used Delphi 2005+ shock absorbers which provide precisely tuned two-stage damping rates coupled with very firm control of low-speed suspension movement.
At the same time they give gentler response to higher-velocity inputs, such as sharp road bumps, which combines to give excellent body control in roll and pitch while retaining an absorbent secondary ride quality.
Tyres and wheels are also of high level specification. Standard on the ZR 160 and optional on the other ZR models are 17 inch diameter "Straights" alloy wheels with 205/45 R17 tyres.
For the other models there are 16 inch "Hairpins" sports-style alloy wheels with 205/50 R16 tyres.
Disc brakes are fitted all round on all models, with those on the ZR 160 larger - 282 mm front, 260 mm rear and the ABS/EBD system is tuned accordingly.
ABS is standard on the petrol models, optional on the diesel.
Under the bonnet of the ZR 160 is a special 118 kW version of the 1.8-litre K series with VVC (Variable Valve Control).
A new low back-pressure exhaust system is fitted, with low-restriction catalyst and an ECU-controlled by-pass valve in the rear silencer unit that helps to maximise high speed performance without compromising low speed quietness.
In common with all the new MG saloons, the ZR throttle response characteristics have been sharpened by software changes in the engine management ECUs, plus, on petrol engines, faster-acting throttle cams.
Mated with the 118 kW engine is a close-ratio PG1 five-speed gearbox, with short-throw gearshift and firm linkage bushes for a direct operating feel. Maximum torque is 174 Nm at 4 700 r/min.
MG says this one will hit 218 km/h, sprint from standstill to 100 km/h in 7.4 seconds, and uses 7.5 litres/100 km of unleaded on average.
Lower cost but still performance-orientated alternative engines for the ZR include the 1.8-litre 88kw K series units plus the 2-litre L Series intercooled 86 kW turbo-diesel.
The ZR 120 produces 160 Nm of torque at 2 750 r/min. Claimed top speed is 198 km/h, and the 0-100 km/h dash in 8.6 seconds, Average fuel consumption is 7.3 litres/100 km.
The 2.0 TD develops 240 Nm of torque at only 2 000 r/min. Its top speed is 190 km/h, with 0-100 km/h in 9.7 seconds. Average fuel consumption is 5.2 litres/100 km.
In common with all MG saloons, the ZR has deeply-sculpted sports front seats, shaped to hold driver and passenger securely especially in hard cornering.
The interior trim is consistent with the MG theme, based on an "Ash" sports scheme, with colour accents to suit the exterior paint. T
The ZR 160 has central seat panels in "Monaco" woven fabric in either black/red/green or black/blue/yellow yarns, and leather side bolsters in Ash with distinctive leather inserts and top stitching in either red, green, blue or yellow, according to paint colour.
The other ZR models feature seat centre panels in ?Matrix? woven fabric, derived from a chequered flag motif and coloured Ash with either blue and yellow or red and green highlights according to the exterior paint.
Ash vinyl covers the side bolsters, and the stitching is either yellow or red to harmonise with the fabric theme. The ZR 160 leather/ Monaco fabric trim can be specified as an option.
Feature inserts on the ZR fascia and console are in a technical finish, with a similar treatment for the instrument faces - silver dials have orange needles and illumination.
The sports style steering wheel has a deep rim profile, and a jewelled MG octagon set centrally in a machined aluminium bezel.
Distinguishing features of the ZR 160 models, and optional for the others, include a leather steering wheel rim covering, perforated on the main grip sections, and an alloy/leather gear knob.
Further standard features on all ZR models include remote central door locking, electric front and rear windows and door mirrors, air conditioning, a volumetric alarm, leather steering wheel, front fog lights and a leather and alloy gearknob.
In addition the ZR 160 gets a close ratio gearbox, twin wide-bore exhaust tailpipes with heat shield, larger brakes and wheels, and sculpted side sill finishers complete the exterior design.
The ZR 160 also features part leather sports seats, matched to the exterior body colour. Full leather is an option.
All models have a three-year/100 000 km warranty, and a three-year/60 000 km service plan is also included in the price.
Petrol versions should be serviced every 20 000 km and diesel versions every 10 000 km.
On the road
I was immediately impressed by the performance of the cars, even at the power-sapping reef where they lose 17% power compared to sea level because of the thinner air.
The ZR 160 was first under the belt, and this proved a real little road rocket - as the figures above testify - with VERY sharp steering responses, and unbelievably quick and positive lane change abilities - especially useful on Jo'Burg's congested highways!
Unfortunately there was not much opportunity to test the handling on this one, but later, when I drove the ZR TD, I was able to get onto some back roads where it showed an uncanny ability to sticklike the proverbial in hard fast corners.
Braking also impressed, as did ride quality.
Build quality was good, too. Inside MG-Rover uses similar soft touch materials on the dashboard to those found on the MGTF, while the seats in particular impress, not just for their ability to hold you firmly in hard cornering, but for overall comfort too!
Boot space is good, and the seats flip forward to increase loadability.
In summary, great-looking little cars that deliver on their promise. They're entering a marketplace that is littered with hot hatch offerings, but at least they have the advantage of a heritage and a name that has proved its lineage many times over.