Road Impressions - Convertibles

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Soft tops in April? A bit previous perhaps, but knowing how the first sunny days of spring turn every sane and spirited person’s thoughts to wind in the hair speed, we thought it best to allow you plenty of time to argue with the bank manager before summer begins in earnest. We have gathered together a broad cross section of what is available, from the retrospective Morgan to the Escort Cabriolet, an up to date practical four-seater whose roof happens to come off. Somewhere in the middle lies the Alfa Romeo Spider, a Nineties version of the famous car first launched in the Sixties, and the Mazda MX-5, a Sixties version of the famous car first launched in the Nineties. Read on.

Ford Escort Cabriolet — It’s Practically Toothless

The purpose of the accompanying graph is to show that although it is tempting to dismiss a car like the Escort Cabriolet on first sight as a poor compromise, on a scale of practicality versus character (a fairly good way of measuring the virtue of any car) it is just as close to the optimum point as either the Morgan or the Alfa Romeo. Moreover the Escort has not missed its mark in any respect; it is exactly what it set out to be, something I’d be hard pushed to say about the Alfa. Buy an Escort Cabriolet with your eyes open and you won’t be disappointed.

For those who don’t set a high premium on traditional sports car styling, and while they are only producing the 1.6-litre version, on sporting ability, the Escort Cabriolet provides an extremely practical route to soft top motoring. Its combination of four seats, adequate luggage space, frugal fuel consumption (around 33 mpg), and the ease with which it can be driven, makes for a enticing option when the charm of a soft top and an adequately lively engine are added to the equation.

The Escort Cabriolet became Britain’s top selling drophead when it was launched in 1983. The new model is improved in several areas, most notably in chassis stiffness. It has also been restyled, and although Ford’s claims of instant Classic status can only have fooled the most terminal fashion victims, the car is certainly attractive when compared to others in its class.

Initially the Cabriolet is only available with the 1.6 CVH EFi engine which produces 108 bhp at 6000 rpm. Powering such a comparatively heavy body (2100 lb) this engine has to work itself quite hard to extract respectable performance. The maximum torque figure is produced at quite high revs, 108 lb ft at 4500 rpm, and this only worsens the situation. The Escort is helped not in acceleration but in mid-range ability by high gear ratios. Third can be held to 60 mph in comfort and so it is possible to use the gearbox without the engine becoming breathless. The 0-60 mph time of 10.4 secs is not exactly eyeball flattening, but the top speed of 115 mph is high enough. The reality of the cross-country ability with an engine willing to rev, and a gearbox that can be stirred about with enthusiasm will be quite respectable. That said however, Motor Sport still looks forward anxiously to the possibility of a 150 bhp 16-valve 2-litre model.

Although the chassis has been stiffened, suspension remains the same. The ride is slightly too boulevard for a sporting car, and the need for stiffer suspension is highlighted when pressing hard; the handling is typically neutral, but there is too much body roll. The sports suspension with 37% stiffer springing at front, 27% at rear, uprated dampers and the fitting of low profile 185/70 tyres will make a significant and welcome difference. Power steering is standard on the new car, while optional extras include a catalytic convertor and anti-lock brakes.

In terms of practicality and comfort the Escort is hard to fault for a car in its price range. The roof is power-assisted and can be raised and lowered in seconds, the seats are very comfortable and the steering wheel is, joy of joys, telescopically adjustable. The excellent stereo provides the obligatory ability to expose passers by to your taste in music, and of course to turn heads in the Kings Road. If a boulevard cruiser that can accommodate several friends, and which has a soft top, sporting pretensions and practicality is your sort of car, then the Ford Escort Cabriolet can be thoroughly recommended. After all some people like Gazza. — CSR-W

***

MX-5 BBR Turbo

Mazda MX-5 was an enjoyable car to start with. In a package that other manufacturers had thought best lost to the mists of time was lively, if not neck-snapping performance, and handling sprightly in a way that stopped one from ever becoming complacent. The MX-5 tapped a long forgotten reservoir in the sports car market, and having proved such a success other manufacturers seem set to jump on the MX-5 bandwagon. But with companies like BMW slaving over a hot drawing board, this pretty Japanese sports car reminiscent of the MGB has one significant achilles heel: in standard tune it has the same power output as the MGB should have had in the sixties. In fact with a modest outlay one can put the MGB in the same league as the MX-5; retrospection can only be taken so far, especially if the car you’re driving encourages scores of heavy footed hot hatch drivers to try you on at the lights. Through the corners a standard MX-5 could hold its own up to a point. But step too often beyond that point and you could cross All-Bran off your shopping list; it could step out of line quickly and catch out the unwary.

