It seems that no sooner had the Rover group come back under British ownership than the company set about injecting some real driver appeal into its rather staid range of saloons with some sporty looking accessories, some beefed up suspension and some MG badges.
And the most extreme example of this trend to date is the ZT 260, which has seen MG’s engineers take that prime example of granddad transport, the Rover 75, and junk the original floorpan in favour of a new one that will accommodate rear wheel drive and a big V8.
Sadly the budget didn’t run to making a new Rover V8 to add to the existing K-Series four pot and V6 engines, so like many other British performance cars over the years the ZT 260 gets its motive power courtesy of Ford USA.
Although the ZT 260 is mechanically very different to its front wheel drive siblings, there’s little to distinguish it visually, with just a couple of discreet V8 badges below the side repeaters and an extra pair of tail pipes.
It’s much the same story inside too, with just different ranges on the oval speedo and tacho and a small V8 badge below the clock giving the game away.
Like the rest of the ZT range, the 260 replaces the Rover 75’s wooden dash with a metallic grey one and uses lots of black trim and some heavily bolstered ‘sports’ seats to add to the performance image.
Those seats are very supportive and fully adjustable including height, rake and lumbar support, which in combination with the adjustable steering column and dead ahead pedals should provide a good driving position for most people, although there’s no room alongside the clutch pedal to rest your left foot.
However, being derived from a car designed to be driven by granddads in hats there’s no shortage of headroom in the front, while being a four-door saloon it’s quite commodious for average size adults in the back too.
Interior storage space for the usual knick-knacks isn’t as generous as it first appears due to the glove box and centre console offering space far smaller than their lids would suggest, but at least the door pockets are a useful size.
As too is the boot, although if you do find it’s not big enough you can quickly gain some extra space by folding the back of the rear seat down. And if that’s still not enough there’s always the ZT-T estate version…
Drive the ZT 260 and the first thing you notice is the disappointing lack of that characteristic Yank V8 rumble at low revs. Instead you get a sound that’s as understated as the 260’s looks and from listening to it you’d never know there was a big V8 under the bonnet.
The second thing you notice is that the ZT feels like it has very firm suspension. This is duly confirmed by pressing down on the corners of the body and finding that it staunchly refuses to budge.
As on front wheel drive ZTs, the 260’s front suspension uses MacPherson struts with forged alloy track control arms, though virtually every component has been changed, with new uprights, relocated steering rack and an anti-roll bar that looks big enough to have come off a truck.
The back end is completely different though, with the usual BMW derived Z-axle being replaced by a unique multi-link set-up. At the heart of this is a Hydratrak LSD which is mounted via rubber bushes to a part pressed, part tubular steel subframe that looks to be solidly mounted to the body shell. Pivoting from this are large cast alloy lower arms that carry the coils springs, while running forward of these are upper and lower tubular steel radius arms. Fore/aft location is provided by U-shaped cast alloy trailing arms that pivot from a mounting in the sill, then curve round the tyres to join the front of the uprights.
Also included in the suspension mix are no fewer than six bright yellow Bilstein dampers – one for each wheel and two small ones providing torque damping for the diff.
The downside of the ZT 260’s firm suspension is the harsh ride you get at low speeds around town and at 70mph on concrete motorway sections, where every little surface imperfection seems to be transmitted though the body shell to jiggle you up and down in your seat.
The upside becomes apparent when you start pushing on through the twisty bits, because the ZT 260 is capable of tackling winding rural roads at speeds that would scare the crap out of most Rover 75 drivers. OK, so anything over 40mph would probably do that…
Seriously though, along high speed A and B roads the ZT 260’s body control is excellent, with minimal roll through the bends and only rare instances of pitching over the bumps, with the ride in these conditions also being smoother than at low speed.
High speed A-road blasting is also helped by the steering, which besides being one of the more communicative power assisted set-ups I’ve used, is also sportingly quick at 2.5 turns lock to lock.
The combination of excellent body control, quick steering and high levels of grip provided by the 225/45 ZR 18 Contisport tyres means that the ZT 260 makes short work of rapid changes of direction such as at roundabouts.
Speaking of which, a few tyre squealing runs round some clear examples revealed that when pushed to the limit it’s the ZT 260’s front end that slides first. Even a hefty dose of throttle round my favourite oversteer inducing roundabout failed to get the ZT’s tail out. And yes, I did have the traction control switched off…
No doubt it would be possible to get the ZT sideways, but on dry tarmac at least it’s going to take some doing. Or more power.
And that brings us to what has to be the weakest link in the ZT’s performance chain – the engine.
It is of course the engine that gives the V8 ZT its 260 nomenclature owing to the single overhead cam per bank 4.6 litre V8 fitted producing 257 bhp.
MG’s sales literature might boast that this engine has been developed with the help of the V8 performance experts at Roush Industries, but 257 bhp (at 5,000rpm) from 4.6 litres is actually pretty tame and well below other top performance models in this class.
Still, the ZT 260 does 0-60 in 6.2 seconds so it’s no slouch, though there were times when trying to accelerate from 50-60mph in the upper gears when it felt really sluggish. This is probably due to a combination of its 1,690 kg weight, high gearing (29.7 mph per 1,000 rpm in top) and the fact that the engine has a surprisingly peaky torque curve, with a sharp upturn just before 3,000 rpm, rising to a maximum of 302 lb/ft at 4,000 rpm and then falling off rapidly.
The simple solution to this is to make full use of the gearbox, and MG has commendably decided to make the ZT 260 available with manual transmission only, and though the 5-speed Tremec TR3650 (with bespoke ratios) is a cog short by current standards it does have a smooth, precise MG engineered shift that’s a joy to use.
Running the ZT 260 up through the revs and the gears not only improves the acceleration, it also does wonders for the exhaust note, which makes up for the lack of rumble at low revs with a glorious throaty roar when the engine starts pulling hard in the mid-range.
Drive the ZT 260 in a suitably enthusiastic manner and it’ll enable you to cover the miles very quickly, but it’ll also have you wishing it had more power. The chassis is clearly well able to cope with it, as too are the excellent 325mm front/332mm rear vented disc brakes which slow the car quickly and dead straight.
Still, at least that tame V8 is a well-proven unit that should ensure good reliability.
Prices for MG’s most powerful saloon start at £28,495 on the road, but to get a fully loaded SE model like the test car, with heated electrically adjustable seats, leather upholstery, cruise control and satellite navigation (with teletext TV) you’re looking at £33,490.
That might initially look expensive until you compare it to prices for similarly sized German rivals offering equivalent levels of straight line performance such as the BMW 545i Sport and Mercedes E500 Avantgarde and find they’re over £10k more, at which point it starts to look pretty reasonable.
And considering that the MG ZT 260 was developed from an old fart’s car on what must have been a shoestring budget compared to what the likes of BMW and Mercedes spend, it does a more than reasonable job of providing a credible homegrown rival to German sports saloons.
It’s just a shame that there isn’t a more powerful version available, then MG would have a car to give those M badged Beemers and AMG badged Mercs a run for their money.
But while such a car doesn’t exist yet, MG do have one planned – the ZT 385.
Could be just the car all PistonHeads-reading granddads have been waiting for…