MG Astor SUV first drive: The 800-pound gorilla

Standing in the pit lane at the Buddh International Circuit, I listened with rapt attention as a senior colleague regaled us with tales of his extensive travels across south India in the MG ZS EV, one of the earliest electric cars available in India. That car escaped my attention by way of its blandness and (then) high price. The Astor is the same vehicle, but with a traditional petrol engine under its bonnet, and there’s absolutely no fear of it going unnoticed.

The Astor is the combustion-engine version of the ZS SUV, which India is already familiar with thanks to the ZS EV. Image: MG

What is it?

The MG Astor uses the same body shell as the ZS EV, but this time round, the bold colours borrowed from the Hector lineup and the raft of features don’t just bring it up to date but place it beyond the competition. For brevity, it’s a Creta-fighter, so it goes up against the Hyundai, the Kia Seltos, the recently-launched Skoda Kushaq, Volkswagen Taigun and more. Where it is likely to score is on space and the laundry list of high-tech features. MG claims this is the first vehicle in its category to include ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance System), putting it in the category of ‘Autonomous Level 2’ cars. More on this later.

Many words about tech

Understatement would be disingenuous here; the MG Astor is awash in technology like you wouldn’t believe (for this sort of vehicle). The least impressive, and most gimmicky of these is the personal ‘AI Assistant’ in the form of a cute, disembodied head floating in a little dish on the dashboard. It has a screen that displays eyes, emojis and blinks at you. It also turns toward the person that addresses it with the “Hey Astor” or “Hello Astor” prompt. This can be cute or creepy, depending on the user. The voice is supposed to be Deepa Malik, and it does sound a bit clipped; like first-gen Siri. Functions are limited to jokes, Wikipedia look-ups, festival updates, and some car functions such as opening the sunroof.

The in-car assistant uses directional microphones and is quick to respond to commands. Image: Tech2/Amaan Ahmed

The infotainment system and driver binnacle are well-appointed, with a seven-inch display for the driver, and a 10.1-inch display for infotainment on the centre of the dash. This screen is good quality, with a wide-viewing angle, so it’s visible despite its dead-straight orientation. Response was average, and occasionally sluggish, and I’m not a big fan of the way the UI is laid out. It’s a bit cluttered on the “home screen”, and I don’t appreciate going through menus in a car. Thankfully, MG has provided physical buttons and toggles for the air conditioning, unlike on the Hector. Smartphone connectivity is provided for: Apple CarPlay as well as Android Auto are present, though they can only be used tethered via USB cable, not wirelessly like in so many other cars these days. A wireless charger is also missed.

Also, unlike many newer vehicles — Skoda and VW’s offerings come to mind — the USB ports are the full-size USB-A variety, not USB-C. Sure, C is the way forward, but I really don’t care about the future of tech when my present condition is that I can’t charge my phone, because I only have a USB-A cable. MG includes five USB-A ports in the Astor, plus one 12v DIN socket.

MG has also provided a ‘digital key’ app that allows one to enter and drive the car via their smartphone; no physical key required. It works as intended and does so over Bluetooth, so there is no dependence on cellphone coverage like a traditional connected car suite. In basement #2 at IKEA with no signal? No worries: the digital key app allows you to flash the lights and honk the horn, as well as unlock and drive away. From what we understand, the digital key app needs to be provisioned by the dealer at the time of delivery, so no word on what the process is if you want to change your phone. All this is included in the next-gen version of MG’s ‘i-Smart’ connected car suite, and as such includes all the features we’ve already seen in the Hector and Gloster including geofencing, remote cooling and security features over the cellphone network. The Astor takes it a step ahead with the app-based key. There’s also support for the Apple Watch and Android WearOS watches, a built-in JioSaavn app for unlimited music streaming and so on. We didn’t have enough time with the car for a deep-dive but will fill in the gaps in a future story.

Everybody ADAS now

The first time I experienced ADAS-like features in a car was in the Mercedes-Benz C-Class that was launched around 2014. It read road signs to alert the driver about speed limits and had emergency braking to avoid pedestrian and vehicle collisions in case the driver did not react in time. I even had these demonstrated on a test track; it is most unnerving to be driven straight into the back of a truck and come out alive thanks to automatic braking.

MG demonstrated a bunch of ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance System) features to us in the safe confines of the sprawling Buddh International Circuit (BIC) complex. The Astor is considered an ‘Autonomous Level 2’ car, but be clear that the Astor is not a self-driving car, even though it can feel like that in specific circumstances. It is not going to follow your Google Maps route back home or come out of parking and pick you up, like a Tesla would.

MG expects ADAS to be a USP for the Astor in the midsize SUV space. Image: Tech2/Kartik Sadekar

The ‘autonomous’ aspects of ADAS in the Astor are limited to lane-keeping assistance and adaptive cruise control. For the lane functions, you have three options: warning, departure prevention and keep assist. When activated, ‘Lane Departure Warning’ does just that: read the white lines on the road and beep at you if you’re straying. ‘Lane Departure Prevention’ is the next step, where the car will actually steer you back into your lane if you stray with a slight steering input. This can result in a ping-pong effect between lane markings if you decide to be obstinate. The ‘Lane Keep Assist’ mode is where you feel some magic; the Astor will actively steer the car to keep it in the centre of your lane, and combined with adaptive cruise control, will continue to follow the car ahead of you at a safe distance, at a speed you specify.

