The van: a seemingly humble device for the transportation of goods from one location to another. They are not traditionally considered to be fast or fun. In recent times things may have changed as far as pre conceptions go with a regard to a lack of speed; how many times have you moved over to let a hard charging Mercedes Sprinter van through? Put that same Sprinter on a twisty back road though and the picture becomes altogether different. Vans are wallowy and unpleasant to drive away from their preferred hunting ground that is the overtaking lane of the nation's motorways. Or are they?
MG believes this need not be the case. They believe that a market exists for a hot van. Harking back to the XRV vans of the '80s they now sell a van version of the ZR hatch fitted with either a K-series petrol or the L-series derv unit. Named the 'ZR Express', these vans are marketed as the enthusiast's choice so we thought we'd give one a go, in this case a ZR 160. That's 160 PS. In a van. Oo-er!
The styling of the ZR Express is an acquired taste. Skirts, bumpers and spoilers dominate. Someone has gone mad in the Max Power
section of Halford's. Seventeen-inch alloys fitted with 205/45 ZR17 tyres fill the arches purposefully and poking out from the rear bumper are two large tail pipes. It really looks like someone has tarted up a humble van; not at all what you'd expect a manufacturer to roll out its doors.
Testimony to this is the swarm of beanie hat piloted Saxos that seem to fill the rear window wherever you go. This phenomenon mars your progress on a regular basis in towns and on motorways but oddly not on twisty A or B roads; there is one very good reason for this: quite simply, they can't keep up. No really. The ZR wields its 160 PS like a weapon, which, buoyed by the lightweight properties of a van, mean the ZR is no slouch in a straight line. MG makes performance claims of 0-60 mph in 7.4 seconds with a 131 mph maximum. So it's just a drag race machine then? Well, erm, no.
You see MG has gone the whole hog here and this van features one of the stiffest chassis set ups I've experienced in a road car. The chassis is largely carried over from the ZR (no bad thing), which means a low ride height, stiffly sprung suspension and stiff anti roll bars. What this means is that, on the right surface, on the right road the ZR can cover ground as rapidly as almost any other car we've tested. Save for exotica such as the Elise or Evos, this little MG is a formidable cross-country tool. On smooth tarmac the MG possesses huge levels of grip from those relatively meaty tyres and devours corners with alacrity.
It rewards commitment by tenaciously sticking to the chosen line with only a clumsy application of the throttle causing the front end to relinquish its grip and begin to slide wide. Over optimism with respect to cornering speed is met with understeer upon which one needs to be thoughtful with any sudden lift of throttle or application of the brakes. As with most grippy hatches the transference of weight to the front end will make the back end go light and move around. This never threatens have the widow making potential of, say a 205 GTi, but one needs to bear this in mind when pushing on on unfamiliar roads. Saying that, once the rear end does move, it is great fun to balance it with the throttle. Interestingly, the Continental tyres fitted to our test car were noticeably better than the Michelin Sports fitted to the hatch we tested
giving excellent levels of wet weather grip and the stiffer sidewalls paid dividends in the responsiveness of the helm.
Progress is aided by the revvy and willing engine; what it lacks in torque it makes up for in its desire to spin to the red line. The VVC engine is beginning to show its age in terms of refinement but can still punch above its weight. The induction noise is naughty, the exhaust is plain rude and, from a pure mechanical point of view, the engine sounds thrashy - something we'd also noted in it's installation in a lesser powered incarnation in the Elise. However, disregard mechanical sympathy and hammer the K-series and it laps it up.
Aided by the well-weighted quick shift gear change with its five closely stacked ratios you can travel at a very un-van-like pace. Keeping this in check is a good brake set up with big 282 mm ventilated discs upfront and solid 260 mm discs at the rear. This layout is aided by ABS and EBD actuated by a pedal full of feel. As an indication of its driver focus the pedals are positioned perfectly for heel and toe changes. The steering wheel features a decent range of tilt adjustment and is good to hold but the rim is just a little thick to be ideal. Full of feel at most speeds, it offers good communication and for the most part torque steer isn't intrusive.
Interior wise the Express isn't too much of a departure from the hatchback upon which it is based, unfortunately. This is easily the ZR's Achilles' heel due to the layout, packaging and materials. The only novel feature I could find were the CD trays moulded into the door pockets. Other positives include the part leather sports buckets featuring body coloured inserts with the driver's seat height and lumbar being adjustable, although this feature is only optional on lesser models. The interior also features air-con and a Kenwood stereo with CD player, which only has two speakers as standard and is a tad fiddly to use with light reflecting off the back lit screen causing some difficulties.
The load space is flat courtesy of a moulded inlay and the optional grille offers added security and safety, but it rattles. That empty space in the rear also serves as an amplifier through which the exhaust boominess can transmit - an ever present and tiresome annoyance, unless you drive everywhere over 4000 rpm, which is something you can't do legally in 5th gear. Add to this the nastiness of the trim, the cheap badging and horrid faux carbon fibre sticky back plastic and you realise that the interior is not somewhere you'd want to earn a living.
So in summary, the ZR is a fantastic driver's car on the right road but you'll have noticed that caveat several times on this page. On smooth tarmac on a road with no undulations then it's happy days. But how many roads do you know like that? On the average UK A or B road the ZR crashes into pot holes and hops and skips uncomfortably over imperfections and undulations. Even on motorways - and this is its likely playing field being a van - the ZR wanders about like an inattentive wayward child and requires constant correction.
Those fat tyres ensure that it follows cambers like a sheep chases Bo Peep and tram lining under braking is pronounced at times. This is one of those rare cars where rumble strips are genuinely unpleasant and those positioned on approaches to roundabouts cause some fairly laughable oscillations for driver, passenger and cargo alike. This alone will ensure that if your payload is eggs then you'll be delivering omelettes. It's what I call a 10 percenter. On 10% of the UK's roads you could spend 10% of your time enjoying driving this car. The rest of the time the ZR is too much of a compromise.
This is where the ZR confuses me. It's meant to be a work tool that can be used as a toy at the weekend. Well, it is a van, but you can't really carry much in it and, if you do, you can't play with it in the way it wants you to and the chassis' inherent compromises make it an unpleasant mile eater. But then, it's not a car because it's far too unrefined for that. And the price? £14k is sufficient to put you into a Clio Sport 182 and not far shy of a Honda Civic Type R
so it isn't even a bargain. So who is going to buy it? I can only think that this will be the choice of the odd car tuner needing room for his stereo or a courier company who don't specialise in carrying fragile cargo.
Other than that ladies and gentlemen, I give you the world's first trackday van!