- Excellent value for money
- Handsome styling
- Good quality cabin
- Thirsty engine, unrefined transmission
- Underdamped and crashy ride
- Short service intervals
Chinese company MG’s rise up the Australian sales chart has been nothing short of staggering – coming from nothing less than three years ago, MG sales are now in the top 10 every month thanks to their value pricing, long standard equipment lists and modern and youthful styling. The brand’s small MG3 hatchback (think Mazda2-sized) and ZS small SUV (think of the CX-3) have been pulling all the weight locally, but what about a more expensive and more premium offering? Enter the 2021 MG HS Essence.
The HS competes in the medium SUV segment against a wide range of rivals – everything from the Nissan X-Trail to the Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, Subaru Forester, Mazda CX-5, Skoda Karoq, Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape and Peugeot 3008 are rivals to this car. The HS offers a range of three powertrains: a plug-in hybrid, a 2.0-litre turbo petrol with all-wheel drive and the front-wheel drive 1.5-litre turbo petrol that we tested here in top-spec Essence form.
Price and Specs: 9/10
While the 2021 MG HS range starts from $29,990 drive away for the entry-level Core, the model we tested is – or, was until recently with the addition of the all-wheel drive and PHEV models – the top of the HS tree: the $38,990 drive away Essence. While it’s a full $9,000 more than the base Core, it’s very well equipped for the money.
Standard kit on the 2021 MG HS Essence includes LED front and rear lighting, auto lights and wipers, 18-inch alloy wheels, leather and suede upholstery with heated front sports seats, six-way driver/four-way passenger electrically adjustable front seats, keyless entry and start with an electric tailgate, heated and auto-folding mirrors, LED ambient lighting, dual-zone climate control with rear air vents, four USB-A ports, a 10.1-inch touchscreen with wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, inbuilt sat nav, digital radio and even a panoramic sunroof.
Safety kit is also plentiful with six airbags, auto emergency braking (AEB) with cyclist and pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control with traffic jam assist, lane keep assist, auto high beam, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, occupant exit alert, a 360-degree parking camera, rear parking sensors and a system called intelligent speed assist, which uses a camera to detect speed limits and relay them to the driver or if turned on, limit the car to the posted limit. The best part? All of this is standard across the whole HS range – even the sub-$30k drive away HS Core.
As you’d expect from a brand that sells predominantly on value, even this top-spec HS is very well priced – especially when you consider that similarly priced rivals offer not even half the toys that are on the HS Essence. We consider the lower-spec HS Excite to be even better value though – you only lose the electric and heated front seats, 360-degree camera, panoramic roof and the leather becomes faux, but it’s a full $4,000 cheaper at $34,990 drive away.
Performance and Fuel Economy: 6/10
Under the bonnet of the 2021 MG HS Essence is a 119kW/250Nm 1.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine, which is matched to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. The HS Essence is front-wheel drive – upgrade to the Essence X and not only do you get a larger 168kW/360Nm 2.0-litre turbo petrol engine, but you also get all-wheel drive – for an extra $4,000, of course.
The HS’ engine is more than adequate around town. Its maximum 250Nm of torque is delivered at a relatively high 4,400rpm, which isn’t as low as something like the 1.4-litre turbo engine in the VW Tiguan. But it does enable you to drive around at relatively low revs, which helps fuel economy. Open up the taps a bit more and the engine never feels stressed either, though it’s hardly sporty – and thanks to a dim-witted transmission, kick down can take forever.
There are two areas where the HS’ drivetrain needs improvement: fuel economy and its transmission. MG claims that it will use 7.3L/100km on a combined cycle, but in our testing that included a lot of highway use, it used just under 11L/100km. The HS also needs premium unleaded fuel.
The seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission is also in need of improvement. Its low speed hesitancy is typical of the type but at speed it offers nowhere near the decisiveness or speedy shifts of the DSG transmission in a VW Tiguan – let alone the smoothness of the eight-speed torque converter in the Skoda Karoq. It also exhibits random clunks when downshifting, and as we mentioned before, kick down can take ages. The tuning of the six-speed conventional auto in the MG ZS T is far superior – hopefully MG can carry some of its magic to the dual-clutch unit in the HS 1.5T.
Ride and Handling: 6/10
Like the drivetrain, the ride and handling of the 2021 MG HS Essence needs work. Of course, it’s not a sports car and we’re not treating it as such, but the HS feels underdamped around town where its ride can be both too soft and yet also quite jiggly and crashy. This lack of damping is also felt in the smaller ZS, and an Australian tuning program – much like how Hyundai and Kia locally tune every product that they sell here – would do wonders for the way that these cars feel behind the wheel. The lack of finesse can be jarring to anyone accustomed to driving more accomplished SUVs.
