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Click for pictures“ZR 160: MG’s hottest
  hatch is free-wheeling
  fun... and fast, too!”

THE RECENTLY REVAMPED and rorty MG ZR 160 is guaranteed to appeal to enthusiastic drivers looking for an involving drive — especially as it doesn't come with an electronic nanny on board to stop the fun.

MG's octagonal badge has a long history of sporting ability. So when the ZR was first 'outed', it didn't take a rocket scientist to know that MG had created a truly enjoyable pocket-rocket. And one that was capable of rewarding sporty-minded drivers with a real buzz.

Although the most desirable ZR is undeniably the hot 160, the range starts with a 1.4-litre. The 105 offers 103bhp and costs, in 3-door form, 10,395. Next comes the 117bhp 1.8-litre 120 and then two, 2.0-litre turbodiesels — 101 and 113bhp with a muscular 191lb ft of torque. Topping off the range is the 1.8-litre 16-valve VVC with 160bhp that, in 3-door guise, can be on your drive for 14,995. MG's Stepspeed automatic gearbox is available on the 120 model only.
We've sampled this capable CVT transmission on the MG TF, and it works just fine.

The ZR 160's 1.8-litre powerplant delivers 160bhp and 128lb ft of torque and is good for a maximum speed of 131mph and a no-nonsense 0-60mph time of 7.4 seconds. And while it's boy-racer-quick off the mark, it can still return 37.6mpg on the combined cycle, making the speediest ZR a practical everyday driving proposition.

The original ZR looked the part, but following its recent make-over it now exudes even more attitude. Externally, our top-of-the-range test car with its new Sports body kit certainly looked cool, finished in vibrant pearlescent Goodwood Green with Sports seats upholstered in upbeat green fabric — defined by soft black leather side bolsters — and lots of colour-coded bodywork underscoring the ZR 160's bold visual stance.

At the front the ZR now features distinctive angular headlamps along with a larger, double-barred radiator grille and a deep sporty bumper defined by low-set white driving lamps and indicators to help it stand out from the crowd. Sculpted side sill finishers, 17-inch, 15-spoke 'Straights' alloy wheels wearing 205/45 rubber, the mean-looking roof-mounted rear spoiler and twin tailpipes beneath a brushed alloy heat shield all add to the ZR's appeal.

Fire up the 160bhp engine and the sporty rasp from the twin tailpipes tells you that you're about to drive something that can rock 'n' roll. The ZR gets off the line with gusto and you quickly appreciate just how driveable MG's hot hatch is. The clutch is light, the gear change sharp and the ratios close. And it will serve up whatever driving experience you're in the mood for — whether it's driving your mother
to Tesco's or heading for the open road, where you can send the revs surging past 3,000. And it's there that you'll discover just how passionate the rev-happy VVC engine can be when you're alone together.

In fact, the harder you rev it the happier you and the lusty 1,796cc K-series engine will be. This willing twin-cam, 16-valve powerplant with variable valve timing has already more than proved itself in the MG TF VVC. Throttle response is first class, pulling cleanly and eagerly from low revs and making the ZR feel powered by something larger than a 1.8-litre engine. For those times you find yourself dawdling along in city traffic you'll find the ZR surprisingly accommodating with decent levels of comfort.

The anti-lock competition brakes, backed up by Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, are well fettled and the large discs (282mm front/260mm rear) haul the ZR down from speed without drama. Along with confident brakes and an enthusiastic powerplant, a fine gearbox is essential in
a driver's car. Here, too, the ZR obliges. Not only is the shift short, positive and rewarding to use, but the five forward ratios are well stacked. And once you've personally experienced the excellent throttle response, you'll understand when we say you'll find yourself changing gear at every opportunity.

Although 160bhp is quite a lot of prancing ponies to funnel through a small hatchback's front wheels, the ZR manages the trick surprisingly well. Traction is praiseworthy, with a commendable lack of torque steer. In fact the ZR has a very tied-down feel that on the move is a central part of its sporting nature.

The ZR's handling abilities are equally well-matched to its 160bhp and pushed hard it's reassuringly balanced and predictable. Firm body control allied to well-weighted, precise and informative steering — the 160's power steering is tuned for a 'sportier' feel — makes the ZR agreeably nimble. Thanks to minimal levels of roll and good grip from the 205/45 Continental SportContacts, it begs to be taken in hand and flicked through twisty, challenging bends.

