What would it take to make you Express an interest in a van? How about thousands of pounds off your annual motoring bills? MG Rover is hoping to tempt tradesmen and enthusiasts with the new Express
It sounds ridiculous, but the van version of the MG ZR 160 is a better buy than its hatchback cousin - if you can do without a rear bench. The Express has a lower price, smaller tax bills and cheaper insurance. Refinement isn't up to modern day standards, but this is a fast, fun machine.
What would it take to make you Express an interest in a van? How about thousands of pounds off your annual motoring bills? MG Rover is hoping to tempt tradesmen and enthusiasts with the new Express - a van based on the potent ZR 160. So have the marketing execs committed a cardinal sin or successfully exploited a taxation loophole?
The Express will offer significant savings to company car drivers. Since the change to a CO2 emissions-based tax system last year, the cost to many business users has rocketed. One way to avoid this is to run a company van, which the Inland Revenue describes as any vehicle built primarily to carry goods or loads weighing less than 3,500kg. By taking the back seats out of a ZR and blanking out the rear windows, MG has come up with a machine that fits the bill.
So what are the benefits? In a standard company car, a percentage of the vehicle's value - dependent on emissions - is taxable, but for commercial models the figure is not calculated on price or CO2 ratings. Anyone who pays basic rate income tax and gets free fuel for private mileage would fork out £1,200 in the 2003/2004 tax year to drive an MG ZR 160. Owners of the Express van version, though, would be liable for only a tenth of that amount.
But what if you aren't a company car driver? The worst thing about running a hot hatchback is the cost of insurance cover, particularly for young drivers. The 1.8-litre ZR 160 is one of the most expensive, because it's in insurance group 16, but the van version, which loses none of the standard car's performance, is rated group five! For an owner who's under 25, that could mean a saving of thousands of pounds in fully comprehensive cover. When you see the Express in the metal, there are no noticeable differences between it and the hatch visible from the front or the rear. It is only in profile that the blank rear windows look odd. However, the panels that replace the glass are empty billboards waiting for a signwriter to work his magic on this stylish load-shifter. Inside, the changes are more drastic. Removing the rear bench reduces versatility, and puts the MG in the same league as a Lotus Elise for carrying passengers. However, the boot is enormous, with a volume of 979 litres and a completely flat floor.
To ensure that your load doesn't fly around when on the move, there are plenty of lashing points. What's more, for £75 the standard steel bulkhead can be extended with a grille for those who want to carry large items in safety.
The best thing about the Express is that it loses none of the standard ZR's potent zest for twisty roads, and the decrease in weight makes it feel even more urgent. The steering is meaty and precise, and the 158bhp engine is responsive across the rev range. Noise insulation is reduced, but the resonating exhaust note adds to the excitement during the 7.4 seconds sprint from 0-60mph. Changing gear is also a pleasure, but the brakes lack bite and need a firm push on the pedal to halt the Express. The main problem is the newcomer's Rover 25 underpinnings, which result in a dated interior, rough ride and an old-fashioned feel.
Providing you can live with that, a flagship Express is yours for £14,160, which is £400 less than an equivalent ZR, but still sounds a lot for a van. If 38mpg isn't enough, more frugal 1.4-litre petrol and 2.0 turbodiesel variants are available, along with less sporty Rover models. Given the savings, we'd opt for the range-topping 1.8 - and feel smug about beating the taxman.