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MGF Steptronic Roadtest

How does the song go? There may be trouble ahead. That it has been banned from the playlist of Music While You Work at Longbridge is no more than a rumour but unless Rover pull the cat out of the bag with due haste the bean counters back in the Fatherland will not be happy bunnies.

The recent launch of the 25 and 45 models shows just what can be done when your back is against the wall. Very little, it seems. Despite the pomp and circumstance of the Motor Show launch, some 60 per cent of the content of the new 25 and 45 models is actually old wine in new bottles. They call it carry-over in the business. You might think it fitting that the cars emerged from a smoke screen.

Thankfully for the time being, Land Rover products continue to dominate their respective market sectors. As, to some extent, does the MGF which, along with the Mazda MX-5, is a firm favourite amongst traditional sports car fans. And rightfully so. Despite getting a little old in the tooth, it remains young at heart and the classically timeless design shows no sign of reaching its sell-by date. And unlike Mazda, Rover are not hooked on an endless succession of limited-editions to keep the punters interested. In fact one of the very few alterations to the range has been the introduction of the so-called Steptronic transmission.

The Steptronic system is billed as a constant-velocity transmission which immediately brings to mind the old Daf Daffodil (which eventually morphed into the Volvo V and S40 series, or Mitsubishi Carisma, according to which showroom you visit). Strictly speaking, Steptronic really is a CVT system - but not as we know it. It delivers a choice of automatic drive, sports automatic or a six-speed sequential change - operated either by the tunnel-mounted lever or by a curious eyeball arrangement on the steering wheel.

My first experience of semi-automatic transmission on a modern car was the Tiptronic system fitted to the Porsche Boxster. Using small plus and minus buttons on the steering wheel, it was crisp and fast-acting as befits such a car. By comparison, the small spheres that poke up out of the steering-wheel spokes of the MG are clumsy and far from ergonomic. Think of any eye. Stick it onto the steering wheel spoke, near the rim, with the pupil looking at you. Add another on the opposite side. Now rub down the pupil bit to create a flat spot. Thats MGs version of what they describe as racing-derived steering wheel-mounted switches . Hmma small flat area for your thumb on one side and perfectly spherical on the other (or antipode, if your school was grant-maintained). A silly bit of penny-pinching on the most novel part of the Steptronic system.

And far from positive. A dab of the thumb for up, or quick flick of the finger for down didnt always work and, on one occasion, the whole system refused to function and I had to stop the car, switch off the ignition and start up again to get it to change out of first gear. In the end, I gave up and used the central gear lever much more positive. Being sequential, a forward flick changes up one gear and a backward flick delivers a down-change. I tried full automatic for a brief spell but the image of a Daf and a hairdresser kept emerging so I stuck with the push-me pull-me lever.

Unlike the Alfa Romeo Selespeed system, which adjusts the dwell period between gear changes to suit the road speed, the MGF six-speed Steptronic changes instantly at all speeds and so the finesse of blending the throttle on upward changes calls for nano-second timing and it is a lot easier not to bother. And whereas the Alfa system effectively double de-clutches on the way down, the Steptronic simply drops a cog, which again calls for some very precise skills if you like to be thought of as a smooth operator.

There are two engine options offered in the MGF range both 1.8-litre, 16-valve engines but with and without variable-timing valve gear. Unfortunately, the Steptronic is available only with the lesser engine which robs it of some of its sparkle. Top speed is a leisurely 118 mph and acceleration to 60 mph just manages creep inside the 10-second threshold. Compare that with the VVC version which passes 60 mph in 7 seconds en-route to a more satisfying 130 mph. No that you will ever need it but is sounds good down the pub. And since the Steptronic version raises the MGF 1.8i price from 18,270 to 20,170 it is obvious that two-pedal driving incurs a penalty at the thick end of 2,000.

The test car was fitted with leather upholstery, 16-inch alloys, a passenger airbag and finished in metallic paint, which added 1,650 to the price making a grand total of 21,820 on the road some 800 dearer than the altogether faster VVC manual variant. Not over-endowed with latter-day gizmology, MGF owners nonetheless will be somewhat better off in this department than those who bought an MGB 30 years ago. According to a Motor road test at the time: the doors and boot can be locked, glass windows can be wound up to shut out the weather, hinged ventilators can be opened to let the warm air from an optional heater escape there is, in fact, almost every modern saloon car amenity . As the present owner of an elderly MG Midget, I can assure you thats as good as it gets.

The mid-engined layout is unique in its class. Not that I imagine that many customers buy the car because of that feature, but it adds a touch of distinction and echoes the arrangement found on the Porsche Boxster and other even more illustrious metal. It does however contribute greatly to the MGs handling and road-holding, providing, as it does, a near-perfect balance of fore and aft weight.

Posted on 01.06.1999 by Graham Whyte
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