New cars

Morgan Plus 4

It is odds-on that when the first Motor Show of the twenty-first century opens, the Morgan stand will look little different from today. Flowing wings, projecting headlamps and cut-away doors, these symbols of the inter-war sports car, by then of pensionable age, will not even seem strange amongst the frictionless bubbles on offer from the giant manufacturers.

Morgan permanently cut itself off from the design band-wagon in the Sixties, and has established its own nostalgic niche, and those famous lines will seem as familiar to new generations of enthusiasts in the future as they are to us now.

But if the hand-beaten skin and Cuprinol soaked ash frame continue unchanged, the range of motive power at least keeps up to date, bullied by EEC regulations. Now a new model brings back the old Plus Four designation to fill the gap between the remarkably cheap 4/4 and the astonishingly fast Plus Eight.

Slotting in between the 96 bhp 1600 Ford CVH and the fearsome 190 horsepower of the Rover-engined Plus Eight is another Rover unit – this time a sophisticated 16-valve 2-litre four pushing out140 bhp. More to be found in the Rover 820i, this is the high-compression (10.0:1) M16 unit which has already won a Design Council Award for its low emissions.

Sitting under the piano-hinged louvred bonnet, the square twin-cam head casting with trendy red writings and all the accoutrements of fuel injection may look slightly startling, but from behind the upright close-to-the-chest wheel the old muscular feel has returned.

Brimming with top-gear lugging power, the unit also revs nicely in the middle gears, giving the driver a choice; just as well, since the five-speed Rover box is not the slickest. But the ratios are good, the steering is ever so sensitive, and the handling remains a delight – well-balanced and roll-free thanks to good weight distribution and a low centre of gravity, with power oversteer on tap for the exuberant.

Most surprising of all is the suspension comfort: while the famous sliding pillars still hold the front wheels uncompromisingly upright, new laminated springs have ousted the rear semi-elliptic leafs, and the ride has eased from tooth-jarring to merely hard. With the firm low-profile tyres (195/60 Avons) this concession to comfort is extra welcome, though rear passengers (the Plus Four, like the 4/4, comes in both two- and four-seater form) will probably feel little difference, sitting as they are on the rear axle. Centre-lock 15in wire wheels are standard, running with tubes, and the customer may choose a steel or aluminium body, and a veneered or vinyl dash. Overall, the cockpit feels right, having the wheel so close feels very natural with a cut-away door, and the flat-on-the-floor seat puts the driver right by the gear-stick and the fly-off handbrake. In essence, then, this is the recipe as before, but the ingredients have improved; not only does the Plus Four have a fine torquey engine, but it complies with the strictest EEC noise rulings and will run on lead-free fuel. Its performance is a long-awaited improvement over the Ford CVH, and at £ 13,500 it is one of a small selection of “real sports-cars” this side of £15,000.

Yes, it shudders a bit, it is not exactly water-tight, and there is barely any luggage space, but Peter and son Charles Morgan need not worry. Last year they built 409 cars, of which half went abroad; a carefully restricted supply which turns ever-increasing demand into security for the future. GC

Vauxhall Astra GTE 2.0i 16V

To purloin a phrase, the Astra goes from T strength to strength. Already beefed up by the 2-litre engine, it is the first of many Vauxhall-Opel cars which will receive the new 16-valve 156 bhp unit.

Or at least the first production model; for this is the engine which powers the Vauxhall Lotus Challenge single-seater. Yes, the racing car has more power, but not much more (180 bhp), while the specification of the road car still reads like a competition unit: twin camshafts, polished inlet ports, sodium-filled exhaust valves, forged pistons, and fabricated stainless-steel exhaust manifold.

A very sophisticated injection system (Bosch Motronic M 2.5) adds sequential fuel injection (one cylinder at a time instead of four at once as is common), air-mass metering to help response as well as performance in varying conditions, and an anti-knock programme allowing the very high compression ratio to cope with varying fuel quality. Clean emissions and high efficiency are the aims, and GM claims mpg figures of 28 even in town. Especially welcome is an oil level warning which works on the move; all credit to GM, even if it is 30 years late.

A larger 9in clutch links the engine to a new tougher gearbox, designed with a thought both to easier servicing and reduced noise, and the rest of the chassis has been similarly sharpened. The body sits almost half an inch lower, there is more negative camber on the rear wheels, spring rates have gone up, and a secondary anti-roll bar has been attached to the rear links to supplement the existing integral bar. Discs replace the old rear drums, the better to match the ventilated front discs, and the power-steering rack is now more solidly mounted to eliminate any lost movement.

All in all, GM has done exactly what a specialist after-market tuner would once have done to the Astra, and the little hatch is now impressively well sorted. Always crisp, the 16V is just that bit sharper to turn in, flatter through the bend, and quicker on the exit as the torque of the new engine makes itself felt. GM claims that 90% of the maximum 150 lb ft is spread over 3300 to 6000 rpm, and there is no doubt that even fifth has a punchy feel. To experience the new engine in Astra guise, the going rate is £11,775. This unit will become an important part of the overall Vauxhall-Opel range in the near future, but it is hard to imagine a new Cavalier making such good use of it.