Graham Bell drives the hottest sports car yet from Britain's biggest car company
You have to hand it to the bods running MG Rover. Ever since they took over from BMW they've done a lot to add 'enthusiast appeal' to the company and its products. They've introduced a range of souped-up saloons, they've taken the company back into motor sport, and now they've re-engineering the country's best selling sports car to give it a harder edge designed to suit the more enthusiastic driver. And when you look at the number of changes they've made to the car it's no wonder they decided to give it a new designation.
Starting with the most obvious change, namely that new Peter Stevens designed corporate nose, this isn't merely a cosmetic exercise but has been developed in the wind tunnel to reduce front end lift, while a revised rear deck with integral central spoiler does the same at the back. Less obvious is the fact that the (restyled) rear wings and sills are now combined into single rather than separate panels - just one of several changes to the bodyshell that have resulted in a 20% increase in stiffness.
The biggest change however has been ditching the MGF's Hydragas suspension in favour of a more conventional coil sprung set-up, though this wasn't simply a case of replacing the old set-up's Hydragas units with springs. MG did actually try that but weren't happy with the results, so while the TF's double wishbone front suspension is effectively a modified version of the F's, its rear suspension is an all new multi-link system with completely revised geometry.
Furthermore, while in the MGF the subframes carrying the suspension were mounted to the bodyshell using rubber bushes designed for maximum ride comfort, on the TF the subframes are mounted solidly, which not only provides greater feedback to the driver but helps contribute to that 20% increase in stiffness.
Other changes designed to make the TF better to drive are recalibrated power steering with increased weight and quicker gearing (2.8 turns lock to lock from 3.1) plus a modified gear linkage with reduced friction and travel. Engine wise the 1.8 litre options have revised induction, exhaust and engine management systems to give more power, with the top of the range 160 TF model tested here getting the 158bhp VVC engine first fitted to the MGF Trophy.
On the Road
Quite a list of improvements on paper then - but how does this stack up 'in the flesh'?
First impressions are that the new car looks more aggressive than the old one, thanks both to the revised styling and the fact that TF sits 10mm lower on its suspension than the F did (and there's a 'Sports Pack' option that will lower it a further 10mm).
Second impression is that the new suspension is decidedly firm. Not rock hard, just sportingly firm, with that firm feeling no doubt amplified by the solidly mounted subframes. Fortunately the TF's stiffer body can handle it, with neither trips along a speed hump infested road nor across a bumpy field producing noticeable scuttle shake.
Combining good body control with decent ride quality, the TF's suspension was only really caught out on two occasions. One was at high speed along a country road where the car was briefly unsettled by a particularly bumpy section, the other was along one of those concrete dual carriageways where driving at the legal limit set up a subtle vibration in the car that had me doing an involuntary head-banging session as my skull was repeatedly bounced off the headrest.
Yes, it really was that bad and I can only assume that crossing the concrete's small ridges at that speed matched the natural frequency of the car as it never happened on tarmac and going faster seemed to cure it. Now there's an interesting excuse for speeding. "Honestly officer, if I drive any slower I'll get a headache…"
As far as the handling goes, though MG have engineered the TF for sharper steering response than the F, as with most mass produced cars understeer is still its basic characteristic. If you watch 5th Gear you might remember seeing Tiff Needell testing the TF and see-sawing away at the wheel mid-corner with absolutely no effect - but that was on the limit on a race track. In real world driving things aren't nearly so bad.
During both my standard 30mph tight right hander test and a constant throttle trip through a roundabout, understeer did reveal itself in the form of squeals from the front tyres, but there was no sliding. More interestingly, a later trip through the same roundabout (and similar tight 90° bends) revealed that pressing the throttle mid-bend produces enough power oversteer to nicely negate the understeer and give a sharp turn-in with no tyre squeal.
Don't expect applying the power mid-bend to result in any lurid sideways antics from the TF though as even during rapid standing starts and high speed roundabout circuits in the wet it proved difficult to overcome the grip provided by those 215/40 x 16 rear Goodyear F1s. Yes, it is possible, but you have to be trying very hard or doing something very stupid.
Obviously this is in part down to the modest power and torque (158bhp and 128lb ft) available from the 160's engine, which in turn means that you have to make full use of the revs and the gears to make the TF move really quickly, but then that's part of the fun of driving a sports car.
And good fun it is when the engine and gear change are such willing accomplices. MG's VVC engine really is a little gem with nice linear power delivery and it pulls strongly round to its 7100rpm limit to the accompaniment of a suitably throaty note from the twin tail pipes, while the revised gear linkage enables you to slot into your chosen gear quickly and precisely.
For the record, the 160 does 0-60 in 6.9 seconds and 137mph, which though tame by TVR standards is pretty creditable, and out on the road is quite quick enough to get you past the bulk of the traffic so long as you have sufficient gaps to manage it a car or two at a time.
Such traffic hopping antics are helped by the brakes, the 160 having 304mm discs with four-pot MG/AP Racing calipers on the front instead of the 240mm all round set-up of the lesser models. These are another carry-over from the MGF Trophy and very impressive they are too, with a firm pedal, good bite and fantastic stopping power. An emergency stop test from 80mph on a dry road had the 160 stopping very quickly with no lock up, while a similar test in the wet revealed a momentary lock-up before the ABS kicked in, though the car still ran arrow straight and slowed quickly. All in all, a truly excellent braking system.
Have to say I'm less happy about the TF's speed-proportional electric power assisted steering though. It's not that it's bad - as power assisted set-ups go it's OK and reasonably weighted - it's just that a car like the TF simply doesn't need power steering and I'm sure you'd get more feel without it. Pity MG didn't see fit to include a manual rack (at least as an option) as part of their improvements.
In terms of 'enthusiast appeal' then, as a driver's car the TF 160 still isn't in the same league as the Elise, though to be fair it was never really meant to be, being aimed at providing a broader balance between practicality and fun. And having lived with the TF for a week and used it for everything from short shopping runs to a 400 mile round trip in weather ranging from blazing sunshine to pouring rain I have to say that it fulfils that role very well.
It offers easy access, reasonable stowage space and with the hood up it's draught proof, watertight and as comfortable and as undemanding to drive as a saloon, making it very easy to live with on a daily basis for shopping or commuting. Given a sunny weekend though and the MG will provide more fun than you'll get from any tin top, offering the exhilaration of wind in the hair motoring with sufficient performance when driven hard to make high speed blasts down twisty country roads a very enjoyable experience. Especially when you know you're still averaging over 30mpg while you're at it.
The new tougher MG might not tempt any buyers away from Lotus, but it's undoubtedly the best performing mass produced practical soft top £20,000 can buy - and that's bound to appeal to more than just enthusiasts.