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First drive: MG TF born to perform

Handling handle: Structural and suspension modifications have improved the TF's handling performance.

Reared on the racetrack, the TF is the first major update of the MGF since its launch in 1995

16 Aug 2002

ONE week into its ownership of MG Rover Australia and the new distributor, Motor Group Australia, already has its hands full with the launch of a new model, the MG TF.

While it is obviously a case of good timing rather than good management, MGA now has the chance to start its new venture with virtually a clean slate - as the line-up is now fresh with a new TF and as new 75 and ZT models.

The MG TF enters the MG Rover line-up as a replacement for the long-running MGF, which until the luxury 75 arrived in early 2001 was the classic British marque's only model in this country.

TF represents the first major update of the MGF since it was launched internationally in 1995, although it did not arrive in Australia until early 1997.

No development of the MGF was allowed during the time of BMW's ownership of MG Rover, as the German marque was extremely keen on keeping its own convertible sports car, the Z3, clearly separate from the F.

So the TF program only started in April, 2000, when MG Rover gained independence from BMW.

MG's aim with the TF is five-fold: harden the car's image, bring it up-to-date, develop it as a true sportscar, generate incremental sales and encourage repeat purchases.

To facilitate that plan, the second generation of the mid-engine MG sports car has been given fresh styling, all-new suspension, more powerful engines, revised interiors and increased equipment levels.

New styling is the work of MG's product design director Peter Stevens and features a new nose with the four-slot corporate look first seen on the X80 concept car. There's also projector-beam headlights, extended side sill/skirts, more angular side air intakes, a new rear bumper and a revised rear deck with integrated lip spoiler and stop lamp.

MG claims the styling changes are not only cosmetic, but have improved the car's aerodynamics, which in turn play a part in maximising the benefits of the chassis and suspension changes.

The body shell is said to be stiffer by 20 per cent - as a result of additional bracing under the front subframe, behind the fascia and across the top of the engine bay - for noticeable improvements in steering response and handling performance, as well as a 10 per cent shortening of braking distances.

The suspension subframes are now solidly mounted to the bodyshell as on the race-derived MGF Trophy 160 model.

The changes to the roadster's suspension are some of the most significant modifications undertaken with the TF upgrade.

The MGF's novel inter-connected Hydragas suspension is gone, having been tossed into the parts bin in favour of a more conventional coil spring/gas damper set-up that drops the TF's ride height by 10mm.

The reason why Hydragas was fitted to the MGF in the first place is because it was designed to go down the same production line as the Mini Metro, which also happened to be the Hydragas production line.

One of the benefits of the Hydragas system was it compactness, but the new suspension system has been designed to similar dimensions so as not to impact on packaging.

The front double wishbone configuration remains, albeit with some changes to the geometry, while the rear suspension is completely new and features a multi-link arrangement including trailing arms and an anti-roll bar.

The regular MGF's light and compact electric power-assisted steering system remains, but it has been retuned with a quicker steering rack - the rack ratio has been dropped from 19:1 to 17.5:1, with turns lock to lock down from 3.1 to 2.8.

Engines have also come in for some attention, as the TF retains the use of Rover's all-alloy 1.8-litre K-Series engine, but there are now three powertrain choices available that also identify the three models in the range - TF 135, TF 120 and TF 160.

For the entry level five-speed manual TF 135, power has been increased from 88kW to 100kW through revised intake and exhaust systems, high lift cams and a remapped engine management system, but peak torque remains at 165Nm.

The TF 120 - which employs a two-mode sports CVT automatic transmission with six effective ratios in its third, manual mode - retains the MGF's 88kW engine specification. Peak torque from that powerplant is also 165Nm.

At the top of the range, the TF 160 has a new version of the Trophy's high-output VVC (Variable Valve Control) engine that develops 118kW (or 160PS, as the horsepower rating is where the models take their names from) at 6900rpm and 174Nm of torque at 4700rpm. That represents a 10 per cent power increase over the previous VVC engine's 107kW.

Like the 135, the 160 is only available with a five-speed manual transmission and both models share the same gear ratios.

Complementing the expanded range of exterior colours - limited edition Trophy Yellow and Trophy Blue are now available, as is Le Mans Green and X-Power Grey from MG's racing programs - the interior of the TF has also undergone some redecorating.