I tried this in a controlled environment, and short of turning the car, I was able to navigate with no inputs all the way to a dead stop. Lane functions will even adjust and brake to accommodate people cutting in front of you, but stop short of full automation; you must have your hands on the steering wheel, else ADAS disables itself after a while. It’s clear that these intelligent, adaptive modes are geared toward safety, and there are more run-of-the-mill aids such as blind spot alert and rear collision alert as well.

The Astor is well-proportioned, and the 17-inch wheels fill the wheel wells perfectly. Image: MG

Design: Rakish, proportionate, unfussy

We’ll leave you to make your judgements about the exterior design of the MG Astor and leave you with some highlights. The face is rather aggressive, with a well-executed, concave grille. The all-LED headlights may be reminiscent of some M-B models, but aren’t too derivative overall. I like the proportions of the vehicle front-to-back, with no concerns with the front, side or rear profiles. I also liked the 17inch machined alloys that exercise good taste in the use of the two-tone aesthetic. They’re also large enough to adequately fill the wheel wells. All in all, I like the way the Astor looks, and I suspect it will appeal to a wide swathe of people.

High-quality materials used all around; physical controls for the air-conditioning a welcome touch. Image: MG

Interior: plush, feature-rich

Our time with the Astor was brief, but the interior makes enough of an impression to be remembered. This SUV is 4,323mm long, so there’s much less of a space crunch than we’ve seen recently with the Kushaq and Taigun. Rear knee room is generous, and sitting behind a 5’9” driver, I was unable to touch the front seat with my legs. Width is okay; not as tight as the German/Czech twins, and you’ll have a better time with three rear passengers. Rear AC vents are present, as are two USB-A charging ports just below them.

The seats are plush, with plenty of bolstering and a nice, two-tone ‘sangria red’ colour scheme. The leatherette seems well-finished and goes all the way to the dash; there isn’t a plastic panel in sight on the dash, only in a couple of places on the door. The controls are un-fussy, and I appreciate the inclusion of physical buttons for the AC. There are no paddle shifters, and the six-speed torque converter automatic makes do with a simple shift lever with a ‘Sport’ mode. There is a panoramic sunroof on offer that really brightens up this cabin.

Boot space in the Astor is also fairly generous. Image: Tech2/Amaan Ahmed

The boot too appears to be generous. It’s quite flat, with a couple of cubby holes on either side, and contains a full-size (16-inch vs the 17s on our test car) spare tyre below the floor. The added room is quite evident when one compares the Astor to the competition, and especially to sub-4m SUVs.

On the go: quiet, mostly smooth, very soft

The experienced drivers / armchair racers among you may see red flags in an SUV being driven on a racetrack. Rest assured, this driver is risk-averse, and we drove the MG Astor well within its limits on the BIC, taking advantage of the space and lack of distractions to get a feel of the ADAS features as well as the driving dynamics.

That said, this is not a vehicle for the spirited driver. Even at my avuncular pace, there was pronounced body roll around the corners, and I say corners very charitably, since I was not pushing the Astor at all. The tyres squeal at mild lateral forces, and in general, I did not feel comfortable throwing the Astor around corners with any degree of enthusiasm. Hold the racing line tightly and anticipate where you need to throttle, and it works fine.

The Astor is reasonably comfortable breaching the 160 kph mark. Image: Tech2/Kartik Sadekar

The 1,349 cc turbo-petrol engine makes 140 hp and 220Nm of torque, and this feels adequate. The Astor will accelerate to 100 kph smartly, go on to 160 kph reasonably, before running out of steam. In general, I think the suspension and performance should translate very well to city streets, and I suspect this will be a benchmark in terms of comfort over bad roads.

The Astor also allows for three different levels of steering ‘feel’, which is to say that you can adjust the resistance you feel at the wheel when turning it. Even at the stiffest ‘dynamic’ setting, the Astor is easy to steer. The lightest ‘urban’ setting might be a bit too light for high-speed driving, but there’s a ‘normal’ mode as a compromise. Using all three, I only noticed some difference in resistance going off-centre, with no change in ‘feel’, which is just fine.

Pronounced body roll means the Astor is not for the spirited driver. Image: MG

The six-speed torque converter automatic that’s mated to this turbo engine is fine. I’ve felt smoother shifts in cheaper cars, but for the most part and for most people, this will be adequate. It is not the quickest to shift either, and I suspect if you’re hustling up a ghat section of highway, you might be slightly annoyed. Putting it into ‘S’ mode held the gears longer, but only just.

Verdict: blockbuster package, if the price is right

The MG Astor seems to have it all. Handsome looks, unassailable technology package, adequate performance, good equipment and comfort. The only thing that remains to be seen is how it performs in our cities and highways, and what it costs. Considering that MG has already priced the larger Hector very aggressively, and the Astor comes in below that vehicle in the line-up, I expect prices to range between Rs 11-18 lakh (ex-showroom). If that comes to pass on the 7th of October, the competition should be justifiably concerned. Perhaps the only negative for the MG Astor would be the lack of a diesel engine, which is where the Hyundai/Kia twins score points and sales.

Stars: 4/5 (pending road test)

- Space
- Equipment

- Not driver-focused
- No diesel option

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