Though its competitors are hardly known for the way that they drive, the HS’ handling is nothing special either. Thanks to overly assisted and inconsistently weighted steering, you don’t feel much through the tiller and it doesn’t give you much confidence, especially at higher speeds. The car’s ride is better on country roads where its floatiness doesn’t have to deal with constant changes but a RAV4, CX-5 or even Escape would run rings around it.
Thankfully, the cabin is well hushed even at highway speeds, and as a highway cruiser, the HS would be much happier than being punished around town over speed bumps and broken roads. We’re sure it’s great on the smooth roads of China, but work is needed for Australia – the ingredients are certainly there, but the execution needs work.
The HS’ active safety systems are mostly well tuned as well, with less intrusion than what we’re used to from the ZS. The automatic headlights are horrible though – every trip into a tunnel was almost unlit the whole way through. What’s the point of automatic lights if they aren’t automatic? They also don’t activate with rain, which is a feature many Euro competitors offer.
Interior and Practicality: 8/10
Thankfully, the 2021 MG HS Essence is a big improvement for the brand on the inside, particularly with quality. There are soft touch materials used almost everywhere in the cabin – including the tops of the rear doors – and while the leather used on the dashboard and doors is clearly fake, it’s still nice to the touch and is definitely a layer above in presentation versus some competition like the Nissan X-Trail.
The leather and suede sports seats of the Essence are also comfortable and supportive, though they could offer more electric adjustment range – and no lumbar support is annoying. Still, it’s possible to get a good driving position, and visibility is also pretty good as well with large windows and an excellent 360-degree parking camera.
All models in the HS range offer a 10.1-inch touchscreen infotainment system with both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, while the Essence we tested also gets inbuilt satellite navigation. The screen is pretty good quality though it is quite slow to boot up, and its menus aren’t very intuitive either. The controls for the climate control are buried behind menus in the screen as well – there are no dedicated temperature or fan speed buttons, just front and rear demisting.
A part-digital driver’s display features across the range and offers a wide variety of info from the trip computer to the active safety kit. While it’s not as immersive as the fully digital equivalent on the smaller ZS T, it still adds a relatively expensive feel to the instruments. It would be nice if the digital speedometer wasn’t interrupted by the lane assist system however – it doesn’t automatically return, which is infuriating!
The cabin of the 2021 MG HS Essence is reasonably practical though, with reasonable door bins, big cup holders, a nice glove box and pretty good headroom and knee room in both rows for even six+ footers. The rear seat is pretty comfortable, and it offers a centre arm rest with cup holders, vents, door bins, two USB-A charging ports and two map pockets.
The boot of the HS offers a reasonable 463-litres of space, which is on par with the 466L of the Kia Sportage. There’s a little storage bin to the right side of the boot, a – slow – electric tailgate and some under floor storage but that’s it – no hooks, no nets and no tie down points. Fold the seats almost flat too, and you only get 1,287L of space – a VW Tiguan, for example, offers a huge 1,655L with its rear seats folded.
Service and Warranty: 8/10
True to its value positioning, all MG products have a seven-year/unlimited km warranty locally, which is equal to Kia’s offering and just behind Mitsubishi’s ten-year/200,000km (if serviced at Mitsubishi dealers) equivalent.
Not much can be said about the cost of servicing however, as MG is yet to announce capped price servicing for the HS. Servicing is required once a year or every 10,000km whichever occurs first, which is not up to the standard 15,000km intervals seen with many other manufacturers. This means that the MG HS might find itself visiting the service department more than once a year.
The 2021 MG HS Essence DiscoverAuto Rating: 7.4/10
The 2021 MG HS Essence keeps strong to the typical MG values thus far: great value for money, reasonable practicality, a long warranty, reasonably funky styling and a good range of choice. The whole HS range is equipped with the full suite of the brand’s ‘MG Pilot’ active safety suite, which we think is a big step in the right direction – let’s hope the ZS and MG3 follow suit as well. The HS offers standard equipment that some rivals would charge $15,000 more than the HS’ $38,990 drive away pricing.
But like the other MG products, the HS Essence needs an extra layer (or two) of finesse – the engine is thirsty, the dual-clutch automatic transmission is unrefined, the ride is underdamped and the steering is largely lacking in feel. Rivals such as the Hyundai Tucson offer good value as well, but also a superior driving experience, which might be enough to temp punters elsewhere. But for many buyers, there are clearly many reasons to buy the HS – just check out its competitors before committing.
Photos by Michael Frazer