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Car reviews - MG - TF - 160 Roadster

Our Opinion

We like
Traditional appeal, handling, styling
Room for improvement
Interior space, reputation for reliability

28 Jan 2003

SAY what you like about the new generation MGs, it can't be denied the little, British-made, mid-engined challenger to the likes of Mazda MX-5 and Toyota MR2 does have appeal - especially to what you might call the traditional sports car set.

This set often comprises baby-boomers with recollections of MGs past, owned or aspired to. Usually quite prepared to overlook - or maybe even celebrate - little British irregularities such as silly ergonomics or a tendency towards minor component failures, such people are respecters of tradition who also appreciate a bit of an automotive fling occasionally.

Quizzing an MGF owner who spotted the striking Le Mans green test TF and came over for a chat, we found the response to queries about reliability was that no, it was not a strength of the car, but was not really an issue and what did you expect of a British-made vehicle anyway? The important facts are that it has an MG badge, and its dynamics are good enough to excuse just about anything.

Well, if that was the case with the original MGF, introduced here six short years ago, then the latest iteration, the MGTF, should appeal even more because it has copped a little more of everything the first car had and thrown in some worthwhile refinement as well.

The fact is the MGTF is a fun little car with quite delicious dynamics and enough personality that it becomes more fun the more time you spend with it.

So what has been done to make the MG a better car?

For starters, MG Rover ditched the previous inter-connected Hydragas suspension system and replaced it with a more conventional, coil-spring arrangement. This was not just a matter of using the same basic components, but involved developing a completely new, multi-link rear-end as well as a revised front-end.

This new system, which is supported on solid-mounted, modified front and rear subframes, is supported by a body claiming an increase in stiffness of 20 per cent - a big issue with an open sports car and a significant contributor to reducing the dreaded scuttle shake to which practically every roofless car is prone.

The powerplants also came in for some attention with the result that the most powerful variant, the TF160, produces a meaty 118kW from its 1.8 litres - essentially the same output as the previous limited-build Trophy version. The entry level MGTF is powered by a stepped-up, 100kW version of the base 88kW engine retained in the auto-transmission Stepspeed model.

They have also done a decent job smartening up the styling. This has been achieved by flinging away the old front bumper/spoiler moulding and replacing it with a slick, clean design featuring polycarbonate headlight lenses and a shape that helps improve aerodynamics by five per cent, while a new back-end with a reshaped bootlid helps reduce aerodynamic lift by 28 per cent.

The end result is that the MG looks pretty good, especially in Le Mans green which shows off its curves and highlights the front and rear-end changes nicely.

Inside - and this is where the MG has drawn most criticism from the press - the TF is treated to a new range of fabrics and a generally brighter presentation, but still suffers the familiar ergonomic shortcomings.

The MGTF, to be honest, remains a trifle tight inside, especially for those more than 180cm tall, while floor pedal space is a bit cramped for size 11 shoes.

Admittedly, you do get used to it, but it would be nice to have a bit more breathing room.

Presentation is improved with a new textured silver-grey finish on the centre console, around the instruments and on the door rails. The heating and ventilation controls have an interesting soft-touch finish and leather is used on the steering wheel rim, handbrake lever and gearshift.

If this is still a little pedestrian for you, the TF can be dressed up further with walnut or carbonfibre door rails, imitation wood centre console and a wood and leather steering wheel rim.

This is all better than before but the MG remains a little drab inside with a big expanse of grey, easily-marked vinyl making up the dash moulding, while equally uninspiring vinyl is used on the doors.

The basic nature of the car is typified by the roof, which is raised or lowered by hand - although without much fuss - and has not yet moved to a glass rear window as most of the industry appears to be doing.

These, however, are the things relegated to second place by most MG owners. The real essence of the car is in its on-road abilities.

The previous car acquitted itself well enough but the TF, with its lower-riding suspension, speed-sensitive, electric rack and pinion steering (now faster with 2.8 turns from lock to lock) and extra punch from the mid-mounted, transverse engine, is more fun to drive.

It is clearly well-balanced, the best thing this side of a Porsche Boxster in the way it can be flung from corner to corner, and is light enough, at 1180kg, that its all-alloy, long-stroke 118kW engine can propel it quickly and easily through the five well-matched gearbox ratios.

The front-rear tyre size reflects the mid-engine configuration, with wider (215/40R16) tyres used at the back, Porsche-style. Full marks to MG also for giving the TF a full-size spare.

The MG's excellent braking (even though it only uses three-channel ABS, where the rear anti-lock operates in tandem rather than separately) is explained by a system similar to that used on the MGF Trophy version, with larger front discs and stiffened, four-piston callipers.

The variable valve timing system that is exclusive to the TF 160's version of the (twin cam, multi-valve) engine helps it respond well from all engine speeds up to the free-spinning 6900rpm, where maximum power is developed. The fact that it is a long-stroke design also helps its maximum 174Nm torque production, which is an excellent figure for 1.8 litres.

The only thing that might frustrate MGTF 160 drivers is the lack of any serious aural output. Remembering the lovely exhaust note of the 1960s MGA (also 1.8 litres), the TF engine sounds pretty ordinary for a sports car, especially considering its quite impressive credentials.

A big surprise is the fuel efficiency. According to rumour, the TF is so miserly that its 50 litres is enough to carry it only a few kilometres short of a one-tank Melbourne-Sydney jaunt. It's amazing what a few aerodynamic improvements, combined with efficient engine design and light overall weight, can achieve.

Yes, the MGTF is tangibly a better car than the MGF it replaces, but retains the old car's strengths - improves on them in fact - while not asking customers to produce a heavier wad of dollars for the privilege. The main thing we'd like to see improved is the space around the driver.

It's a car from the home of sports cars and is priced competitively. It is backed by what appears to be a fired-up organisation that balances business sense with passion for its product - just the qualities needed for a niche player with long-term plans.

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