Cars 

2021 MG HS Essence Review

Putting together this classic British badge and mighty Chinese automotive company SAIC, the MG HS gives the sense that big things are coming.

This is the story of a car that is not the best in class. Like its smaller stablemate, the ZS, there is plenty of room for improvement. But if you look at MG’s sales figures, you’ll see that these cars are good enough to find thousands of buyers in 2021. Possibly 20,000 of them. MG sold nearly 16,000 cars in Australia last year, almost double its 2019 performance.

Half of those 2020 sales were the MG3, a car MG Australia doesn’t want journalists driving, so I’ve not driven it. It remains one of the few sub-$20,000 hatchbacks in the country and the people buying them clearly like a proper bargain and a long warranty. It’s super-old and has had several facelifts but, as I say, people seem to like it. Good for them.

Roughly a third of sales went to the ZS compact SUV, which I’ve driven in EV form. It’s okay as far as knock-off Hyundai ix30s go and the ZS T facelift will appear on these pages shortly.

Around 2500 people bought the mid-size SUV, the HS, MG’s replacement for the GS. That’s pretty good going when you remember that, really, the MG brand only holds real cachet with tweed-wearing, pipe-smoking flat-cappers who think smouldering Lucas Electrics are a feature rather than a bug. Holden, an allegedly beloved brand, couldn’t sell that many Acadias.

Heck, MG nearly out-sold Holden altogether despite the General offloading their cars for next to nothing as part of its haphazard exit strategy.

So anyway, spoiler alert: the HS isn’t the greatest thing on four wheels. But I’m here to tell you, it’s a lot better than I thought it was going to be and it’s not going to be long before MG starts punching on with the big boys.

How much is an MG HS and what do I get?

MG offers the HS in four flavours, starting at the Vibe, moving through the Excite and landing at the top with the Essence. Which kind of feels like an entry-level name, but hey, I’m no marketing genius. Or indeed a genius of any kind.

There are no options apart from colours, with just white coming as a freebie, the rest a slightly stiff $700.

Core – $29,990 driveway

This bargain basement beastie sneaks under the magic $30,000 mark and puts it in direct competition with compact SUVs (so, smaller cars) from more established makers. The website says it’s still in pre-order, but I’m sure a dealer will take your money.

You get 17-inch alloys, a four speaker stereo, air-conditioning, active cruise control, auto high beam, halogen headlights, remote central locking, cloth trim, power windows and mirrors, reversing camera, rear parking sensors, manual seat adjustment and a space-saver spare.

It has the full MG Pilot safety suite, which is not bad going.

Vibe – $31,990 driveway

Formerly the entry-level car (the Core arrived in October 2020), you get what’s already in the Core albeit with a six-speaker stereo, keyless entry and start, height-adjustable driver’s seat, heated door mirrors, a shark fin antenna, fake leather trim, front fog lights, silver roof rails, leather steering wheel and a cooled centre console bin.

You also get a wider choice of colours, with five on offer rather than three on the Core.

Excite – $34,990 driveway

The Vibe picks up 18-inch alloys, customisable ambient interior lighting, powered tailgate, sat nav, dual-zone climate control, auto wipers, LED headlights, metal pedals, paddle shifts and the slightly hilarious Super Sport driving mode.

Essence – $38,990 driveway

The big price jump to the Essence – the car I drove for a week – includes a panoramic sunroof, a 360-degree camera, leather sports seats, reading lights in the rear, heated front seats, powered fronts (six-way for the driver, four-way for the passenger).

There’s also a football tragic version of the Essence called the Anfield. You can choose a red interior as long as you choose white or black exterior colours. It’s another $2000, weighing in at $40,990. Apparently, MG sponsors the Liverpool football club which I believe is…good?

Media system

The 10.1-inch touchscreen is probably the weakest part of of the cabin. It looks good and is far better than the ZS’s unit, but it’s very slow. Having said that, it’s no worse than the stretched-looking Toyota head unit on Corolla and C-HR.

In the Essence, the sound was fine, the sat nav hopelessly slow but, as ever, all is forgiven in the form of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration, which works well even if you have to stab the screen a bit to get it to respond.

Service and warranty

MG supplies on all its cars – except, strangely, the ZS EV – a seven year/unlimited kilometre warranty which puts it on a war footing with Kia while leaving most other manufacturers behind. Except Mitsubishi, but there are specific terms and conditions (and limits) to its ten year warranty.

You also get a roadside assist for the duration of the warranty, which is pretty good going.

You’ll need to visit the dealer once every 12 months or 15,000km, which for a turbo engine is not bad. There is – I believe – a capped-price servicing regime but the website is very much not interested in giving up that program’s secrets.

Safety – 5 Stars (ANCAP,

The entire range comes with MG Pilot, which is rather nice and other manufacturers will want to take note.

Pilot includes the usual six airbags, ABS, stability and traction controls while throwing in a reversing camera, forward AEB, lane keep assist, blind spot monitoring, exit warning, speed limit display and reverse cross-traffic alert. As an extra, the top of the line Essence gets around-view cameras.

The forward AEB has pedestrian and cyclist detection at up to 64km/h and works with other vehicles at up to 150km/h.

You also get two ISOFIX anchors and three top-tether points.

The systems are a bit frantic, with beeps and boops everywhere, even worse than a Subaru. Something that at first amused me – then began to grate – was the lane keep assist. When you drifted towards the edge of the lane it would do its job – excellent. But when you had your indicator on for a lane change, it would keep doing its job and then rage quit when you crossed the lane divide, as though screaming, “If you won’t listen then I can’t help you!”

