A journalist’s reflections on a year in MG Rover’s mid-engined sportster
It’s the autumn of 1995 and there’s high excitement among sports car enthusiasts, particularly Brit-car diehards. The first MG-badged car since the MGB died in 1980 has just been launched.
Just over a year later, on 18 December 1996, Autocar journalist Allan Muir reflected on 12 months and 10,000 miles behind the wheel of his long-term MG F.
He started his roundup piece in charitable pre-Christmas style. “For years we’ve been crying out for an affordable British roadster to pick up where the MGB left off,” he said. “And here it is – an all-new design with a pukka mid-engined layout, a terrifically rigid chassis, rear-wheel drive and state-of-the-art engines.”
With one eye on previous MG Rover disappointments, Muir said that “we should all be celebrating the fact that Rover has built this car at all,” irrespective of “what we end up thinking of the MG F”.
History, and the penny-pinching use of poor quality components, would prove Muir right about some aspects of the F, but back in ’96 he was happy to celebrate the F’s new (for British sports cars at any rate) approach to convertible motoring. “It puts as much emphasis on refinement, comfort and user-friendliness as it does on the driving experience,” he said. “No longer do you need to be a hardened enthusiast or have the patience of a saint to put up with the hassles previously associated with an open-top car.”
The sporty 1.8-litre VVC-engined model Allan was running around in was priced at £19,940, plus £315 for the lovely pearlescent Amaranth paint and another £1095 for the popular glassfibre hard-top.
It was the “fruity sounding” 143bhp engine that really made it for him. “It has enough power to propel the car along at a decent pace and hide the wideness of the gear ratios – both problems with the basic [1.6-litre] 118bhp car.” The average fuel economy of 33mpg was more than acceptable too, as was the cabin, “a comfortable place for two people to spend time”.
But there was no getting away from the car’s glaring shortcomings, like the “painfully inefficient” heater and ventilation system which, thanks to its binary temperature control, somehow managed to be hopeless at clearing the windscreen on cold mornings while also scorching the driver’s eyeballs. The doughty Muir got around both issues by driving with the soft-top down wherever possible.
Though he found the styling a trifle “effeminate” and “lacking in aggression” he did like the “wacky” colours and the hard-top. More importantly, Muir was content enough with the handling, even though Rover had gone for a safe setup rather than the thrilling one that could so easily have featured in the mid-engine design’s repertoire.
A bum steer
“It behaves more like a front-drive hatchback than a mid-engined roadster,” he said. “Its rigid chassis resists scuttle shake to an impressive degree, while grip and poise are hard to fault… but too much weight, sluggish turn-in and unwavering understeer can make it feel a little unwieldy on twisty roads.”
Sadly, there wasn’t much in the way of compensatory stability on straight roads, with many steering corrections required to keep the car tracking correctly. The engine was sprightly enough, but noisy at speed.
That shortfall in driver engagement wasn’t helped by the F’s heavy and remote-feeling steering, brakes, and gearshift. The magazine considered Peugeot’s 306 GTi-6 hatchback to be a more entertaining steer, while the Lotus Elise knocked it out of the park.
Two faults blotted the test car’s copybook during Autocar’s stewardship: a rattly hard-top and a restrictive air intake hose. Still, Muir came away with a positive overall impression, praising the F as “a pleasant and mostly undemanding way to enjoy open-top motoring”. He suggested that Rover should pay more attention to detail in the car’s followup, which turned out to be the 1999 Mk 2 and then, three years later, its eventual replacement, the 2002 TF.
Twenty years after the first F, you can still see these little sportsters bumbling around, often worth under £1000 but still looking quite fresh and with what look like happy people behind the wheel.