Despite its driver's car characteristics, ride quality is reasonably supple and more than able to cushion ordinary road shocks while still letting through enough information for the driver to feel and, on poorer road surfaces, to hear what the car is doing. But for the type of driver at whom MG have aimed the ZR, the sounds of the car working hard will undoubtedly be the right sounds.

However, behind the fun is a well-engineered and highly-focused hot-hatch which ensures that dynamically, out on the road the ZR driver always has the last laugh.

The interior also benefits from the recent make-over, with a functional new fascia with four satin chrome TT-style rotary air-vents (turn the bezels to open/close) and a redesigned centre console that together add definition to the cabin. Major switchgear is well-tied high up on the centre console with the four major instruments clustered in a neat arrangement dead ahead of the driver. The dials have silver faces with black graphics and orange needles, with orange illumination after dark — when progress is easy thanks to the powerful halogen headlights.

There's a sporty alloy and leather gearknob, a perforated leather-clad three-spoke steering wheel that adjust for height, generous door pockets with pre-formed storage for CDs, and other various cubbies. The driver and front passenger enjoy supportive, strongly-bolstered seats that keep them firmly located during spirited driving, and the driver's seat also has adjustable height and lumbar support. Head and shoulder room are good, as is visibility from the comfortably upright driving position.

Access through the wide front doors is easy for adults and two will fit in the back without problems, although there are three three-point rear belts and the rear seat splits 60:40. The only grumble about the interior was the small, fiddly buttons on the Kenwood radio/CD unit. Cruising — while not particularly quiet because of the low gearing — is acceptable enough at 80mph, which calls for 4,000rpm in top gear.

Even in 3-door form, the ZR is able to offer decent everyday comfort
in both the front and the back. The boot takes 304 litres and can be extended by folding the rear backrests down. We actually managed a comfortable 100-mile trip with a substantial folding Chinese screen taking up the passenger seat and the folded rear nearside seat with
an adult passenger sitting comfortably in the back behind the driver.
A useful new feature is the remote's electronic tailgate release for easier access to the rear of the car.

The ZR also gets speed — or 'drive away' — locking that locks the doors automatically as soon as vehicle speed exceeds 3mph. The doors remain locked when the car is stationary but can be unlocked either
by turning off the engine or by the master central locking button sited conveniently on the new centre console. It also offers a greater degree of security as the car can be instantly locked, regardless of ignition or engine state, with a single press of the button. Press the master locking switch for two seconds and in addition to a full lock-down, a panic alarm sounds and the hazards flash. Press again for a further two seconds or press the remote to deactivate it.

To recap, standard kit includes a driver's airbag and five lap-and-diagonal belts, air-conditioning, a close-ratio gearbox, sports suspension, sports-tuned power-steering, lumbar support and driver's seat height adjustment, electric front windows (on the 3-door the rear side windows are hinged) and electrically adjustable and heated door mirrors, front fog lamps, remote central locking and an alarm/ immobiliser, driver's airbag, automatic 'drive away' central locking, a sports leather steering wheel, rear head restraints and a Kenwood CD tuner.

A passenger airbag costs 175 extra and other desirable optional equipment includes a Blaupunkt Travel Pilot Satellite Navigation and full leather. There's also MG's Monogram programme which allows you to create a truly individual ZR by specifying a non-standard exterior colour, customised interior and state-of-the-art entertainment system.

The biggest surprise came when it was time for our test car to go back — the petrol consumption had worked out to 36mpg overall, with a best of 43mpg on a 200-mile round trip. At 11 gallons, there's ample touring fuel for around 500 miles between forecourt visits.

'Raw', some would call the entertainment the ZR serves up. But for a keen driver looking to inject some well-calculated but legal thrills (you don't have to risk your licence to have enormous fun in the ZR 160) into today's rather anodyne driving environment, it is a call to arms. And even if you have a small family to cater for, the ZR will oblige. If you haven't driven one of these full-on hot hatches then you really should get yourself down to your nearest MG showroom and have yourself some good old-fashioned FUN. With a capital F.

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MG ZR 160 3-door | 14,995
Maximum speed: 131mph | 0-60mph: 7.4 seconds
Overall test MPG: 36mpg | Power: 160bhp | Torque: 128lb ft

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--------------------------------------------------------------------------- MG ZR 160