“Nice face, shame about the legs” would be unfair, but it is generally acknowledged that a bit more power and some handling tweaks would not go amiss if this back-to-the-sixties car is to hold its head high in the high tech nineties. The overall consensus of the press must have been quickly seized upon by Mazda UK, because not long after the MX-5 was launched they went in search of a tuning company who could supply a box of bolt-on bits that would give the car a dose of steroids. Brodie Brittain Racing’s Garret T25 turbocharged conversion pushed the power up to 151 bhp at 6,200 rpm and boosted the torque by 50% to 154 lb ft.

BBR independently turned their attention to the suspension, and in conjunction with Koni developed some dampers specifically for the MX-5. They tried some four or five combinations before settling on the correct type. These are combined with BBR springs that have a progressive action like rising rate suspension in motorcycles. The first portion of the suspension travel is soft, but the resistance of the springs increases as the deflection increases, so that in quick cornering there is far less roll than on the standard car, but the ride comfort is not unduly sacrificed. There are also anti-roll bars in the BBR kit.

Mazda UK also recommend an upgrade of wheels and tyres, and can supply OZ wheels with Dunlop M2 VR-rated tyres. BBR have fitted a slightly smaller front tyre to their test car than the Mazda recommendation. This keeps down unsprung weight. The test car was also fitted with a limited slip differential, supplied by Mazda for either the BBR Turbo or the standard car.

The end result of this accumulated set of modifications is not only a machine that can significantly out-handle and out-pace the standard car, but can also put itself in the same performance league as a Lotus Elan or Porsche 944.

One happy by-product of the nature of the engine modification with its high compression ratio is that the turbo action is extremely progressive. Peak torque is at 2750 rpm and the bhp figure climbs steadily throughout the rev range. There is little turbo lag and the engine retains its tractability. The delightful little MX-5 gearbox makes stirring the cogs about an absolute delight, but the engine has a broad enough spread of power to keep that a pleasure rather than a necessity. The 0-60 time is significantly reduced from 8.7 seconds to 6.8 seconds, and the top speed has become a genuine 130 mph; a 130 mph that in this diminutive, firmly sprung sports car is quite fast enough.

I found it difficult to adapt to the steering of the BBR car. A combination of too much power assistance, wider wheels and no castor action gives the front end a bit of a mind of its own over a bumpy surface. The problem comes when you tense up and hold on too tight. Relax a little and it will always stay on line, and is very precise on turn in. There is little roll and the slight tendency to oversteer is so progressive and gentle that it simply makes you glad to be back in a rear drive machine. This MX-5 is easy to control and very difficult to push out of shape. Its perfomance shows up best on narrow, well surfaced A roads, where it can be placed precisely and make use of its light weight and progressive power delivery. Overtaking is great fun especially because most people think you are in a standard MX-5.

On any type of journey the BBR MX-5 would get my vote. But on a serious blast it comes most noticeably into its own, with the whirr of the turbo as you change through the gears, the quick gearbox and closely spaced ratios, the wonderful exhaust note, firm ride, predictable, controllable handling and the overall feeling that you are master of the machine. There is no danger of becoming anaesthetised in this car; it puts you back in touch with driving. — CSR-W.

Prices: New car from Mazda £14,899. Turbo conversion (fitted by dealer with three year warranty), £3500. Wheels and tyres from Mazda, £1000. Limited slip differential, £650. DIY suspension kit from BBR, £495. DIY Targa bar from BBR, £295

***

Alfa Spider

You have to ask yourself how do they do it. Despite their recent history, you know that they can come up with the goods. Witness the 164. So it is something of a shock when one comes across the Spider, the much loved model born into the hippy world of the mid Sixties, the car that more or less single-handedly sustained the Alfa Romeo name through the Seventies and Eighties.

We had hinted as such last year when we drove the revamped model in Scotland. Two problem areas immediately made themselves apparent: suspect quality control and a down-on-power engine, although we were not with the car long enough to explore either area in detail.

Whilst the new shape, the tidied up rear end and the cosmetic alterations to the nose, have undoubtedly made the new Spider something of a head-turner, quite a remarkable feat after a quarter of century of service, it does not compensate for the car’s other failings.

