MG’s contemporary history is a helpful summation of how modern brands flit around the globe. Once a mainstay of British sports car production, MG was originally founded in 1930, an off-shoot of the Morris Garages company set up to service cars made by William Morris, later Lord Nuffield. In the pre- and post-war years, the marque was responsible for a series of legendary small sports cars as the TF, the Midget, the MGA and the MGB. From the 60s through to the 90s, as British auto industry was first consolidated into British Leyland, then fractured, squeezed, digested and spat out as a series of standalone brands under a variety of different international ownership. 

The MG name, with its distinct octagonal badge, pinged this way and that, gracing lightly sporting versions of saloons and hatchbacks by Austin and Rover, as well as a neat little two-seater, the MG-F, overseen by one Gerry McGovern (now design supremo at JLR). Ultimately, the MG name was acquired by China’s Nanjing Automobile in 2007, at the nadir of the UK auto industry. Nanjing soon merged with SAIC, the state-owned Chinese motor behemoth that began life as the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation, and a new chapter began for the badge. China’s auto industry has been subject to a similar volume of complex mergers and acquisitions; the scale is just far, far larger. SAIC builds around 5 million cars a year, including models in co-partnership with Skoda, Buick and VW. Like all Chinese manufacturers, it is pushing hard for electric vehicles, spurred on by the Chinese government’s aggressive targets.

This is a convoluted way of explaining why the UK’s most affordable electric vehicle is made in China yet bears a 90-year old British badge on its front. The ZS model is also available with conventional power, so it starts with the faint whiff of compromise that blunts all but EV-only vehicles. Presumably the familiarity between petrol and electric models is intended to lure customers over to the EV side, especially as MG’s UK demographic skews older and slightly more conservative. It’s also aimed at new markets, in particular India, where the ZS EV has recently launched, part of a massive push from the Chinese industry to increase overseas sales in the face of a static domestic market.

In Europe, the ZS EV undercuts the competition yet is still better equipped than most. Admittedly, it’s not especially visually distinctive. A compact crossover, the ZS EV is tall and a tad generic, as almost all the cars in this sector tend to be. The grille is oversized, the wheels are a bit small, and its influences are writ large; a radiator design that mimics Mercedes, a Jaguar-style rotary gear selector, a side profile that recalls SEAT. The interior relies on swathes of hard, virgin plastic and elements like the slow-witted info screen and relentless warning bongs and bings are frustrating. A cited range of over 160 miles means one is perpetually hovering on the edge of range anxiety if you stray away from places to charge.

And yet as anyone who has ever lived with an EV for more than a few days knows, range anxiety is swiftly quelled by experience. What were initially quirks become character and the simplicity, ease and low cost of entry to pure electric propulsion makes the ZS EV a sensible choice. This is industrial design for the masses, with a brand name becoming a springboard for much larger industrial forces. §