Best of British
The Rover Group’s advertising policy has changed under Graham Day’s direction, from corporate (“now we’re motoring”) to product (Montegos crashing through plate glass windows). Britain’s only independent major manufacturer does not seem to be out of the woods yet, but we returned to the MG Montego for a high speed, and often wet, continental tour taking in the Frankfurt Show and the Spa 1000km.
Our conclusion is that the car is refined, comfortable, quick and economical, and would make an excellent purchase at today’s price of £10,199.
It seems Rover Group’s cars are more highly regarded in Europe than in Britain, and rising export sales more than compensate for flat demand at home. In Germany and elsewhere the MG and Rover badges retain a cachet which we reserve for lesser BMWs and Audis.
Some of our worst memories of BL’s products, as they once were, included Minis which drowned out in the rain, early Marinas which lived down to their name and filled with water, “Aggros” with knuckle-barking gear-changes, and almost enough screws and grommets in the boot to finish building the car. To own an Austin or Morris in the Seventies was akin to buying a suit lined with horse-hair, so we approached the MG Montego critically.
There were no unwanted spare parts in the capacious boot, which has a remote control release by the driver’s seat. Every item of trim fitted properly and the seats looked, and felt, comfortable for six hours or more at a stretch. The doors opened and shut nicely, with central locking, and a courtesy light stayed on inside the car for 20 seconds.
Digital instruments seen in the early models have been replaced by quadrant dials, though with a spread of merely 120 or so the markings were far too close together. A speedometer needle that wavered at low speed was the single notable fault.
The five speed gearbox, sourced at Honda, is quiet and nice to use, with sporting ratios and a quick, fluid gearchange. Full marks for that, and the complete absence of lost movement in the lever mechanism.
When we first drove the MG in April 1984 it already deserved high praise, but engine noise was rather pronounced and the car was not particularly quiet at high speed. A steady process of refinement has clearly been carried out in the meantime, for although the exhaust system sounds rather sporty from outside, the 115 bhp, Lucas fuel-injected (EFi) four-cylinder engine is no noisier than it should be, though it begins to sound rather strained at over 5000 rpm. By the same token the MG Montego is impressively quiet at speeds up to 100 mph, both as regards mechanical noise and wind rush, and coarsens only a little from 100 mph to its true maximum of 115 mph.
Heavy rain, torrential at times, did not disturb the MG on continental autoroutes. To use the old pub phrase “she didn’t miss a beat”, even when the wipers could hardly cope on their higher-speed setting, and the Dunlop SP6 tyres cut through standing water with aplomb.
On a couple of occasions there was momentary wheelspin in fifth gear on uphill gradients, to underline the treacherous conditons, but it was possible to maintain a nearly-legal 80 mph in Belgium . . . and the best surprise was to come, when a full-tank check produced a figure of 34.8 mpg over 300 miles, from Oxfordshire to Namur.
Higher autobahn speeds in Germany, cruising at up to 100 mph, returned consistent figures of 30.15 mpg and 30.35 mpg. not allowing for any over-reading of the odometer. The overall average for 1400 miles, all covered as quickly as conditions would reasonably allow, was 32.14 mpg.
The Montego’s origins are fairly humble, but an air dam and bootlid spoiler, together with alloy wheels, do give the sporty version a more interesting appearance. The 2-litre engine is mounted transversely, driving the front wheels of course, with higher spring rates and firmer damping than on the Austin. Ventilated disc brakes at the front and self-adjusting drums at the rear provide excellent retardation, lacking any rumbling which was noted in the original MG version.
Despite the stiffened-up suspension the ride quality was very good indeed, markedly so on broken secondary roads, and understeer is not pronounced although, certainly, the front tyres let go first. There is a build-up of body roll which would inhibit hard cornering with passengers aboard, but generally the MG has the manners of a sporting saloon, as the standstill to 60 mph acceleration time of 9.5 sec confirms.
The fascia layout could be much better ergonomically, as the heater slides are masked behind the steering wheel and some of the instruments and controls are fiddly and hard to lay hand on at night. The general layout of course, dates back to the Maestro’s introduction in 1983, and should last until the R8 Honda-collaborated replacement comes along, at a date in the early Nineties which is kept a secret.
In terms of performance value the MG Montego comes out well ahead of the Audi 80 and the BMW 318i, and will probably continue to do so when the revised BMW, also with 115 bhp, reaches the British market. It may lack the aerodynamic style of the Ingolstadt model, and the prestige attached to the Munich roundel, but it demonstrates that British engineering and build standards have risen sharply in the past few years and can be compared with those of Japanese and German manufacturers.
The seating is softer and more comfortable than is usually found in German cars, the decor less plasticky than in Japanese Products, and it would be a pity for the Rover Group if British customers are the last in the world to appreciate the new-found quality standards. MLC