Having said that, quiet chats with colleagues tells me that this system is light years ahead of where MG was even a year ago.

Look and feel

I quite like the look of the MG HS and there’s a reason for that – it looks like a lot of other cars I like the look of. There is a lot of Mazda CX-5 in it as well as more than a hint of Nissan X-Trail in the rear, particularly where the glasslike kicks up. It’s a handsome thing and the value of a funky grille is not lost on the designers.

The HS also has some nice touches – probably just slightly too much chrome but it’s not wildly excessive. I can’t work out if I like the way the DRLs are designed either, but they’re funky enough. The proportions are spot-on and the wheels fill the arches about right.

As with the exterior, MG’s designers took some pretty solid ideas from other manufacturers. The flat-bottomed steering wheel has a big red Super Sport button that looks like the starter button from the Audi R8. The circular air vents are actually quite lovely and the centre stack is a nice cross between Mazda and someone else. Don’t come here looking for originality but I did like the tricky merging of the analogue dials with the central digital screen.

The main caution I had with people who asked me about MGs was about fit and finish. All challenger brands go through a period where they’re slapping cars together and getting them to market. Going by the HS – and the difference between the quality of the MG3 and ZS – MG is at the tail-end of that process and is starting to move into the place Hyundai was in after nearly thirty years on sale in Australia.

It takes a long, long time to get quality right. MG has been here for less than ten years and when you line up its early cars next to this HS, you can see the huge progress. Hell, a ZS built on the same day is not as good as the HS but you look at a ZS from three years ago and you’ll see how the company has shaped up.

It’s really well built. Panel gaps are consistent, the interior doesn’t squeak and squawk and nothing was loose or out of place. It felt easily as good as a Suzuki, which is not damning with faint praise. Those guys have been making cars for years.

Drivetrain and Chassis

Slotted under the bonnet is a 1.5-litre turbo four-cylinder good for an impressive 119kW and 250Nm. Somewhat disturbingly, the peak torque figure arriving at 2500rpm. Which is interesting, because peak power arrives somewhat later at 5600rpm.

Driving only the front wheels, the engine is coupled to a seven-speed twin-clutch automatic.

There’s nothing much to report on the chassis front, apart from a multi-link rear end joining the MacPherson struts up front.

Fuel economy

7.3L/100km (combined cycle)

The little engine, drinking premium unleaded, is rated at 7.3L/100km. And, well, no. You’re going to have to be driving extremely carefully to manage that. I got about 10.2L/100km which, to be fair, isn’t terrible at all, but it’s a bit on the thirsty side.

Blame the 1520kg kerb weight. And a few other things at which I am just about to arrive.

Driving

So, as I said, the MG HS isn’t much to drive. The steering keeps every single thing it knows about the road a closely guarded secret and keeps you awake by randomly changing the level of assistance. That’s probably the worst of it, so really, that’s not bad. This car is hardly aimed at the hardcore enthusiast.

For a car obviously pitched at townies, the soft suspension set up is very comfortable for pottering about. The multi-link rear-end does its thing without fuss and handles potholes nicely.

The way it handles reminds me of Japanese cars in the eighties and nineties – reasonably firm in the vertical but lots of body roll in the horizontal. That barely matters around town but if you’re in up-and-down country, the shell does heave about a bit, giving you that rollercoaster effect that might upset a few stomach. So there’s some work to do there. Again, my sources tell me that earlier MGs were pretty terrible all the time, so work is already underway.

On the freeway it is extremely quiet, even on the rubbish roads kicking around Sydney. So it’s fairly relaxing and the engine hums away quietly until you need to overtake.

That’s where things fall down a bit. While I admire the chutzpah of a seven-speed twin-clutch, it’s not one of the better ones available. The engine and transmission seem barely on speaking terms – sort of a Pence/Trump deal – so the messages don’t always result in getting the right gear or the power when you want it.

The 1.5 is very laggy, so much so that it took some time for me to get used to its lazy spin-up, which meant I was mashing the throttle to get it moving. The lag is long and if you’re breaking into traffic, unsettling, but the power arrives eventually and if the gearbox is playing dumb, you can drop it a command via the steering wheel paddles.

The Super Sport driving mode button is best left alone as it merely makes the transmission behave worse. MG is not alone in this, by the way, so it’s not a specific sledge.

So all that lag and throttle mashing is the reason for me solidly missing the claimed fuel figure.

Redline Recommendation

I felt like I’d been giving the MG HS a bit of a belting, but as I re-read this review, I realised that, actually, it’s not a bad car. It may operate well in a fairly narrow window, but Australians mostly operate in that exact window, especially if they live in the two biggest markets in the land, Sydney and Melbourne.

The HS is a perfectly reasonable daily driver as long as you don’t expect the kind of polish you get from a Mazda, Hyundai or Kia. While those brands are much more accomplished dynamically, they’re still transport. As a city-biased family car, the MG HS does everything asked of it at an absolutely bargain price.

While the Essence might not exactly be the kind of money that you want to spend, the second-tier Vibe seems like exceptional value.

You’re not going to buy the HS for fun driving times. But if you or someone you know is after something cheap, safe, seemingly reliable and they’re not all that fussed about how it drives (about 95 percent of people), then the HS isn’t a bad choice.

I didn’t think I’d be saying that.

And talking to the folks at MG Australia, you know that its cars are going to continue to improve. Big things are coming and the HS, while nowhere near perfect, is a good sign of that.

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