Blackpool power

TVR is Britain's most adventurous car manufacturer and the Chimaera is arguably its most desirable model. Discuss . . .

Let's dispense with any niceties immediately, shall we? There are 'sports' cars and there are sports cars. And as sports cars go, TVRs represent something of a hard case. Friendly on the outside, Blackpool's finest will not tolerate fools gladly.

The concept is simple enough: a large capacity, rear-wheel-drive, open-top two-seater with torrents of power. They are designed with a singular purpose.

Pleasure.

And let's face it, how many modern cars have room for character within monotonous silhouettes that are a dull, lasting tribute to the efficiency of CAD/CAM aerodynamics?

No, a TVR is all about undiluted pleasure, delivered principally via the seat of the pants. One has an understanding with a TVR. Respect, and you will enjoy.

TVRs have always been hard-edged, but they used to be a little rough and ready with it. The wedge models were hardly paragons of elegance and cooling problems used to affect their reliability. Attention to detail wasn't the best either, but this has been improved considerably.

From amidst a sprawling hive of workshops on a Blackpool industrial estate, TVR can now hold its head high as Britain's most adventurous car manufacturer. And don't forget that its racing brainchild, the TVR Tuscan Challenge, is, for drivers, the most exciting one-make racing series of them all.

TVR's only concession to the faint of heart is its S4C, powered by Ford's three-litre V6. The rest of the range thunders along courtesy of Rover's trusty V8, which propels the V8S, both 4.0- and 4.3-litre versions of the Chimaera and the Griffith 500. Gradually, however, TVR's own engines will be introduced.

The Chimaera (say Kim-air-ah) is arguably the most desirable of the range. The mighty Griffith 500 may frighten off potential buyers. It's not so much the performance, more that, for £33,000, you are approaching territory where customers may not be quite so willing to accept compromises. For that sort of money, drivers might be looking for greater sophistication and the unimpeachable build quality of an altogether more soulless market sector.

The world first saw the Chimaera at the 1992 Motor Fair, since when demand has outstripped supply.

It's easy to see why.

TVR produces them at the rate of around 10 per week, according to demand. Suffice to say that, should you put your name forward tomorrow, you'll join a three-month waiting list. The Chimaera is not as bulbous as the Griffith, nor is it as aggressive. Its contours are more sensual, the exterior detailing more interesting (though the Griffith has been to a better headlamp stylist). One of the staff photographers described it as 'sex on rubber'.

As ever, visual appeal is subjective. TVR reckons that customers are split down the middle when it comes to nominating a favourite between the Chimaera and the Griffith. Whatever, they rank amongst the most stunning of current production cars at any price.

We tried the 4.3-litre Chimaera, with catalyst and electronic fuel injection, in early November, and its 280 bhp were less of a problem on greasy, sometimes icy roads than one might have feared.

Torque peaks at 305 lb ft/4,000 rpm. It is thus supremely tractable, and the ability to pull away strongly from low revs in higher gears helps one to avoid wheels-pinning embarrassment in such conditions.

The engine and five-speed gearbox are mounted behind the front axle line (for optimum weight distribution) and thence attached to the legendarily rigid tubular backbone chassis, to which the independent double wishbone/coil-over-adjustable damper suspension units are also mounted, front and rear. A limited-slip differential is a standard, and necessary, item.

There really isn't much else on the specification sheet with which to bombard salesroom enquirers.

"Does it have sophisticated engine management?"

"No, sir."

"Traction control, then?"

"Sorry, sir."

What it does have, in abundance, are leather, walnut and deep-pile carpet, which blend into the cockpit more successfully than they did on some previous models. The adjustable steering column and switchgear come from Vauxhall, as does the somewhat OTT dead-lock security system. There's a heater and a neat stereo cassette/radio (inaudible in the upper reaches of the rev range when the roof is down), and the instrumentation is comprehensive. The manual hood is amongst the simplest and neatest around. Release two struts, take out the centre section and pop it in the boot, where it nestles snugly, leaving plenty of room for a bag or three. The windows and the boot are opened electrically, as are the doors, via an unusual rotating knob near the gearlever. The latter is the only gadget on the whole car.

At the end of the day, however, TVR is a bespoke manufacturer. You can order pretty much whatever trim level you fancy.

TVR claims a mere 4.6s for the 0-60 mph dash, and less than seven more to hit 100. Given the power/weight ratio of 268 bhp/ton, that's no surprise, yet it feels more relaxed on the road than the figures suggest. The Toyota Supra (Motor Sport, December 1993) felt quicker, but this was simply down to power delivery. Where the Supra would come on song with a flourish after a touch of inertia, the TVR delivers without peaks or troughs. Road-spec V8s tend to be somewhat lazy by nature, but they deliver efficiently with absolute minimum effort.

Don't be fooled.

The Chimaera is very rapid. Its estimated 158 mph maximum is impressive, all the more so when you consider that aerodynamics aren't exactly a priority consideration. There isn't a Porsche that will stay with the Chimaera through the gears (with the exception of the £80,000 911 Turbo). As for Lotus (Esprit S4) and Ferrari (348), expect to pay £47,000 and £74,000 respectively and you'd still have to eat the Chimaera's dust.

