Motoring: The Independent Road Test: Retro-rocket with more charm than ability: Roger Bell says those who scorn Rover's MG RV8 - an updated MG B - as a naff anachronism have missed the point: though flawed, it meets a need

ROVER'S new MG sports car is still at least two years away from production. Its born- again B, the RV8, is on sale now as a celebratory indulgence, a harbinger of a better things. In resurrecting the old MG B 30 years after its birth - and 13 after its demise - Rover is not merely keeping alive the name of Britain's best-loved sports car, but is wallowing in nostalgia.

The RV8 is how the venerable B would have evolved had it remained in production. So says Mike O'Hara, commercial manager of Rover Special Products, responsible for several enterprising low-volume Rovers, including the Mini cabriolet. If not exactly modernised, the resuscitated B has been extensively updated and facelifted - a classic without the old-car hardships. Based on the B's original bodyshell, made by British Motor Heritage, the RV8 has been reskinned with new sills, bumpers, headlights, tail and 'Coke-bottle' wings. Without totally losing the original's identity, the car has put on a lot of style and muscle.

Where there was once a modest four-cylinder engine there is now a powerful 3.9-litre V8, sourced from Land Rover. Other significant changes include updated suspension (though that at the rear retains outmoded 'cart' springs), new brakes (still drums at the back, not discs), a five-speed manual gearbox and well-shod alloy wheels.

The last rubber-bumper MG B was at best inept. Rover has made a competent job of the RV8 - a retro-rocket ultimately with more charm than ability - using limited material. Performance is strong, the lusty catalyst- cleaned V8 pulling vigorously. Rover would have amplified the vocal accompaniment with a more expressive exhaust were it not for noise regulations that some smaller manufacturers flout. Cruising with the top down, you cannot hear the discreet burble of the engine above the slipstream that buffets your face.

Although the fettled chassis' limitations are betrayed by a lively ride and 'soft' handling, the RV8 deals with twisty roads - the fun car's playground - tidily and safely, if not with the precision or elan of the similarly priced TVR Chimaera.

Rover scorns comparisons with other, more modern sportsters: it sees the RV8 less as a raw driving machine for boy-racers, more as a recreational pursuit for the mature.

Central to the car's appeal to targeted buyers - wealthy male enthusiasts in their forties and fifties - is its traditional 'Britishness'. Opulence, exclusivity and a fashionable nostalgia for the Sixties and Seventies are key elements, too.

For me, the narrow cockpit is marred by a high seating position - you sit on the car, rather than in it - and puny instruments that most 50-year-olds will need reading glasses to see. Rover says its leather and walnut trim make the RV8 the most sumptuous MG ever, but I rather doubt it - there was even greater timber encrustation in the '38 MG SA saloon I once owned. It is certainly the most comfortable and civilised, however, with an interior ambience that would not disgrace a Jaguar. No MG I have ever driven had a better gear-change, either.

Killjoys who dismiss the RV8 as a naff anachronism miss the point. In a world of boring lookalikes, there is a burgeoning need for entertaining cars of character, even evocative ones that pander to nostalgia.

Flawed though it is by innate shortcomings, the RV8 certainly exudes personality, presence and driver appeal. In taking niche marketing to a new extreme, Rover has set a precedent for other copycat retros. How about a modernised Triumph Stag?

COMPARISONS

Audi 80 cabriolet, pounds 22,199. Smart four-seater ragtop for civilised alfresco motoring, not raw thrills. Performance of five-cylinder, 2.3- litre engine modest, handling easy and safe. Cabin comfortable, sophisticated hood easy to manipulate.

Caterham 2.0 HPC, pounds 17,625. Successor to the Lotus Seven is a raw, lightweight driving machine that gets the juices flowing and the ears ringing. Mind-blowing acceleration, race-car handling, fantastic brakes. No-frills cockpit strictly for two, so forget the suitcases. For serious enthusiasts only.

Morgan Plus 8, pounds 24,898. Time- warped, raw-boned sports car with same engine and gearbox as RV8. Cracking performance, fun-car handling on smooth roads, but awful ride, primitive headgear, cramped cockpit.

TVR Chimaera, pounds 26,250. Rumbustious tearaway that exposes RV8's shortcomings. Dynamic superiority rooted in accomplished chassis and more powerful version of the same V8 engine. Terrific performance and handling.

SPECIFICATIONS

MG RV8, pounds 25,440. Engine: 3,936cc V8, 190bhp at 4,750rpm. Five- speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive. Performance: 0-60mph in six seconds, top speed 135mph. Economy: 17-25mpg unleaded.

(Photograph omitted)

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