TVR gets a rocket from Russia

Under new management, the Blackpool car maker is finding fresh inspiration
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Road car becomes track car becomes road car again. It sounds a tortured gestation, and, because there's more than one way to skin a TVR, there's no reason why what you end up with should be like what you started with. This is why the new TVR Sagaris (185mph-plus, 0-60mph in 3.7 seconds, 406bhp from four litres) seems to be missing only the racing numbers and a sponsor's lurid colour scheme. That so-low nose has a blade spoiler with flipped-up wingtips and "not in the design brief" battle-scars from road ripples and speed-humps the like of which just don't appear on the average racetrack. The tops of the front wings have what look like triple-slot air-exits for added downforce, except that here the slots aren't cut out because to do so would weaken a road car's wing and cause the windscreen to be splattered with mud and stones.

Road car becomes track car becomes road car again. It sounds a tortured gestation, and, because there's more than one way to skin a TVR, there's no reason why what you end up with should be like what you started with. This is why the new TVR Sagaris (185mph-plus, 0-60mph in 3.7 seconds, 406bhp from four litres) seems to be missing only the racing numbers and a sponsor's lurid colour scheme. That so-low nose has a blade spoiler with flipped-up wingtips and "not in the design brief" battle-scars from road ripples and speed-humps the like of which just don't appear on the average racetrack. The tops of the front wings have what look like triple-slot air-exits for added downforce, except that here the slots aren't cut out because to do so would weaken a road car's wing and cause the windscreen to be splattered with mud and stones.

Notice something odd about the roof? It has a bulge on the driver's side to accommodate a crash helmet. At the back things get weirdest of all: a near-vertical, transparent tail-spoiler sits on three skeletal aluminium struts between recessed, L-shaped tail lights, and, nearer ground-level, a pair of huge exhaust pipes, one each side, aims not straight back but sideways. Passing children in pushchairs had better hold on tight; their parents can at least take comfort in the fact that the exhaust gases have first passed through a pair of obligatory catalytic converters en route.

TVRs have always existed well outside the standard envelope, but this is one of the most out-there yet. The Sagaris is also the first newly-named model to emerge from the Blackpool factory since young Russian millionaire Nikolai Smolenski bought the company last July, although the Tuscan 2 Targa was the first car to bear the new owner's seal of approval.

Smolenski bought the Jekyll and Hyde of Britain's specialist sports car industry from Peter Wheeler, the man behind the creative energy and sales-growth of TVR.

Even TVR's most ardent fans will admit that the cars haven't always been perfect, and Smolenski knew something needed to be done. He moved fast, even suspending production while the range (including the then-prototype Sagaris) was thoroughly gone over and put through hot- and cold-weather testing in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the USA, South Africa and Smolenski's native Russia. This led to a myriad of detail changes both to the cars and to the way they are made, and - it is hoped - a new beginning.

New dealers, new agreements with suppliers and a new, TVR-owned flagship dealer in a prime spot on the drive into London from Heathrow Airport show the serious intent. "It's become a proper grown-up car company," says the new marketing head, Phil James. That means proper dealer development, and proper "brand governance".

But the Sagaris shows that the streak of creative madness is still strong, because that's what TVR represents. This Sagaris is the summit of the more compact of TVR's two ranges. It starts with the Tamora sports car, leads into the T350C coupé and its T350T targa-top version, and peaks at the Sagaris, which began as a low-slung racing version of the T350. The other range is the Tuscan 2, currently a targa but to be joined by a coupé and a "road racer" Typhon later this year. This last TVR will cost a hefty £84,995 when it goes on sale in the autumn, which makes the £49,995 Sagaris seem remarkably good value. Especially as it's as fast as a road car can reasonably be. But the most appealing thing about the Sagaris is that you don't have to use all its performance to have an unbelievably good time. So it scores over, say, a Mercedes SL65 AMG which simply frustrates you much of the time, goading you into daft speeds because at a gentler pace you're just not stimulated in it.

Alone among the specialists, TVR makes its own engines. Nowadays they are all straight sixes; it's a configuration almost extinct among mainstream manufacturers (BMW excepted), but ideal for a long-bonnet TVR in which the engine can be placed well back in the chassis. It's virtually a racing engine detuned a little for the road, its camshafts and electronics altered to make it tractable in traffic, clean in its emissions and able to start in climatic extremes. This semi-racing nature means that it's vital to let the engine warm up before using its power, because it's not like a mass-production engine in which everything expands at about the same rate.

TVRs have sequential warning lights as the rev limit approaches, and the latest cars automatically bring the warning threshold down until the oil is warm. This vital temperature is one of many parameters displayed, to menu-driven choice, on the instrument panel. There's also a pair of big dials with artistically small, and consequently hard-to-read, figures: speedo on the left (augmented by a dead-accurate digital display), rev-counter on the right. The latter's scale runs anti-clockwise, but you soon get used to it because you'll be reading it a lot as you match the reading to the tune.

I'm easing through traffic now, window down to hear the music. The exhaust note is a curious, percussive sputtering as it bounces off a nearby wall, but the engine's traffic manners are astonishingly benign. Out of town, I can let the revs rise and at 3,000rpm it starts to sound like a cross between an old Jaguar D-type race car and a racing biplane. You can almost hear the propeller. This is when the power starts to pile on, and it doesn't stop until past 7,500rpm by which time the fantasy has changed to a 12-cylinder Formula One Ferrari of 20 years ago.

And, if you use all of the accelerator pedal's long travel, every last millimetre of which adds something more, you'll leap forward in a great lunge of potency. But it's easy to control, just because the sluice-gate is so precisely regulatable; there's no elasticity, no feeling of surrender.

Machined-aluminium, floor-hinged pedals match exactly your ankles' pivot-arcs, and TVR's own five-speed gearbox shifts meatily, if not always easily.

Semi-reclining in your leather seat, familiar with the machined-aluminium switches and levers that TVR, again, makes itself rather than buying from a big, inflexible auto-industry supplier, feeling how hot the gear lever gets, watching the engine-access panel bobbing gently to the air-currents beneath, you start to feel at one with the TVR. You've learnt to trust the doors to pop open electrically when asked, you've become an expert with the DIY nature of the air-conditioning distribution controls, and now the road has just taken the shape of a sine wave.

You turn; the front wheels are glued to the road, and the whole TVR seems to pivot around them. The steering is ultra-quick but the nervousness and excess lightness of past TVRs has gone. Now, it's nervous only if you are, and the weighting gives you something to work against. Meanwhile the rear wheels are similarly glued unless you apply a dollop of power, in which case the tail flicks tidily out like, yes, a go-kart's. It's the same feeling of controllability and minimal inertia; this is an easy, forgiving car as well as an impossibly rapid one.

A lumpy country road will slow you down, though. Stiff springs and clever damping give a firm but non-turbulent ride, but that front spoiler and the rear skid plate take a bashing. That's the price you pay for having track-day credentials.

Apart from that, the Sagaris is a wondrously engaging machine, a kind of Aston Martin Vanquish with twice the agility at less than a third of the price. The rebirth starts here.

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