Buying Guide: MG ZR


Words: Mike Humble Pictures: MG Rover Group

The MG ZR proved enormously popular during its four-year life-span, winning over custom from both the young, and young at heart. 

Here, Mike Humble serves up in-depth advice on buying MG’s most-recent hot hatch. 

MG ZR 2001 – 2005

Engine Options: 1.4 – 1.8 & 1.8VVC – 2.0 TDi (two states of tune)

Body Style: Sports Hatch 3 door ZR & Express Van or 5 door

If an award could be given to the manufacturer for the most convincing silk purse from a Sows ear, then surely MG Rover must qualify with their shoestring budget yet utterly convincing Z-Car range. Take an average looking Rover 25 sprinkle some nostalgic badges and some sporting cues, tweak the suspension while using the magic of designer Peter Stephenson’s pencil and there you have it – the MG ZR

Introduced back in 2001, the ZR was part of a batch of cars that were the first new models since MGRs new found independence under the Phoenix Partnership. Based on the Rover 25 which in turn has its roots deeply buried in the 200 series launched way back in 1996, the ZR was an instant sales hit when it arrived in the showrooms. Cute cheeky styling and vivid colour options allied to pin sharp handling and genuine value for money created high demand from the outset.

Yet eight years on from the demise of MGR, the whole range of MG or Rover cars are now very much in the banger territory of used car purchases, but our nature of always getting behind the underdog results in a strong and loyal following. There are simply loads of used ZR models out there to choose ranging from knackered chav rockets to lovingly caressed examples that are treated with all the kindness of a family pet.

Engine wise, petrol models use the well known Rover K series power unit in 1396cc 103ps 1798cc 118ps and a high performance 1798cc 160ps engine with hydraulic variable valve control (VVC). The intercooled diesel version was offered with the 1998cc Rover L series engine in two states of tune: 100ps or 113ps with the latter engine having a revised ECU map to gain better top end performance.

On the subject of gearboxes, the ZR featured the uprated Rover / PSA R65 transmission while the 1.8 and diesel used the well known Rover T5/PG1 gearbox. Facelift 1.4 cars used the iB4 Ford gearbox replacing the R65U unit. The automatic version is quite rare and called the Steptronic. Developed by ZF-ST the box is in essence a five speed unit that can be driven in fully auto or semi-auto mode using a similar drive train as the older CVT system. All models are front wheel drive transverse mounted powertrains and no traction control or stability systems were offered.

Braking systems comprise of disc drum on 1.4 & 100ps Diesel with the others featuring vented front and solid rear discs, an anti-lock braking system is optional or standard depending on model.

Suspension is provided by struts on the front and mini struts with twist beam on the rear. Similar in look to the 25 range, the ZR features different spring / damper ratings and polybushes to sharpen up the road manners during spirited driving.

RGS-0701-246Power steering is standard on the entire range and features a higher geared rack for quick response. The system is actuated in the traditional manner via a belt driven hydraulic pump.

Safety / security related items include standard drivers with optional passenger airbag – ABS brakes depending on model- height adjustable seat belt anchorages with pre tensioners – door intrusion protection beams – remote central locking with immobiliser.

What to look out for:


Petrol engines are well renowned for cooling and cylinder head gasket problems so this are must be checked thoroughly. Inspect condition of coolant for signs of goo or dirty deposits that shows evidence of exhaust gas contamination or oil speckles. Look inside the oil filler cap for evidence of creamy gunk which points to oil and water emulsification.

Radiators are prone to serious corrosion along the bottom edge but are cheap to replace. Any water leak must be cured right away as these engines contain a small amount of coolant and any substantial drop in level will lead to overheating, air locks or a blown head. Inspect the rear of the head for coolant leaks from the plastic inlet manifold, worst case scenarios cause the cylinders to flood with coolant causing hydraulic locking and bent con rods, but again, cheap and easy to cure before harm is done.

Mild tapping from a cold engine is acceptable, but should this continue after a minute or two of idling suspect sticking tappets or piston slap if the noise is more like a knock. Oil leaks mainly come from the valve cover, right hand camshaft seals and oil filter areas. Damp patches are fine but beware of dripping or the smell of hot oil.

VVC engines can fail at early mileages due to abuse. Make sure the VVC system works as it should, if the engine feels flat and has no surge towards peak revs, the actuator module has probably failed and costs hard currency to cure.

All petrol engines feature a belt driven valvetrain which if fails will destroy the engine. Ensure this has been changed recently, if not, negotiate on cost. Its an easy task and features a simple automatic tensioning system (except VVC) that makes fitting a breeze.

If the yellow ECU warning lamp is lit, this is more than likely a failed oxygen sensor, expect to pay around £70 + fitting or 30 mins for the DIY mechanic.RGS-0701-245

The diesel is a fairly robust unit that offers lots of grunt & economy balance, not the quietest plant but strong and reliable in general. Cold starting should be instant, if not, suspect the glow plugs but note that only 1 2 & 3 can be accessed. Cylinder 4 glow plug is buried under the fuel pump but the L series will still fire up perfectly well on only 3 good plugs.

