MGF; Rover's chubby new sports car is one of the most entertaining rides around. By John Simister

road test

What better symbol of Britain's motor industry than the first all-new MG sports car? Much is expected of this little car, and its credentials do not disappoint. There is a 1.8-litre engine

mounted right behind the driver - which is where you'd find the engine in a Grand Prix car, a position that spreads the car's weight evenly and lets it perform quick, tidy changes of direction. The suspension is a development of the fluid-filled Hydragas system that helps today's Rover 100 smother bumps so effectively. And it's all wrapped up in a cute, chubby, two-seater roadster body, the front end of which pays homage to the MGB without sinking into the treacle of nostalgia.

But could the styling have been just a shade sharper? Ideally, yes. There's a ridge that runs along the waistline, which lost its intended angularity during the development process. Gerry McGovern, the F's designer, would like it reinstated to give the car a bit more "tension". As it is, the MG looks best in a metallic paint which shows light and shade better. Buyers agree: most of the advance orders have been for metallic British Racing Green. What is less pleasing for Rover is that the average age of these buyers is 57. This is not what the company had in mind.

The idea is that the MGF won't be bought just by sports-car buffs, be they young or old. Its appeal is meant to be wider than that, which explains why it feels the way it does on the road. You can go round the most challenging of corners at stupendous speeds secure in the knowledge that the car will just hang on and on. Yet its responses are soft and measured.

Most MGFs will be sold with power steering, an electrically-driven system (instead of the usual hydraulics) which makes for an easy life in tight parking spaces. Trouble is, this anaesthetises the feel of the road and makes the MGF seem less of a sports car. My advice is to do without the power assistance.

In this guise the MGF is probably the most entertaining small sports car you can buy, because you can feel that magical suspension at work and get the very best out of it. Fluid cornering blends with a quick, light gear change, progressive brakes and the engine's sharp response to the accelerator. Progress is seamless and swift.

That accelerator response comes from new 1.8-litre versions of Rover's 16-valve K-series engines. The more powerful of these, which delivers 145bhp against the regular 120, features a novel form of variable valve timing on its inlet cam, more versatile and less compromised than any rival system. It gives its name - VVC (Variable Valve Control) - to the more expensive of the two MGF models, which sells for pounds 17,995 against the regular's price of pounds 15,995. Extra pulling power and outright pace are the payback, but, for the moment at least, you can't have a VVC without power steering. That's a shame.

Nor is the cabin all it could be. Sculpted in a "dual cockpit" style, it is plasticky and lacks convenient storage space, while the control stalks, although British and unique to the MGF, hint too strongly at Rover's Honda-led recent past. The engine is hard to get at, too. Fortunately it needs very little maintenance, thanks to electronic controls and long- life spark plugs.

These niggles excepted, MG's new sports car is a terrific achievement, engineered by people fired up by what they do. It's not perfect, but the more you drive it the better it feels.

Specifications

MGF 1.8i pounds 15,995

Engine: 1796cc mid-mounted, four cylinders, 120bhp at 5,500rpm. Five-speed gearbox, rear-wheel drive. Top speed 120mph, 0-60 in 8.5 seconds. Fuel consumption 35-40mpg.

Rivals

Fiat Barchetta, pounds 14,000 Front-wheel drive, delightful design hinting at past Italian glories. But less subtle and capable than the MG. Left- hand drive only.

Mazda MX-5 1.8i, pounds 14,495 Gung-ho handling, enough speed to be fun. Style that is both modern and retro. But starting to feel old.

Toyota MR2, pounds 19,955 Cheapest mainstream mid-engined car before the MG. Great fun, but noisy; T-bar version with removable roof costs pounds 21,493.

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