Rover's revised two-seater, featuring high-tech gear selection, certainly makes driving easy. But where's the fun in that?
A sports automatic was once a no-no, a contradiction in terms. Not for the diehard enthusiast sissy self-changing gears; automatic transmission was for wimps and posers, not serious drivers. Shifting cogs manually was part of the fun... vroom, vroom.

Times have changed. In trend-setting Formula 1, semi-automatic clutchless shifting is now de rigueur. You won't see Michael Schumacher pumping gear lever and clutch in his Grand Prix Ferrari. "So why," argues Rover, "should MG F drivers have to do so?"

From next month, when the new improved F goes on sale with optional Steptronic transmission, they will no longer have to do so. Steptronic, jointly developed by Rover and ZFST in Belgium, is a new two-pedal belt- and-pulley transmission that gives the driver a choice of gear-changing modes. With the selector in D (for drive) you get continuously variable transmission (CVT), hailed by many as the transmission of the future, even though it is usually associated with economy runabouts. Push the lever to S (for sport) and the rev ceiling increases, sharpening pickup. However, the tediously monotonous note of the engine - Rover's excellent K-series 1.8 in its 118bhp form - seems out of place in a sports car that should be a joy to the ears.

If you don't like the sound of CVT, conventional "stepped" ratios (six of them) can be selected sequentially instead, either by nudging the gear selector (forward for up-shifts, back for down) or by hitting cheap-looking bug-eyed buttons on the steering wheel. Technical overkill? Probably. Once the novelty wears off most drivers will settle for one method only. That's if they bother with either.

No skill is involved so there's no feeling of satisfaction for a gear- change well executed: smooth, seamless shifts are down to electro-mechanical control, not deft footwork. What is more, the idiot-proof system tolerates driver apathy and incompetence. Exceed the rev limit in the intermediates and the transmission shifts up anyway to avoid damage. Slow to a crawl and it will change down without driver input.

That Steptronic works, and works well, is not in dispute: the smoothness of the shifts, continuous or stepped, is impressive and the spread of ratios broad.

The down side is that for pounds 1,900 less, you can buy a standard five-speed manual giving better performance and economy. More driver involvement, and satisfaction too, which is surely the raison d'etre of a mid-engined sports car.

Sports car? Perhaps not. The smooth-riding MG F is less of a raw-boned funster than a compact two-seater convertible. For "mature" buyers recapturing their youth - and the sales success of the F largely depends on them - Steptronic could be just the job, especially if they have been nurtured on the more conventional automatics.

Other upgrades common to all the latest Fs include sharper steering, an adjustable steering wheel and various cosmetic improvements. Whether Steptronic has made one of Rover's better cars even more appealing is open to question.

Specifications

MG F 1.8i Steptronic

Price: from pounds 20,170.

Engine: 1796cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 118bhp at 5500rpm.

Transmission: two-pedal CVT automatic with alternative of six manually- selected fixed ratios; rear-wheel drive.

Performance: claimed top speed 118mph, 0 to 60mph in 10 seconds.

Consumption: 30-35mpg.

Rivals

Alfa Romeo Spider: pounds 23,588. Drop-dead looks for manual-only two-seater. Nice engine, competent front-drive handling, but marred by shakes.

BMW Z3 1.9 Roadster: pounds 1,505. Oddball retro looks for compact two-seater that's no sports car. Lacks flair. Faster six-cylinder cars more entertaining.

Fiat Barchetta: pounds 15,875. Front-drive funster. Looks good, goes well and handles sharply. The catch? Left-hand drive only.

Lotus Elise: pounds 22,650. Makes more of the MG F engine than does the MG. A real driving machine.

Mazda MX-5 1.8: pounds 16,815. The top dog. Steering, handling, gears all brilliant. Holds value well.

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