Quite why the 2-litre twin-cam engine feels so lethargic is difficult to ascertain — surely the addition of a three-way catalytic convertor cannot have had such a catastrophic effect? Anything under 4000 rpm and the car just doesn’t want to know. It’s happy enough to cruise at lower revs, but ask it to behave in the manner of a sports car and keep up with, for example, a 1.4 Ford Escort, and it will only stir its stumps when kicked hard in the ribs with a spurred boot, and even then it goes from being languid to breathless in one short burst.

Since it has been predetermined that most Spiders are going to the USA, it could explain this shortcoming. After all, it will be more of a boulevard cruiser on the West Coast, a car to pose in, rather than end up in enthusiasts’ hands. But surely even poseurs look at all the instruments? If all you are interested in is the speed and the fuel gauge, then, alright, the car delivers. But the others, including the rev-counter, are not so clear. And although there is a clock on the central console, it’s too small to read. The seats? If seats are something you sit in and feel comfortable, then these are not seats. I like the trim though. While there’s precious little space behind the two seats, the boot area is quite generous, more than either the Mazda or the Morgan, and more than most sports cars.

A hard top comes as standard; the trouble is that once on, it’s the devil’s own job to take it off. Unfortunately the spanners needed to do the job do not come with the car. But even before then the electric rear screen heating and the courtesy lights have to be disconnected, which itself caused broken nails and excessive body heat. The top is actually very weatherproof and keeps the interior well insulated from the exterior conditions; the trouble is that unless it is battened down tightly, it emits all kinds of odd squeaks and rattles. The hood itself is easy to raise and lower, it is just a little stiff to push the clips home onto the top of the windscreen.

She may be a poor performer and she may have a challenging outlook on ergonomics, but maybe she’s economical to run? Unfortunately we cannot answer that. Having carefully filled to the brim on two separate occasions prior to a mixture of cross country running, urban driving and some motorway cruising, the speedometer decided that it was working overtime and simply ceased to operate. After a little nap of some 30 kilometres (the speedometer was calibrated in miles per hour, the measurement was confusingly in kilometres!) it would rejoin us for the rest of our journey.

Bottom line. It costs £16,350 including Car Tax and VAT and is only available in left hand drive. Would you buy one? Power assisted steering, alloy wheels, the detachable hard top and electric windows may all be standard, and it may have a claimed top speed of 119 mph, but the answer has to be no, much as it hurts me, an avid Alfa Romeo enthusiast, to say this. Perhaps the time has come for Alfa Romeo to lay this old warhorse to rest and concentrate on what they are now so unerringly good at; making distinctive and sporting executive cars. — WPK

***

Morgan + 8

There is no doubt about it, the Morgan has to be viewed from a different perspective than every other car. On paper at least, it is comparable to to other cars in that it is a convertible, performs well and falls within a certain price bracket. In the flesh, though, it is a completely different story.

That the car displays certain shortcomings will be of no interest to existing Morgan owners, for more than likely their possession of one is the culmination of a dream of many years’ standing, their pride and joy, while those who have yet to get one are waiting for the day when that famous silhouette stands in their driveway, and will not be deflected by criticism. For it is one of the few cars that not only has a character, but also has a soul, a creature in its own right, but one which becomes an extension of that of its owner.

Its feisty character is that of a sportsman who reached a peak a few years ago, but who is fitter than most around him, including youngsters, and is proud about it too. Often challenged by a cocky hot hatch, the Morgan is confident enough to let it pass knowing that one press of the throttle pedal will be enough to blow any whipper-snapper into the weeds. The trouble is that like Ben Johnson, he needs steroids to do it.

In the case of the Morgan, the extra push comes from Rover’s 3946cc V8 engine which develops 190 bhp at 5750 rpm. When this is translated into propelling the relatively light (940 kg) Morgan along, the less than slippery shaped machine can reach a top speed of 130 mph and accelerate from standstill to 60 mph in just over five seconds — but how those 205/60 15 Pirelli P400s take a pounding.

Impressive though this top speed is, it is the torque of the engine which makes this Morgan a more pleasant car to drive, for anything over 100 mph takes some grit and determination especially when the road is rutted. Developing 220 lb ft at 4000 rpm, this engine’s star quality really come to the fore, especially as it is not constrained by having to carry heavy coachwork. As a result it will not blink an eyelid when asked to do most of the work around town in third gear. Normal driving, though, will see most people change gear at around 3000 rpm only going to the 5750 rpm advised maximum when occasion demands. But such is the noise, such is the general din all around at 5000 rpm, that it takes a cruel person to subject his Morgan to that treatment.

