ROAD TEST:

MGF 1.8i review

MGF.
Engine
1796cc, 4 cylinders
Power
117bhp
Fuel/CO2
37.1mpg / 182g/km
Acceleration
0-60mph: 8.5 seconds
Top speed
120mph
Price
£16,980
Details correct at publication date


"Middle of the road" is perhaps not the happiest description of any car - certainly not if there's a lorry coming the other way - so let's instead call this the "vanilla" MGF. It's got the 1.8-litre version of the excellent Rover K-Series engine, but without the VVC valve trickery, which means it's the less powerful of the two options that were originally available.

The MGF lasted a long time in just those two forms, but earlier this year the range was extended in both directions. For those wanting more power there is now the MGF 1.8 VVC, while buyers on a budget might consider the very appealing 1.6-litre car.

What we've been living with recently at CARkeys, though, is the 1.8i which is probably the one most people are thinking of when they talk about the car that brought MG back into the minds of sporting drivers, and made it possible for high-performance Rovers to be given that badge.

Performance isn't really the key to the MGF, though, at least not in this form. Whether or not you appreciate its shape - and the word "dumpy" has cropped up more than once - it is certainly distinctive, in the sense that there isn't another car on the road that looks anything like it. And enough people do appreciate the shape for the F to have become quite a popular choice among the trendy set.

Under its various managements, Rover has always been keen to promote its cars through motorsport, particularly on the club scene, and there has been a very successful one-make race series for the MGF. At least one UK circuit also uses it as a very effective training car for its race driving school, since even in standard form it works quite well as a track car.

But don't let that fool you into thinking that this is an out-and-out racer. The performance is certainly good, to the extent that few owners are likely to get near the outer limits in the unlikely event that they wanted to. However, what the car really does best is nip around the place in a perky and responsive manner. The steering is precise enough for the job, and although most of the weight is at the back, you have to be pushing on pretty hard before that becomes very noticeable.

The one thing the MGF is missing, in sports car terms, is a general sense of sharpness. With conventional suspension this could have been arranged fairly easily, though at the possible expense of ride quality. What this car famously has instead of springs and dampers is a hydraulic suspension system which smooths out the ride very well. It's only when you hit a sharp undulation at speed that the chassis has to spend half a second working out how to deal with it. If there is such a thing as an average MGF owner, he or she will probably not be too concerned about the negative aspects, so on the whole the hydraulic method comes across as a good choice, well executed.

If you want a real sports car there are several available, though very few of them approach the MGF's levels of practicality. Creating any kind of luggage space in a short mid-engined two-seater is pretty difficult - the MGF gets round this by placing a small boot behind the engine/transmission unit. Not surprisingly, this is affected to some extent by the heat of the exhaust, and you'd want to be fairly careful about what you put in there (best put the ice lollies in the glove compartment just to be on the safe side), but on the whole the insulation is pretty good.

Large suitcases? Forget it - it's not going to happen. Still, you can pack enough for a weekend break, which is a lot more than you can do in several of the F's more sports-oriented rivals.

There are very few negative points. The footwell is fairly tight (though in other respects the interior is quite roomy) and those fiddly sun visors, which were hailed by Rover's PR people as being ingenious when the car was launched, seem more like a desperate attempt to get round a lack of space at the top of the windscreen.

All the same, you don't have to spend long in an MGF to understand why it is so appealing, and why it has such a strong following among the people for whom it was intended.

Second opinion: You know, production MG sports cars have never been anything like out-and-out racers, not in 75 years and more. There's always been a strong link among enthusiastic owners, though, and I was intrigued to eavesdrop in an MGF compound at one race meeting, even if the snatches of conversation I heard tended to be more about accessories like luggage racks than about performance. This is a very pleasant road car - nimble, with a good ride quality, and light enough for the non-VVC engine to push it along smartly. If you own a car like this, you soon get used to taking along no more luggage than it will accommodate - and the MGF has more case-worthy luggage space, after all, than an MR2. Very comfortable in the roadster fashion, little in the way of annoying airflow when it's running hood-down, and much roomier than elbows-out-the-door TDs, TFs and the like. Ross Finlay.

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