New colour options, trim fabrics and revised seat styles have freshened what is the same basic MGF interior.

Pricing for the new TF had been expected to jump from the MGF's unchanged post-GST $42,270 (it was $45,000 at launch in 1997) to a figure much closer to $50,000, courtesy of exchange rate fluctuations over the past five years.

In that time there was a 35 per cent reduction in the value of the Aussie dollar against the English pound, but those currency changes were never passed on to MGF buyers.

The TF 135 now starts the range off at $46,500 - a five per cent increase on the superseded 88kW car when the then optional air-conditioning is factored in.

TF 120 will cost $47,500 while the TF 160 rounds out the range - which goes on sale from September 1 - at $51,000, or just under $4000 less than the price of the equivalent MGF Trophy.

Standard MG TF features:
ABS
Air-conditioning
Dual front airbags
Remote central locking
Electric mirrors
Electric windows
Tilt-adjustable leather steering wheel
Six-speaker radio/single CD audio system
16-inch alloy wheels (some UK-spec model still use 15-inch wheels)TF 135 specifics:
"Sebring" cloth sports seats
Alloy gear knob and gearshift surround
Six-spoke alloy wheel design
Front foglightsTF 120:
"Daytona" cloth sports seats with leather bolsters
Leather/alloy gearshift
Six-spoke alloy wheel designTF 160:
Uprated AP Racing brakes with 304mm ventilated front discs and red-painted four piston callipers (taken from the Trophy)
Uprated sports suspension settings
Alcantara sports seats with leather bolsters
Alloy gear knob and gearshift surround
Chrome door handles, ashtray and handbrake button
11-spoke alloy wheel design
Front foglights
Bright mesh in front and rear bumper vents and side air intakes

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

MG Rover Australia is very proud of the fact the MGF has been able to defy the sports car trend of flagging sales towards the end of its model life.

To date in 2002 the five-year-old car has outsold fellow niche models in Alfa Romeo's Spider, BMW's Z3 and even Honda's S2000.

The first year or two on the market is traditionally the peak period for a new sportscar design, as it rides the fashion wave before dying off and almost disappearing from sales charts in the ensuing years.

The high-performance MGF Trophy model and its involvement in a one-make racing series this year have no doubt helped the ageing roadster's fortunes to a great extent.

That link led MGRA to launch the substantially revised TF model with a significant racetrack and skidpan component.

Most manufacturers are scared off by the prospect of a race track environment showing up otherwise hard-to-spot flaws in a road car design, but not MG - and it proved a wise decision.

Structural and suspension modifications have improved the TF's handling performance markedly, and it is certainly stiffer than the old MGF, with scuttle shake much less apparent.

New technology in the manufacturing process has apparently enabled MG to insert a pliable solid material into the A-pillars and across the windscreen header rail when building the car.

When the car is painted and passed through the bake oven, that material expands and hardens to become rigid filler - something that has clearly helped keep windscreen flex at bay.

On-the-limit handling on the track is not the frightening experience it can be in mid-engined cars. The TF is very controllable, offering progressive breakaway from its Goodyear F1 tyres and the ability to be steered and balanced on the throttle.

Its limits on the skidpan proved surprisingly high as well, with a good balance between understeer and oversteer depending on how hard you pushed.

MG claims the TF's handling is as good as the MGF Trophy but without the new model suffering to the same extent in the ride quality department.

That call is definitely on the money - although it could be said the TF handles even better if adjustability and safety are factored in - with the TF's on-road ride performance no longer lagging way behind its rivals.

But it is not all positive. The clutch action remains a heavy, ankle-twisting arrangement and the gearshift somewhat vague, despite MG's claims of an improved gear linkage, new short throw shift action and crisper change than the MGF.

The lighter coloured (read Tan) interior finishes throw up all sorts of eye-straining reflections onto the windscreen, while there is still no glass rear window in the soft top - the $3000 hard top option is required to gain that feature.

But with pricing not increasing as much as expected, especially given the mechanical specification and equipment level changes, the TF has become a very competitive model in the $40,000-$60,000 two-seat roadster sector.

If the traditionally questionable British build quality can stand up to the 21st century, then the latest MG sportscar should now be a much worthier challenger to soft-top segment leaders like Mazda's MX5.

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