It was May 2001 that the first MG Z cars appeared on UK roads. Now, more than 20 years later and with nostalgia inevitably clouding judgement, it can be easy to forget the cynicism that surrounded the ZR, ZS and ZT models. Emerging so soon after the split from BMW, many assumed these sporting flagships for the 25, 45 and 75 range were nothing more than dubious bodykits and big exhausts. Forget cheering for the home team in a time of crisis - a lot of contemporary reviewers didn't give the trio much of a chance at all.
But the Z cars, while far from perfect, proved a lot of the doubters wrong. Both ZS and ZT saloon were really well sorted sports saloons with the V6, shrugging off their dowdy Rover image to deliver some proper engagement. Perhaps the ZS bodykit was a bit much, and the eventual ZT V8 a stretch too far for the rejuvenated MG, but both were better to drive than anybody expected.
Then there was the ZR, the Rover 25-based hot hatch. Though never regarded as quite the dynamic equal of the ZS and ZT, it became the biggest seller in the line up by offering the same thing that compelling hot hatches always have: loads of performance for not much money. That its MG makeover was arguably the most successful of the lot will have helped the ZR's cause with young drivers, too.
The really diverse range - there was a ZR diesel, and even a ZR Express van - only furthered the MG's appeal. Sat at the top was the ZR 160, powered by the 1.8-litre VVC K Series that was also being used in the MG TF at the time. It was just the thing for a hot hatch, light, revvy, and endlessly willing. The K Series always worked best in lightweight cars (and not, say, the Land Rover Freelander) where its best qualities could shine. In period the 160 was criticised for peaky power delivery; nowadays that sounds like a blessing, an engine that needs working to give its best.
Even though the ZR wasn't the best handling hot hatch out there, it's easy to see why it proved popular in the 2000s - and why it'll hold nostalgic appeal for many 15 years after production stopped. Like so many of the cheap, fast, fun cars produced back then, the triple threat of iffy build quality, scrappage schemes and the very nature of the cars - nobody drives a hot hatch slowly - means not many survive. According to thezedregister, 84 per cent of the ZRs made are no longer on the road, a staggering amount. And with cheap, fast, fun cars now conspicuous by their absence - the Up GTI isn't any of those things - many now yearn for the good old days. And they're willing to pay...
This ZR 160 looks like a fantastic example. Bar an upgraded exhaust it's standard inside and out (with exterior having aged better than interior), there's just 32,000 miles on the clock and it comes with new brakes as well. There's even a recent (July 2020) head gasket and water pump replacement, before anyone asks. The MOT history isn't perfect, with rust rearing its ugly head now and again, but the ZR was given a clean bill of health in June this year with only a chipped windscreen of note to the tester. You don't win a Save our Zeds award for just being average...
The ZR is for sale at £6,995; in the time of £25k 205 GTIs and £15k Clio Cups, that doesn't seem an outrageous amount of money. The MG will never be worth what those cars are because it wasn't quite as good, but as an affordable slice of old school hot hatch fun - as well as Rover history - the ZR seems hard to argue against. Time to relive that misspent youth.
SPECIFICATION | MG ZR 160
Engine: 1,796cc, four-cyl
Transmission: 5-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 160@6,900rpm
Torque (lb ft): 128@4,700rpm
First registered: 2003
Recorded mileage: 32,244
Price new: £14,995
Yours for: £6,995
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