Motoring: Roll up, roll up: mini-Ferraris going cheap

Despite summer demand for convertibles, the second-hand market in MGFs has rarely been so attractive.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
BUYERS of new MGFs in August will have something to celebrate. There are now three distinct variants to choose from, including a "Steptronic" version which features the latest steering-wheel-mounted, button-controlled gear-change system. There are also big improvements in specification, an upgraded interior and a three-year warranty.

Owners of earlier MGFs won't be so ecstatic. Despite being a big sales success, the MGF has been beset by niggly build-quality problems and plummeting resale values.

It was different a few years back when used examples were rare and prices remained high. Not any more. There are cheap re-imports from the right- hand-drive Japanese market and lots of cars have been traded in under Rover's Lifestyle scheme.

The revised line-up of models means prices will soften further. Why pay pounds 21,000 for a new MG, when pounds 12,000 can secure a healthy three-year- old? Rover has created a comprehensive "approved used" scheme specifically for MGF buyers. And, on the whole, MGFs are run by affluent, careful drivers rather than boy racers. So if you always promised yourself a traditional British sports car, now is the time to buy an MGF.

Rover obviously had Mazda's hugely successful MX5 in its sights when it came up with the MGF. Lack of funds meant that the engine came from the Rover 200 hatchback. The stroke of genius was to put it behind the driver, effectively creating a pocket-sized Ferrari, just like the legendary Fiat X1/9.

The distinctive exterior was softly styled, but at least it wasn't given the fashionable retro treatment. On its launch in December 1995 there were just two models. A basic 1.8I had a 120bhp version of the well-proven K-series engine. It had a decent top speed of 120mph and also creditable acceleration, getting to 60mph in under 9 seconds. The majority of buyers, though, opted for the VVC, which arrived in the showroom from early 1996. Variable Valve Control meant that a modified cylinder head produced much more power and a higher top speed.

The VVC had power steering and ABS (anti-lock) brakes as standard. The only way to tell the cars apart, however, is by the five-spoke alloy wheels, which on the VVC feature an indentation on each spoke.

There have not been many modifications. The hood was altered early in 1996 and completely revised in August 1997. Otherwise Rover has played the special edition game in the last few years to boost sales.

For instance, the Abingdon, in October 1997, was painted green with a beige roof, chrome door handles and grille, plus new alloy wheels. Inside there was leather, a walnut dashboard, chrome-plate ashtray and an alloy/wood gear knob. Earlier this year the MGF LE (Limited Edition) arrived in either red or black, with leather and different alloys.

So the MGF was a great package, but the build quality was certainly suspect. Cars built in the first year could have odd panel gaps, leaky hoods and rattles from the interior. Mechanically there isn't much to worry about. The engine is strong and reliable, although a noisy VVC would give cause for concern.

The excellent Hydragas suspension needs to be set up properly and if the steering is vague and the handling less than secure it may need attention, especially as some owners have tampered with the ride height themselves. The bodywork may look gappy because of poor quality, or because of poor repair work. Hoods pre-August 1997 were notorious for leaks.

If you do buy from a Rover dealer, the good news is that they have adapted their warranty scheme specifically for the MGF. A two-part scheme, it either covers models for three or five years, or 100,000 miles.

Theoretically buying a convertible in mid-summer is madness. Prices are usually sky high, along with demand. Not so with the MGF. A glance in the classified ads revealed dozens for sale, especially by private owners.

MG main dealer All Electric Garages in Birmingham displayed a high-mileage 1.8, which had covered 63,000, but most seem to get fairly light use. A 1996 model on an N registration, it was finished in classic British racing green, had one owner, a full MG history and was priced at pounds 11,995. The cheapest VVCs were a couple of P-registered 35,000-mile models for pounds 14,995.

It wasn't difficult to find evidence of reimported MGFs from Japan. Usually well-equipped, with air conditioning, they do not offer the price advantage of a year or two ago. Tokyo Direct in Coventry had a 1996 purple 1.8 for pounds 12,995.

But the bargains are in the private ads. I found a desirable 1996 VVC model in red with air conditioning for just pounds 12,250. Similar age 1.8s can be snapped up for around pounds 11,000.

An all-new MG is due sometime in 2005. It will be much more conventional and not surprisingly based on parent company BMW's Z3 roadster. That means the current MGF will become an instant classic. Another good reason to buy one right now.

All Electric Garages, 0121 427 5252; Tokyo Direct 01203 749685.