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New Car Test - MGF Trophy 160

The MGF has just got bigger brakes and more power.

by Julian Edgar

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The MGF is a car that has now been around since 1995. Effectively the first MG for a whole generation (yes there was the re-born RV8 in 1992, but before that you have to go back another 19 years...), the 'F re-established the famous marque in the world sportscar market. And now the just-launched limited edition MGF Trophy 160 adds a worthwhile spec upgrade, in addition to some cosmetic extras.

So is the MGF Trophy a worthy competitor to the car which single-handedly established a modern day market for cost-effective soft-tops - the famous Mazda Miata/MX5? Or is the Trophy just a way of reinspiring interest in a car that's now been around in basically unchanged form for over five years?

The MGF - all models, not just this one - uses an unique interconnected Hydragas system - the dampers and springs are incorporated into four single units. In addition, there are conventional looking sway bars and very nice double wishbones, front and back. On the Trophy, the ride height has been lowered by 20mm and the spring/damper units stiffened. Wheels have been upsized to sixteens and they wear serious 215/40 (rear) and 195/45 (front) Goodyear Eagle F1s, made - rather interestingly - in Germany. Those tyre sizes are 'serious', because the car weighs only 1075kg. The ride is very firm but the innovative suspension soaks up the large bumps with obvious finesse - even when they occur mid-corner and you're going hard.

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The handling inclines towards understeer - in fact if you're on the power too early, the nose of the car can push wide quite quickly. However, get the turn-in right and with the nose anchored, full throttle can be used from there on. The car sits flat and is predictable and responsive to throttle changes.

However, making cornering a bit more difficult than it should be is the unfortunate steering. A still-rare electric-assisted system, it has several odd characteristics, including altering in weight depending on the degree of lock being used, and a lack of assistance at centre which suddenly turns into (relatively) lots of help as you start to apply input. At high speed it's easy to get into a situation where you're constantly chasing small steering movements, each of which has a little more impact than you're expecting. Certainly, the MX5/Miata's steering is much more consistent in feel and action.

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The engine bolted into the middle of the Trophy is an up-spec'd version of the K-series Rover design used in the VVC-model MGF. As that nomenclature suggests, it features variable valve timing - in this case, on the inlet camshaft. The 1.8-litre engine in the Trophy is fitted with larger valves, a special aluminium inlet manifold, a plenum with increased flow capacity, and a big-bore exhaust that features a variable butterfly in the right-hand pipe. Running the same 10.5:1 comp ratio as the cooking engine, premium unleaded is always required. From this combo the engine develops 117kW at 7000 rpm, up 10kW over the stocky. That's 65kW/litre, still a long way short of Honda's specific power figures.

However, more important in the real world than kW/litre is the size and shape of the torque curve - this is a far better indicator of how useful the engine will be on the road. The Trophy has the same excellent peak torque (174Nm) at the same revs (4500) as the standard VVC engine, however importantly the torque curve also shows a wonderful spread for a naturally aspirated 1.8 - there's more than 160Nm from 2800 all the way through to 6300 rpm.

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This tractability and progressiveness is immediately obvious - the 1.8 is never peaky or difficult to keep on the boil, although the pace still noticeably quickens as the tacho flies past 5000 rpm on its way to the 7200-rpm redline. Indicative of its nature is its ability to trickly along at 1200 rpm in third gear - with the air on! Add to this sweet engine an excellent throttle response, and there's not too much wrong with the four-cylinder sitting in its mid-mount position immediately behind you.

Helping make the most of the power is quite short gearing - in fifth gear the 4.2:1 final drive gives 33.4 km/h per 1000 rpm - or to put it another way, cruising at 100 km/h will have close to 3000 rpm on board. MG claim a 0-100 time of 7.6 seconds, and while the engine in the test car was too new to run full performance times, we'd suggest that about mid-eights should be easily achievable. Perhaps because of its extreme youth, the 5-speed transaxle on the test car was a little stiff, but its throws were short and precise. The clutch is light and progressive.

