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Motoring: Moving up a gear

The new MGF retains all the old agility and comfort, but, as readers discover, you have even more gizmos to play with
In London, as with rats, you are never more than seven feet from an MGF. It is something of a victim of its own success, and an initially striking, modern design (out of character for the brand) has been rendered mundane by its ubiquity. Perhaps recognising this, and to ward off competition from the revitalised Mazda MX5, Rover, owner of the brand, has been tinkering in the tool shed.

It has given the MGF six gears and, even more frivolously, four different ways to select them. Drivers can now use a sequential shift, where the gear lever is simply pushed forward or back to move up or down the box (as used in many touring cars); or they can push and pull two silver spheres, mounted F1-style on the steering wheel. Alternatively, they can treat it like any other automatic by selecting `D' for Drive, or select a (still fully automatic) "Sport" setting. The wheel-mounted buttons were my favourite, but I found myself changing between all four on long drives, just to show off to impressionable passengers.

Despite anxiety over which gear-changing style to choose, the MGF Steptronic, as it is called, really brightened my life. It retains all the old car's agility and comfort, but with added up-the-pub technological kudos. After all, these kind of cars are essentially toys, so why not give the driver more to play with?

The only dampener is that this version has Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), which does away with jerky cog changes. It's like replacing a staircase with an escalator, and the effect is uncannily as if the clutch is permanently slipping. Performance, fuel economy and sportiness suffer. Worse still is the unholy noise the car makes when you ask it to pick up speed (likened to the sound of cows calving, by some).

But for pounds 21,520 (about pounds 2,000 more than the standard car), the 1.8 litre Steptronic offers reasonable value, especially compared to the more prosaic BMW Z3 and MX5. Perhaps we'll keep the rat poison for another day.

Paul Bonham

50, nursing teacher, from Wirksworth, Derbyshire.

Currently drives a Fiat Punto

"It's absolutely lovely, I love the low profile tyres - they make a big difference because the MGF can look a bit sissy. The gears were easy to master. I liked the sequential change especially, but I'd have been happy with just the automatic. My only quibble would be that it's too quiet - I like a bit of a rasp to the exhaust. I loved the black and red interior. Even though I'm 6ft 4in, this would be perfectly practical for me; you don't feel squashed. But, with the hood up, there is a dangerous blind spot behind your right shoulder."

Sarah Talbot

31, quality analyst, from Wirksworth, Derbyshire.

Currently drives a Rover Metro

"The gears are remarkably quick and smooth, and I got used to the buttons easily. With the engine so quiet, I had to listen hard to hear when to change gear. You don't notice the gear changes at all when you drive it as an automatic. It wouldn't be practical for me - I've got one child and another on the way - but it would be a nice toy. Being eight months pregnant, sitting down isn't normally comfy for me, but it was fine. It's good value for this sort of car, but some of the inside was a bit plasticky. Women would like it."

Robert Dewhurst

50, engineer, from Castle Donington, Derbyshire. Currently drives a Subaru Impreza Turbo

"It could do with more power. The button gear shift was very good. It's a nice size, though it would never be a practical everyday car. The boot is very small, but would take a couple of bags of shopping. The wind noise spoilt it a little. I have to say I have heard bad things about these - a friend of mine had one that was in the garage every two months with roof leaks. He got rid of it. The Mazda MX5 has a glass rear window; this one is plastic. The Mazda is more of a sports car. This is a lady's car."

Joanne Tabberer

27, mortgage arranger, from Ockbrook, Derbyshire.

Currently drives a Vauxhall Astra

"It was a hell of a lot smoother than I thought it would be. The gear change is brilliant. It's boring in automatic, though - I preferred the buttons on the steering wheel. It's cheap; I'd definitely buy one considering I paid pounds 13,000 for my Astra. The gear change is worth the extra - you feel it helps you drive faster and more safely. It's extremely well made, not cheap or tacky. The white dials are brilliant. Some sports cars don't handle well at low speed, but this is great. It's plenty powerful, and the response was superb."