Although the Plus 8 has been available for 22 years, Morgan have not been content to let it rest on its laurels, for it has been improved here and there where necessary. The original Rover 3528cc V8 engine has been replaced with a more up to date 3946cc unit with the same stroke of 71.12mm but a bore increased from 88.9mm to 94.00mm. Not only are the power and torque thereby increased, but they are also available far lower down the rev range, particularly the torque as already mentioned. Other changes include decreasing the compression ratio from 9.75 to 1 to 9.35 to 1 and replacing the Lucas LE electronic injection system with the Lucas ‘Hotwire’ electronic injection system. The new engine also has the benefit of being equipped with twin catalysts, which are fed by twin stainless steel down pipes, and an evaporative control system which complies with the Californian emission legislation, the most stringent in the world. Interestingly the petrol tank now can take 12 gallons as opposed to the original’s 13-1/2 gallons.

The gear ratios in the Rover five-speed box remain the same at 3.32:1 for first, 2.08:1 for second, 1.39:1 for third, 1:1 for fourth and 0.79:1 for fifth, the short movements of the stubby gear lever located on the transmission tunnel proving ideal for quick gearchanges.

One area where the Plus 8 was criticised was in its handling. It had, and still has, a hard ride, but under the previous suspension set-up, it was a real handful to control, especially when the road surface was wet and slippery. There was simply too much power for the chassis and suspension to cope it. In an effort to cure this, the lever type hydraulic dampers at the rear have been replaced by telescopic hydraulic shock absorbers like those fitted to the front. Although one still has to be respectful of the conditions of the road surface, the car is now much more forgiving. It only takes a heavy foot in the wrong place, however, to get the tail sliding out of line.

Cassette/radios do not come as standard which is perhaps just as well, for the wind noise is quite high, the odd cold draught seeping into the cabin from a variety of places when the hood is up and the side curtains fitted into place. Not being a true blue-blooded Morgan owner, I also had the temerity to put the heater on. No worry about adjusting levers so that the face got a cold blast of fresh air while my feet warmed up, for the sole heater control was the push-pull lever which opened and closed the heater valve. It was either on or off, its direction onto the windscreen or into the cabin determined by another lever strategically placed and well hidden under the fascia. A two-position booster fan helped circulate the warm air in times of stress.

Despite the noise, despite the lack of most modern amenities inside the car, despite the near-inevitability of getting an oil stain on your trouser leg from the door lock as you enter and exit the car, once seated in behind the leather-clad Astrali steering wheel, you can forgive every idiosyncracy. The long, slightly rippled, bonnet stretching out in front of you, the unique sight on a modern car of chromed sidelights sitting atop the wings, the shallow windscreen kept clean by three wipers swaying about as if going through a Supremes number, and the hopelessly inadequate windscreen washer system which squirts a jet of water somewhere unknown, all make for an unforgettable experience, enhanced by the thundering roar of that V8 engine nestled under the bonnet in front of you. This is what Morgan motoring is all about. It is not everybody’s cup of tea, and it takes a special person to want to own one, but thank goodness there are enough of them about to keep the staff of the Morgan Motor Co Ltd of Malvern busy, and at the same time, keep a living part of our motoring heritage intact. — WPK

Plus 8 Petrol Injection, 3.9 litre: £22,362.70 (incl Car Tax and VAT)

***

SPECIFICATIONS

Mazda MX5 BBR Turbo

1598cc, 4 cyl, 78mm bore x 83.6mm stroke, 9.4:1 cr, 154 lb.ft max torque @2750rpm, 151bhp max power @ 6200rpm. Weight 985kg. Fuel consumption 26mpg. 0-60mph 6.8 secs. Top speed 130mph.

Alfa Romeo Spider

1962cc, 4 cyl, 84mm bore x 88.5mm stroke, 10:1 cr, 116 lb.ft max torque @ 4200rpm, 120bhp max power @ 5800rpm. Weight 1158.2kg. Fuel consumption 30mpg. 0-60mph 9.2 secs. Top speed 119mph.

Morgan Plus 8

3946cc, 8 cyl, 94mm bore x 71.2mm stroke, 9.35:1 cr, 220 lb.ft max torque @ 4000rpm, 190bhp max power @ 5750rpm. Weight 940kg. Fuel consumption 25mpg. 0-60mph 5.5 secs. Top speed 130 mph.