1996 Rover MGF
GAYDON, England: Rover's MGF sports car has taken on iconic status among the British, although it has been on sale for less than a month.
First, MG is a fabled name, dating back to the Morrises that Cecil Kimber modified in his Morris Garage, starting in 1923. That the label is once more associated with a genuine sports car, and not some warmed-over econo-box, is a source of not inconsiderable pride.
Second, the "F" is a true British product. Most Rovers of recent years were badge-engineered Hondas. And while Rover is now owned by the Germans (BMW), the MGF was developed by the Brits, and uses nearly all British bits.
Third, and perhaps most important, the MGF is a good car.
Unlike its most obvious competitor, the Mazda Miata, the MGF is no retro-mobile. The softly rounded lines and wedgy profile are distinctly '90s, even if the grille seems a near-direct lift from the last generation MGB. (If you have a free-associating mind, you might spot some similarities between the headlights on the F and B too.) The alloy petrol filler cap is a nice detail, even if the Allenhead (square slot) bolts are fakes.
There has been some criticism of the styling, that it's too "professional", too smooth, too bland, not quirky enough. It does look a trifle pudgy through the middle, but then so do I.
The design brief was to make a car that looked sporty, yet was large enough and practical enough to be comfortable for everyday use. The tallish body sides also contribute to body strength, important for good crash behavior and rigidity.
Inside, a blend of comfort and performance was again the major concern. Cruisers will appreciate the broad, cushy seats; purists will pine for greater lateral support. Room is adequate if you're under six feet; a non-adjusting steering wheel will be a problem for the long of leg. The trunk passes the two-sets-of-golf-clubs test.
The gauges have cream-colored faces. Unlike recent pretenders, MG has the right to this touch, since its cars had them way back in the '30s. The wheel is lovely, but some of the interior plastics look cheap, and the embossed MG badge on the top of the dash appears a bit contrived.
Ergonomics are mostly good, although the power window switches are hidden behind the shift lever. (Power windows? On an MG? Welcome to the '90s.)
If previous MGs had tops as easy to work as the Pininfarina-engineered "hood" on the MGF, there might have been MGDs and MGEs. Release two windshield header catches, and throw the thing back. You're supposed to unzip the plastic rear window first, but nobody will. You're also supposed to attach the tonneau cover, but nobody can. It's a reminder of how hard it used to be to erect and disassemble British sports car lids.
The engineering is up-to-the minute. A new version Rover's excellent K-series twin-cam 16 valve alloy engine, displacing 1.8 litres, is stuffed sideways behind the seats and drives the rear wheels. In base form it produces 120 horsepower; the factory claims a 0to100 km/h sprint time of 9.2 seconds, and a top end of 193 km/h.
The optional VVC engine, which either stands for "Variable Valve Control" or, as one British journo put it, "Very Very Complicated", bumps output to 145 horses, which drops the sprint number under 8.0 seconds, and boosts terminal velocity to 209 km/h.
Somewhere in England is a working model of this system, which I missed. Like a Wankel engine, I don't think the human brain can comprehend it without seeing it in operation; mine certainly can't.
Suffice it to say that by infinitely varying both the duration and timing of the intake valves, Rover has managed to squeeze 2.2 litres of power from a 1.8 litre block.
The engine had better be reliable, because you can't even see it, let alone work on it. An access hatch lets you peer at the cam cover and reach the dipstick, but to even get a wrench on it, the roof, a steel panel and some soundproofing all must be removed.
The only available transmission is, naturally, a five-speed manual.
Suspension is by double wishbones all around, with anti-roll bars at both ends. A name from the BMC/British Leyland past (Hydragas) describes the springs. These gas-over-hydraulic fluid units were used on a variety of British cars starting with the Austin/Morris 1100 of the early 1960s. With front and rear units on each side connected by a hydraulic pipe, a bump at the front automatically stiffens the rear spring to ready it for the upcoming disturbance.
Steering is by rack and pinion. Electrical power assist is optional on the base 1.8i model, standard on the 1.8i VVC. Four-wheel discs have optional anti lock brakes on the 1.8i; again, it's standard on the VVC.
Driving the MGF proves that the design brief has been achieved. Brilliantly. The engine pulls strongly. Tallish overall gearing, whose aims are good fuel economy and relaxed cruising, means you have to work the gearbox hard for best acceleration. This is no hardship, as the transmission shifts better than any mid-engined 'box in my experience. Clutch take-up is wonderful: light and smooth, but strong. Anyone will feel like a hero driver in this car.
Oddly, I didn't notice much subjective performance increase from the base car to the VVC. I'm sure a stopwatch would tell a different story, but on a back-to-back, seat-of-the-pants basis, there's not much in it.
The ride is nothing short of sensational for a sports car. Bumps large and small are absorbed with remarkable suppleness. The rock-solid structure Rover â€“ claims it's the stiffest open car in the world, after the four-times-as-expensive Mercedes-Benz SL â€“ helps here.
The interconnected Hydragas units provide automatic anti dive (on hard braking) and anti squat (on hard acceleration) for a level ride under all conditions.
Top-down, I was lucky to drive the cars during Britain's worst-ever drought the car is very pleasant, even at 160 km/h. Yes, it's breezy, but not uncomfortably so. The busiest time I had was acknowledging the "thumbs-up" signals from virtually everyone I passed. And I passed virtually everyone.
The brakes are outstanding, providing excellent retardation and good progression, as I found out while trying to out-brake a German journo in another F, as we headed down a twisty road toward Fenny Compton. (If you know England, you know I don't have to make up names like that.)
Unlike most mid-engined cars, the MGF is beautifully benign. Cornering power is extremely high, yet you can lift off in a tight bend and not turn into a Tasmanian Devil and augur your way into the nearest hedgerow.
The only drawback in the handling department is a subjective one: the steering is numb, lacking that crisp edge, that road feel, that communication with the pavement that's part and parcel of driving a sports car.
My VVC test car was fitted with the optional hardtop, which comes in any color you like as long as it's black. It turns the MGF into a very snug coupe, it doesn't suffer rattles or wind noise, and it looks like it'd be watertight too. Again, this is consistent with Rover's desire to build a sports car you can live with year-round.
In England, the 1.8i lists at 15,995 (CDN$35,000); the VVC at 17,995 (CDN$39,600). That sounds outrageous, but then all British car prices are nuts. As a reference, the Miata starts at 14,495 (CDN$31,900). If Rover could bring the MGF to Canada at just above the Miata's price point, say $25,000,they wouldn't be able to keep them in stock.
It isn't going to happen. Rover's story, and it's sticking to it, is that the MGF hasn't been certified for our crash or emissions standards. I'll bet it would pass, or could be made to do so easily.
A small Euro air bag is already standard for the driver, and presumably a North American-spec one could be fitted. A passenger-side bag is optional. The car passes all projected European crash tests, including offset barrier and side impact.
But just jumping through our regulatory hoops is very expensive, and Rover or BMW doesn't feel the time is right.
Which is to say, they haven't yet decided how Rovers are going to marketed in North America, whether alongside BMWs, alongside Range Rovers, or through a separate network.
Then there's speculation that BMW is afraid the MGF would steal the thunder of BMW's forthcoming U.S.-built Z3 roadster. But according to a Rover spokesperson, BMW was delighted with the MGF when it bought the company, to the extent that BMW plowed extra money into the development so the car could launch this fall, instead of the original projection of next spring.
One story making the rounds is that the MGF's replacement, not due until at least 2001, will be the car that leads Rover back to North America.
How can they be so cruel, making us wait that long?