Accelerate under full throttle. In the thick of a glorious, almost violent cacophony, it's difficult to know who's picking up whom by the scruff of the neck. (If you're going to do this with a passenger, give them plenty of warning. Otherwise the back of their skull will be squeezed, perhaps irretrievably, into the head-rest.) There is a feeling of power within you, and all around you. Every sense is subjected to a full assault, no matter how you drive. The V8 tickles your ears gently at idle . . . and damn near bursts them at the top of the rev range. Your fingertips tingle from the vibrations that filter through the aluminium gear knob. On overrun, a deep bass rumble pitches its way into the depths of your stomach. You'll watch the gauge needles flutter when you swap gears, and with the hood down you will smell the combination of leather, the flowing breeze and, if you are in a mischievous mood and a suitable environment, the occasional whiff of tyre smoke which you can also taste.

Unfortunately, you'll also detect the faint smell of fibreglass, something inherent in new TVRs but which should pass with time.

When driving the Chimaera quickly, your mind becomes totally focused. It communicates like few other cars. It feels alive. You want to extract the most from it. You are consumed.

In many modern, hi-tech cars, some of which are dubiously prefixed by the word 'sports', one feels safe in the knowledge – false sense of security though it may be – that a barrage of electronic devices will eventually save you from all high-speed dangers, should you overstep the mark. Consequently, you will learn to drive confidently more quickly than you might in a TVR. But there is extra spice in mastering something like the Chimaera, for there are no gimmicks to help you. Where it goes, and how it behaves, are entirely at your discretion. All that power sitting there, and it's all yours, should you wish to exploit it. There's no spoilsport brain lurking within, ready to cap the power as soon as it detects you are breaking into a smile. Sure, there is the potential here to plunge you into tricky situations, but the same is true of all cars. If you're daft enough, no number of electronic safety nets will keep you out of the foliage. With the TVR, you know exactly where you stand. The fact that it is unfettered makes it all the more satisfying to drive. It offers pure excitement of a kind that modern road and traffic conditions nowadays discourage, sadly.

Despite its worthy, old-school traditions, the Chimaera does make a few concessions to the 1990s. The ride, for instance, is pleasantly supple, and far-removed from the brain-rattling trip you can still find in other traditional sports cars. Its handling is straightforward enough and is enriched by sharp, direct steering, which is beautifully weighted on the move, though it wasn't exactly designed with urban commuter trips or parking in mind. Turn-in is impressive, though when pushed it will understeer naturally, and the extent to which the test car did so was alarming at first. More weight is required over the front wheels, but that may upset the balance for faster corners, which, when one gains confidence, becomes very neutral. Progressive power will bring out the tail as one would expect and, particularly in damp conditions, the car can easily be balanced on the throttle.

This is possible at higher speeds, too, but you don't want to push your luck, for the grip levels are such that you are likely to be travelling rather faster than is advisable when you finally lose adhesion. Believe us, there is enough power to allow you adequate amusement at relatively low speeds.

Body roll isn't too noticeable until the steering is turned beyond half a lock, whereupon it lightens and, depending on the amount of power being applied, the front or the rear feels like stepping out. It's all rather redolent of the Tuscan racer.

All of this lateral activity adds up to a massive grin factor, but there are a few minor gripes. The seats lack support, for example, and only the sheer height of the centre console prevents you from sliding into your passenger's lap. The brakes are a disappointment, too. Decelerating quickly from high speeds, you get precious little feedback. There is plenty of braking power, and the car will stop quicker than your brain tells you feels possible, but the chassis squirms a little in protest, which can be unnerving. It's effective, if a little crude.

High speed straightline stability is questionable, too. Air gets under the car and creates enough lift to lighten the steering; as a result, the car has a tendency to wander. The good news for Britons is that this happens at speeds beyond the wit of the UK's parliamentarians . . .

Other irritations are generally typical of cars such as this; lack of space to rest the clutch foot; lowering the hood renders the rear-view mirror useless (and fouls the inertia-reel seat belt, unless care is taken); roof up, wind noise around the A-pillars will begin to irritate after long, high-speed runs (all it needs is better sealing, but die-hards will tell you that it's all part of the character); your left leg will be begging for mercy if you're in stop-start traffic for more than half an hour.

Actually, TVR has made every reasonable concession to assist urban driving, and indeed, a power steering option is available (has anybody invented a powered clutch?), but at the end of the day, this simply is not the Chimaera's happiest environment, and if it happens to be raining heavily the whole experience can be quite miserable.

For such a thirsty beast (we managed a meagre 14-17 mpg on the test), the fuel capacity of 12.7 gallons is rather impractical, even if it does leave decent boot space.

Verdict

The Chimaera, like all TVRs, is a no-nonsense sports car. It wouldn't know a compromise if it ran one over. In today's market, it stands out for its commendable individuality. In more ways than one, it offers a breath of fresh air.

However, for some drivers, it may be difficult to live with on a day-to-day basis. If you're an urban commuter, you'll be tearing your hair out at the wastefulness of it all.

This is a car for the open road.

If you desire comfort and convenience, go and buy a Porsche. The 911 Turbo may well have been fine-tuned to the Nth degree over the years and the 968 Club Sport may well be the most finely balanced car of its type, but if you want something that combines good looks, stonking performance, honest thrills and more than a touch of individuality, and all for less than £30,000, there's nothing that comes close to the Chimaera. R R B