The Octagon Returns

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Back from beyond the netherworld of badge engineering, and now appearing at a Rover showroom near you: MG. Mark Hughes explains what all the fuss is about

In the 33-year gap between the launch of the MGB and that of the MGF last year, whole generations have missed out on the MG experience. Reasonably priced, but a real sports car, with a very different driving sensation to a saloon, no matter how hotted up. It took the bravery of Mazda six years ago to reintroduce the theme in a contemporary way. The concept of its MX-5 was pretty much that which had made MG such a revered name many decades before, and the success of that car paved the way for the modern rebirth of MG.

But among the whole host of imitators the MX-5 has spawned, Rover’s MGF is by far the most interesting technically. Not for MG the Fiat Barchetta route of re-clothing a front-wheel-drive hatchback. Not even the traditional route of the MX-5 or BMW’s Z3, or even MG’s past of front engine/rear drive. Instead it’s a no-compromise mid engine/rear drive configuration, making the MGF unique among the new generation of ‘affordable’ soft-top two-seaters.

But it doesn’t stop there. It also gets proper double wishbone suspension for all four wheels, and the hotter version, the V VC, gets some really trick valvegear to feed its 1.8-litre, 16-valve twincam. All in all it promises to bring the MG marque back in some style, by entering right at the top of the tree. Does the reality fulfil the promise of the mouth-watering spec sheet?

Its styling doesn’t get it off to the best of starts. It isn’t ugly, but it lacks the classic delicacy of the MX-5 or the audacious curves of the Barchetta, looks a little stumpy in comparison. But, emphasising the maturity of thought that has gone into the design, it’s a great piece of packaging for a small two-seater. There’s a generous boot in the back (the front is full of ancillaries and the spare), there’s lots of oddment space inside and, most impressive of all for a mid-engined car, there are no visibility problems.

The soft top has a quality lining and is a doddle to operate, and leg and elbow room are pretty generous. Much of the benefit of this is lost to the driver though, because the seating position is too high if you’re 6 ft or over. The car badly needs adjustable seat height. With a reference to the heritage of the marque, the dash gets cream coloured dials, but it’s otherwise quite bland. Neat and efficient, and well screwed together, but just like the exterior in that it lacks the obvious flair of certain rivals.

Start up the V VC and you’ll probably be mildly disappointed at its mundane exhaust note. A characterful noise is a deeply important element of any fun car. Alfa and Fiat understand this, MG even used to know it (remember how you could always hear an MGB coming), but with the MGF V VC all you get is the slightest hint of an exhaust burble. Yet disguised by the humdrum vocals, this is a remarkable engine, one which can whizz round to its redline in no time at all and get you to 60mph in a shade over 7s, yet which can also be used as a torquey, high-gear cruising or shopping car. The key to this is the unique variable valve control format. This involves split camshafts (solid internal ones inside hollow externals) and an eccentric drive for the inlet cams so that they travel quicker through one part of their rotation than the other. This gives timing that is infinitely variable between two set points, and it is that which is responsible for its remarkable dual personality.

For a mid-engined car the gearbox is quite smooth even if it cannot match the snick-snick deftness of the MX-5. The other traditional bugbear of a mid-engined road car – weak front wheel braking under sudden deceleration Is simply not there. The brakes, in fact, not only work superbly, giving shorter stopping distances than its more conventional competitors (even though the ABS has the car squirming under extreme braking), but the pedal has great feel, allowing you to use the brakes to tease the front of the car delicately into the apex of slow corners.

All of which gives the MGF yet another string to an already impressive bow. Because its dynamics fully justify the layout. It has a lovely, planted-to-the-road feel, with lots of delicious feedback coming through the steering telling you what’s going on. It has lots of grip and superb composure through fast bends and can shrug aside mid-corner bumps astonishingly well. Through a fast and bumpy bend it will leave an MX-5 or Fiat Barchetta for dead. Into slow corners there’s a little bit of throttle adjustable understeer, then neutrality unless it’s wet, when power oversteer comes onto the menu. Mostly though, it just grips. But although those limits are high, when you breach them you need to know what you’re up to. Because when you exceed those limits on a fast corner, the oversteer will be sudden. It’s retrievable, but you must act quickly, decisively and accurately.

Yet despite such pure handling this MGF rides like no other MG before it, like no other comparable sports car, in fact. It’s amazingly supple for such a car, thanks to Rover’s choice of hydragas as a springing medium rather than conventional springs, interconnected front to rear for even better control. But the suppleness goes hand-in-glove with superb body control over fast crests and dips.

In all the key dynamic bits engine, handling, ride, braking the MGF VVC leads the field. It now just needs Rover to recognise the importance of some of the details and the car would be irresistible.

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