MG’s heritage as a builder of sports cars seems a distant memory, but in the modern era under Chinese ownership the British brand is looking to make it in the mainstream with its SUV range.

First came the mid-size GS crossover, which was given a lukewarm reception; now, after a long wait and some confusion over the car’s name, the firm’s ZS small SUV has finally arrived.

Best crossovers and small SUVs

Tested here in 1.0-litre turbocharged petrol form, it only comes with a dual-clutch automatic gearbox and costs £17,995 in top-spec Exclusive trim. That spec and price tag mean MG’s latest model is going up against two of our favourite small SUVs: the Citroen C3 Aircross and the SEAT Arona.

These are the cars the ZS has to beat, and with plenty of kit, it looks competitive on paper. But buyers want something a little more stylish than a supermini; image is very important. Driving dynamics are, too, so can the MG’s underpinnings live with the fairly advanced competition?

Not even a blizzard could keep us from finding out, although all of our performance tests and dynamic assessments were carried out in more conventional conditions. Which model wins?

MG ZS

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Model: MG ZS 1.0T GDI DCT Exclusive
Price: £17,495
Engine: 1.0-litre 3cyl turbo, 109bhp
0-60mph: 11.9 seconds
Test economy: 36.1mpg/7.9mpl
CO2: 144g/km
Annual road tax: £140

There are two engine options in the MG ZS range: a naturally aspirated 1.5-litre petrol and the 1.0-litre turbocharged petrol we’re testing here in top-spec Exclusive trim. This costs £17,495 and only comes with a dual-clutch automatic transmission. So how does the newcomer fare against its established and talented rivals?

At our test track the MG’s performance was also disappointing. It accelerated from 0-60mph in 11.9 seconds, compared with the Citroen’s 10.7-second effort and the SEAT’s 9.5-second time.

The ZS also lagged behind both rivals when it came to in-gear performance. Its 23.3-second result over the 50-70mph test in top gear was far behind the Aircross’s 16.4 seconds and the Arona’s impressive 10.4 seconds, to the point where this is quite noticeable on the road because it causes the gearbox to kick down quite frequently.

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Despite a comparable level of power, the 109bhp engine feels flat. It’s not helped by a fairly significant torque deficit to its rivals; the unit only delivers 160Nm and the MG is the heaviest car, at 1,231kg, which partly explains the performance shortfall.

On top of this, the chassis feels overly firm and crashes between bumps, lacking the compliance of the Citroen in particular. But despite the firmer set-up, the ZS doesn’t have the body control or the composure of the SEAT in corners, especially when you up the pace.

The steering is acceptable, but the adjustable modes don’t add anything to the driving experience, so we felt it best to leave the car in its Normal setting.

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We’ve come to expect snappy shifts from dual-clutch units, but the MG’s DCT is sluggish. Upshifts are not particularly quick and it’s easy to catch the gearbox out; it sometimes picks the wrong ratio when accelerating out of a bend, only to kick down with a sudden burst of acceleration. It’s not as smooth and relaxing as the Aircross’s auto and nor is it as quick or as engaging as the SEAT’s DSG.

The MG’s best attribute is that the engine is hushed at a cruise, but then this only highlights the wind noise and the still-choppy ride that doesn’t settle down even when driving on the motorway.

Testers’ notes: “If you want a manual model you’ll have to go for the naturally aspirated 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol unit, which isn’t as sweet. Both engines in the MG’s rivals come with a manual option.”

SEAT Arona

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Model: SEAT Arona 1.0 TSI 115 DSG SE Technology
Price: £18,495
Engine: 1.0-litre 3cyl turbo, 113bhp
0-60mph: 9.5 seconds
Test economy: 37.4mpg/8.2mpl
CO2: 113g/km
Annual road tax: £140

The SEAT Arona is easily the sportiest of these three SUVs when it comes to both design and dynamics. However, in SE Technology trim tested here and fitted with the firm’s 1.0 TSI 115 DSG powertrain (our pictures show a manual), it’s the most expensive car on test at £18,495. Is it worth it?

Combine the nicely weighted and precise steering with the tautest chassis here, and the Arona is easily the sportiest and most fun driver’s car of this trio.

Although the ride is on the firmer side, which means body control is tight and the chassis is well tied down, the car is also nicely damped, and offers almost as much comfort as the Citroen.

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Vertical movement is translated a little more aggressively to occupants over poor surfaces, but you feel better connected to the chassis. Yet the SEAT still smothers rough roads adeptly.