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The cabin of the Trophy is a mixed bag. The Anthracite metallic black of the test car didn't show off the colour-coded in-cabin Trophy highlights to best effect, so we've included a photo of the cabin of a yellow car. As can be seen, this is pretty damn' exciting - but the overall look works well in a car of this type. Good aspects of the cabin include excellent seats and a grippy, small diameter steering wheel; a six-speaker single CD radio with quite good sound; twin airbags; and excellent headroom - even with the top up.

And the bad? At speed the unlined roof lets quite a lot of wind noise get through, and it's a manual roof rather than having electric operation. However, for our money the worst aspect of the interior are the instruments. The engine oil temp and analog clock mounted in the centre of the dash are fine - it's the normal speedo, tach, temp and fuel gauges which are the problem.

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Firstly they're white faced, but unlike most cars with white instruments, they don't change to black at night through the use of edge illumination. Instead they're lit from the front with a host of bulbs hidden under the dash pod cowling. As a result, the gauges stay a distractingly bright white at night, but even worse than that, there is a distinct and very unfortunate shadow that follows each needle! At night, literally two needles sweep around each gauge - the red pointer and its offset shadow. When the needle is at 12 o'clock it's fine - the shadow is behind the pointer - but anywhere else and a second black 'needle' is present, ones whose offset from the other needle is always changing! Reading the right pointer at a glance is a bit hit and miss.... Aaaagh!

Other problems? The seating position is high and the windscreen header rail is quite low, necessitating that tall drivers occasionally peer under it to assess the car's position on the road, especially when passing through hilly terrain. In the same way, the inside rear vision mirror also blocks out vital front three-quarter information when negotiating a succession of tightly-spaced hairpins.

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With the roof off you might be forgiven for thinking that the cabin would be a claustrophobic place when covered, however the cabin remains airy and relatively bright with the roof in place. The rear window is a plastic design, zipped and velco'd into place so it can easily be changed when it inevitably goes milky. With the top locked into place (just two latches on the header rail) the body becomes noticeably stiffer; with the roof open, the car has more scuttle shake than we can remember in the Miata.

Storage space comes from a relatively large rear boot (located south of the engine), a small glovebox, and another in-cabin compartment against the (rear) firewall and positioned between the seat backs. This has a lid that drops down to form a two-cup holder. The front 'boot' is completely filled with the full-size spare wheel, battery, fuses, ABS actuator and horns.

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Part of the Trophy upgrade is the fitting of bigger brakes. The fronts comprise very large 304mm vented discs (that's up by 64mm!) being gripped by AP racing aluminium MG-insignia'd calipers, while rear braking remains via 240mm solid discs. ABS is by the Bosch 5.3 system, and while we weren't in a position to push the brakes hard, we'd expect that with this much hardware and that little vehicular mass, they would be very effective.

Also excellent are the headlights, which produce very white light with a good spread and penetration. Front foglights are also fitted.

One of the areas not open to question - even after 5 years - are the superb looks of the 'F. The Trophy adds bright mesh treatments for the front radiator grille (and yes, that's where the rad really is) and the side engine air inlets. In addition, a new front splitter and a rear spoiler are fitted - the quoted drag co-efficient drops from 0.37 to 0.34 with these additions. A rear 'Trophy 160' badge is fitted (the 160 is for 160ps... which is close enough to 160hp), while there are more MG badges on the wheels along with Union Jack flag emblems on each side of the car.

The shape is beautifully pure and tightly-drawn - it still looks very good in the flesh.

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Probably most impressive about the MGF Trophy is the flexible and throttle-responsive engine, the mid-corner grip - even on poor surfaces - and the beauty of that body. To put one in your garage will cost you $54,990, complete with a 3-year, 100,000km warranty. But you'd better be quick - the number of Trophy MGFs being made available in Australia is small.

Thanks to Gold Coast MG Rover for providing the test car. Contact 07 5593 5551

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