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The MG TF . . . looks like a sports car and now drives like one too

The MG TF is a revised version of the MG F, the two-seater sports car that was launched in 1995 by MG Rover Group and has been Britain's best-selling roadster since. Given the traditional nervousness about winning formulas and meddling with them, one wouldn't have been unduly surprised if the new MG F had turned out to be the old one with a slightly bigger ashtray, a new, improved keyfob and an extra T in its name.

In fact, the alterations go deeper. Obviously, anybody hoping to see a genuinely radical reappraisal of the original, involving the introduction of some new upstairs seating and the provision of in-car cinema and some wings, is going to be at least mildly disappointed. But there are changes to the car's aspect and feel that, for once, you don't need to have been in on the blueprint stage to discern. Essentially, the MG F has, over its seven years, undergone a slow evolution into the sportiness that it wasn't quite born with. The launch model had many of the typical characteristics of a sports car - a shortage of seats, a roof that came off, an engine behind the driver - but turned out to be far politer than that on closer inspection. It offered an upright driver's position and a spongy suspension, and drove like a saloon car that somebody had sat on.

What's more, though sharp and aggressively tapered at the front, the car grew strangely fat and lumpy at the back, where it tended to exude all the sporty dynamism of a 2lb bag of sugar. Fortunately, the 2000 version of the MG F sorted that out by slimming the boot down and, for this latest model, it has been planed off even more smoothly and given a nice new lip. The MG TF also gets a new front bumper, a bigger grille and a cluster of very serious, silvery circular headlamps. The side air-intakes have been reshaped, the exhaust pipes have got bigger and the car appears to be hunkering down slightly lower on to the ground. As a result, it now finally looks - from front to back - like a vehicle that was built all at once, rather than in two separate factories, by two different teams, one of which thought it was building a fork-lift truck.

In keeping with its looks, the car now drives more like a sports car, too. Clearly, the MG F has always been designed to appeal to the kind of driver who fancies travelling quickly and close to the ground, but who doesn't share the purist's enthusiasm for being thrown about like a marble in a tin box. It could be argued that, in the beginning, that desire led the car to compromise itself out of a character. Early MG Fs were so uncomplicatedly cosy to drive that they shared almost none of the traditional sports car excitements, other than the fact that you couldn't get lots of children inside them.

No one will suggest that, even in its spruced-up form, the new MG TF delivers the kind of white-knuckle, oil-in-the-hair, backside-on-the-Tarmac style experience that keeps companies such as Lotus in business. Indeed, the storage box between the seats opens up to provide two hollowed-out cup-holders. These would be anathema in a performance car, and there couldn't really be a better emblem of the MG TF's indecision between pro sport charisma and traditional middle-class comforts. (By the way, the cup-holders don't work. I tried one with a grande latte and promptly had the biggest on-board coffee disaster of my driving life, pebble-dashing the entire interior, including the windscreen, with hot milk. And all I had done was move aside slightly to allow someone to pass in a narrow road.)

Inside the cockpit, little has changed. There's still a whole barren field's-worth of sloping plastic between the driver and the bottom of the windscreen. There is still quite a lot of plastic pretending to be aluminium and failing. The clock faces are still white. And the clock - which is actually a clock - has hands and numbers, evoking that golden, pre-digital age of long ago when MG owners wore cravats, brewed their own beer and spent as much time under their cars as inside them.

But definite steps have been taken to discourage the driver from dozing off, which was an option in the old MGF on longer journeys. Apparently, the rigidity of the car's body has been increased overnight by 20% - the equivalent of going to the gym three times a week for two years for most of us. The steering - which, though electrically power-assisted, still offers a nice weight and resistance - has been shortened from lock to lock, which means it responds more snappily than it used to.

And the suspension, which used to involve "Hydragas dampers", is now done with coils, as in old Victorian beds. Gone, then, is the old soppiness. Hit a speed bump at the right angle in the MG TF and you almost feel it emerge through the seat cloth. None of this would frighten Juan Pablo Montoya. But it means that the regular MG TF customer can now get some fruitiness out of the car that goes beyond merely having a close-knit gearbox and a short-sprung handbrake. Just finish your coffee before you get in.

By Giles Smith of the Guardian
 
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