This set-up gives it plenty of grip, which means you can make the most of the smooth, refined 113bhp 1.0-litre TSI unit. It’s linear and the most flexible of the engines here. With 200Nm of torque from 2,000rpm, there’s enough performance at the bottom end, but the motor revs out sweetly, too.

Linked to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, it’s the most rewarding powertrain because the shifts are swift, but also smooth when you’re on the move. Low-speed manoeuvres are a little jerky, but the DSG swaps ratios sweetly and is also the sharpest-shifting transmission, which gives it an advantage.

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The Arona was the fastest car on test, accelerating from 0-60mph in a fairly rapid 9.5 seconds, while its in-gear performance was strong and had the Citroen covered, too. This was helped by having an extra ratio in its gearbox and a similar kerbweight.

The 1.0 unit is quiet and at speed there’s less wind and road noise than in its rivals, so the SEAT balances a good level of involvement with plenty of usability.

Testers’ notes: “It’s good that SEAT has made this DSG gearbox and higher-powered engine available across the range; you’ll have to choose the trim you want as there isn’t much scope for adding individual options.”

Citroen C3 Aircross

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Model: Citroen C3 Aircross PureTech 110 EAT6 Feel
Price: £17,400
Engine: 1.0-litre 3cyl turbo, 108bhp
0-60mph: 10.7 seconds
Test economy: 38.0mpg/8.4mpl
CO2: 126g/km
Annual road tax: £140

Citroen’s C3 Aircross has proven itself on more than one occasion and is our favourite compact SUV of the current, rapidly growing crop. Here we test the mid-spec Feel (a Flair is pictured) with the brand’s 1.2-litre PureTech 110 engine and automatic gearbox, which costs from £17,400.

The Aircross’s extra ground clearance and longer-travel suspension are evident on the move, because it’s remarkably comfortable. The car tracks over rutted roads with a respectable level of composure, offering compliance over all but the worst bumps. Even then it doesn’t feel as firm as the SEAT, while the MG lags behind with lax body control and crashy damping.

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While the C3 is also more enjoyable than the ZS, with light but direct steering, it’s clearly not as good to drive as the Arona. The Citroen’s engine is strong enough, delivering a fairly gutsy hit of torque thanks to its 205Nm (the most here) at 1,500rpm. Even with the auto box, this helped it sprint from 0-60mph in 10.7 seconds; 1.2 seconds faster than the MG.

The extra torque also meant the Citroen easily had the measure of the MG when it came to in-gear performance. One downside of the six-speed transmission is that it isn’t particularly swift in swapping ratios, but it is smooth and matches the level of comfort served up by the chassis. It rarely lurches and low-speed driveability is better than it is in the Arona.

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It’s clear the Citroen’s focus lies on comfort, but despite this and some noticeable roll in corners, it’s actually nicer to drive faster and to cruise in than the disjointed experience you get in the MG.

Testers’ notes: “Flair trim gets a bi-tone roof as standard, and this lifts the look of the car, given that there are no Citroen Airbumps fitted. A £250 Style Pack is offered on Feel trim models, adding coloured mirrors.”

Verdict

First place: Citroen C3 Aircross

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In automatic form the C3 Aircross wins thanks to its affordability compared with the pricier SEAT. It drives well and focuses on comfort, while still delivering strong performance. Efficiency is strong, you get a decent amount of kit (with room to add options considering the price) and practicality matches that of cars from the class above. It’s a versatile small family SUV.

Second place: SEAT Arona

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The Arona serves up sharp handling and strong performance, making it the most dynamically rewarding car here, yet it’s almost as comfortable as the C3 Aircross and gets more kit. But you have to pay for this, and it’s nowhere near as practical as the Citroen. Even so, respectable running costs mean keen drivers should opt for the SEAT, because it’s still a top-class SUV.

Third place: MG ZS

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With its ZS SUV, MG has made a useful step, learning from the larger GS. But it’s still outclassed in this company. Poor performance and refinement, a lumpy ride and high CO2 emissions overshadow the affordable price given the impressive level of standard kit – except for when it comes to safety. The car’s sobering three-star NCAP rating will be a big issue for families.

Other options in this category:

Hyundai Kona 1.0 T-GDi 120 SE

Hyundai Kona - front

Price: £17,745
Engine: 1.0-litre 3cyl, 118bhp

In SE trim the Kona is well priced, has a punchy engine (although it’s manual-only) and decent connectivity. A seven-inch touchscreen with CarPlay and Android Auto is great, but the 361-litre boot means it’s down on its rivals here.