Gearboxes tend to be okay but 1.4 models can tear through a clutch in no time in the wrong hands. A whirring noise in neutral on all other manual cars is acceptable providing it’s not excessive. Beware of stiff or clicking clutch cables and if the pedal is more than two inches higher than the brake – the clutch has not long to go. Stiff gearchanges on all cars point to trouble, they should be slick and positive – if not then bid your farewell.

The steptronic must work flawlessly, any flashing symbol on the dashboard spells expensive trouble and this box is a specialist item requiring exacting knowledge. Walk away from any car that rattles once drive is selected – you have been warned!


The suspension is simplicity itself and the usual checks need to be made for broken / miss matching srings, weeping dampers and bottom ball joints. Pay attention for split anti roll bar drop link bushes – cheap and simple to replace though.

Steering needs only the usual checks for fluid leaks and excessive play in the rack or track rod ends. Power steering reservoirs are known for leaking fluid where the hoses connect but this is cured by fitting better quality clips. A damp steering pump is okay so long as fluid is not visibly leaking and check the PAS drive belt for cracking – they’re often a forgotten item.

The 1.4 and 100ps diesel can munch through pads and discs so be keen to check for visual condition and noticeable juddering when braking from speed. Other cars with rear discs have a more balanced set up but look out for poor handbrake efficiency and binding rear callipers. Check the ABS for function, it the ABS lamp fails to illuminate this could be a split or detached reluctor ring on the outer CV joint – not a major headache but it will gain you an MOT failure or false actuation of the ABS even during normal braking.


RGS-0201-124Pre-2004 cars are fairly good but alternators are known for dying early. Pay close inspection to the wiring loom in the tailgate aperture, its prone to splitting and chafing. This causes problems with central locking and earthing issues. The part is no longer available but a good auto electrician will be able to repair and make good unless it’s previously been bodged before.

Fan speeds 1-2 & 3 can fail due to a burnt out resistor, but once again – a simple and fairly cheap repair. If the wipers are noisy or judder in action check the blades and check the nuts securing the wiper arms to the spindles. These can work loose and will strip the splines off the wiper spindles if left untouched – it only needs a dab of threadlock and a tweak with a spanner to permanently cure.


BMR-1102-763Earlier cars are finished better than later examples and look out for flaky wheelarches, rusty tailgate hinges, floorpan corrosion and waterlogged boot wells. Poor accident damage repairs will show bad paintwork and dodgy panel gaps while later models have thin paint finishes which scratches easily.

Look out for split drivers seat bolsters, threadbare carpets and broken speaker grilles on the inside. Later facelifted cars feature a revised dash with soft touch switches that are hard to replace if they fail so push every button to check for function. Later cars also have problems with wiring and electrical gremlins thanks to cheaper looms and other cost cutting practices.

SPEC & Trim Levels

Entry level 1.4 versions on face value are actually quite Spartan with nothing more than pretty alloys, a half decent stereo and remote central locking being remotely extravagant. Keep fit window winders and manual mirrors are the name of the game here, but the snazzy Axis seat trim with faux Recaro front chairs look snappy. The “+” pack adds front fogs, electric windows and an electric tilt slide glass sunroof.

1.8 versions offer standard electric windows with the plus model adding air conditioning. The range topping VVC adds part leather and larger alloy wheels into the mix along with a CD Radio system though MG Rovers extensive Monogram option list offered special paint finishes and alternative. There is a certain possibility that no two ZR models may be the same as dealers really pushed the Monogram idea hard post 2002 in order to generate extra profit.


On test drive check for grabbing or juddering brakes, wavering temperature needles, wheel wobble (if at low speed and if it doesn’t fade away suspect a buckled alloy), buzzing exhaust systems indicating loose baffles in the rear silencer, over pressurising top coolant hoses and smells of hot engines.
Gearboxes should be quiet and graunch free but expect some transmission whine on 1.8 & diesel, it’s a design feature of this gearbox. Drive the car on full lock in an open space to check the outer CV joints for wear that manifests itself as clicking or thumping through the steering wheel. If you must have an automatic, drive in fully and semi auto mode. Be sure to drive the car in reverse with a little throttle and listen for grating noises – if present, walk away!


1.4 MPG – 38
1.8 MPG – 35 (VVC – 33)
2.0 TDi – 45-50

DIY Friendliness

1.4 – 5/5
1.8 – 5/5
VVC – 4/5
TDi – 4/5


£300 for a rough project 1.4 that runs (just about)

£800 for a decent daily driver requiring a little TLC

£2000 for a mint low mileage ZR160 or TDi

1 response on Buying Guide: MG ZR

  1. This is a very useful piece. I avoided a couple of bangers and picked up a 1.4 with 16k on the clock instead. Well done Mike Humble.

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