Peugeot 2008 PureTech 110 EAT6 Allure

Peugeot 2008 - front

Price: £18,575
Engine: 1.0-litre 3cyl, 108bhp

It might be pricier (the gap narrows on PCP), but the Peugeot is a practical small SUV with some premium appeal. Similar underpinnings to the C3 mean it drives sweetly, while the 410-litre boot boosts usability.

Figures

Citroen C3 Aircross PureTech 110 EAT6 Feel SEAT Arona 1.0 TSI 115 DSG SE Technology MG ZS 1.0T GDI DCT Exclusive
On the road price/total as tested £17,400/£17,400 £18,495/£18,495 £17,495/£18,040
Residual value (after 3yrs/36,000) £7,550/43.4% £7,859/42.5% £6,951/39.7%
Depreciation £9,850 £10,636 £10,544
Annual tax liability std/higher rate £825/£1,650 £745/£1,490 £931/£1,862
Annual fuel cost (12k/20k miles) £1,737/£2,895 £1,765/£2,942 £1,828/£3,047
Ins. group/quote/road tax cost 13/£504/£140 11/£353/£140 10/£488/£140
Servicing costs £400 (3yrs) £414 (2yrs) N/A
Length/wheelbase 4,154/2,604mm 4,138/2,566m 4,314/2,585mm
Height/width 1,637/1,765mm 1,543/1,780mm 1,611/1,809mm
Engine 3cyl in-line/1,199cc 3cyl in-line/999cc 3cyl in-line/999cc
Peak power/revs 108/5,500 bhp/rpm 113/5,000 bhp/rpm 109/5,200 bhp/rpm
Peak torque/revs 205/1,500 Nm/rpm 200/2,000 Nm/rpm 160/1,800 Nm/rpm
Transmission 6-spd auto/fwd 7-spd dual-clutch/fwd 6-spd dual-clutch/fwd
Fuel tank capacity/spare wheel 45 litres/space saver 40 litres/repair kit 48 litres/compressor
Boot capacity (seats up/down) 410-520/1,289 litres 400 litres/N/A 448/1,375 litres
Kerbweight/payload/towing weight 1,203/612kg/N/A 1,210/470/1,200kg 1,231/499/500kg
Turning circle 10.8 metres 10.6 metres 11.1 metres
Basic warranty (miles)/recovery 3yrs (60,000)/1yr 3yrs (60,000)/2yrs 7yrs (80,000)/1yr
Driver Power manufacturer/dealer pos. 26th/14th 6th/17th 25th/N/A
NCAP: Adult/child/ped./assist/stars 85/82/64/60/5 (2017) 95/80/77/60/5 71/51/59/29/3
0-60/30-70mph 10.7/11.1 secs 9.5/8.8 secs 11.9/11.8 secs
30-50mph in 3rd/4th 4.5/5.9 secs 3.5/4.1 secs 6.3/8.0 secs
50-70mph in 5th/6th/7th 9.8/16.4 secs/N/A 6.3/7.9/10.5 secs 17.4/23.3 secs/N/A
Top speed/rpm at 70mph 114mph/2,250rpm 113mph/2,500rpm 112mph/2,200rpm
Braking 70-0/60-0/30-0mph 47.5/35.9/8.3m 51.6/35.1/8.2m 51.9/34.0/11.2m
Noise outside/idle/30/70mph 70/45/63/72dB 68/52/65/73dB 68/43/70/75dB
Auto Express econ. (mpg/mpl)/range 38.0/8.4/376 miles 37.4/8.2/329 miles 36.1/7.9/381 miles
Govt urban/extra-urban/combined 40.9/58.9/50.4mpg 49.6/62.8/56.5mpg 34.5/54.3/44.9mpg
Govt urban/extra-urban/combined 9.0/13.0/11.1mpl 10.9/13.8/12.4mpl 7.6/11.9/9.9mpl
Actual/claimed CO2/tax bracket 172/126g/km/24% 174/113g/km/21% 181/144g/km/27%
Airbags/Isofix/park sensors/camera Six/yes/£250/no Six/yes/yes/no Six/yes/yes/yes
Auto box/lane keep/blind spot/AEB Yes/no/no/£490* Yes/no/no/yes Yes/no/no/no
Clim ctrl/cruise/leather/heated seats £350/yes/no/no Air-con/yes/no/no Yes/yes/no/no
Metallic/LEDs/keyless go/pwr tailgate £520/no/no/no Yes/no/no/no £545/no/no/no
Sat-nav/digi dash/DAB/connect apps £600*/no/yes/no Yes/no/yes/yes Yes/no/yes/no
W’less charging/CarPlay/Android Auto No/yes/yes Yes/yes/yes No/yes/no

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