Text by Gavin Green - Photographs by Tim Andrew

Fiat Barchetta, Alfa Romeo Spider, Mazda MX-5. The new MGF faces a stiff task: quite simply, England expects. But can it deliver the goods? GAVIN GREEN tells all

A DAY AND A HALF of driving around the Cotswolds and, finally, we found the right road. And on that testing blacktop we found the answer to the biggest question of all about Rover's first go-alone car (Land Rovers excepted) since the Montego: namely, is it able to beat the world's very best new-generation roadsters?

It was a minor road, twisting, unevenly surfaced; a road that snaked through hedgerows and stone walls, bordered by golden stubble fields. It was an appropriately English road: you could imagine an Ealing comedy being filmed there, MG TC putt-putting along, driver all cloth-capped and tweedy. And the MGF - a million miles from the old TC - tackled it with shattering aplomb. It handled the bumps and dips and troughs and camber variations with almost arrogant disdain. Its composure was never ruffled: body nice and flat, steering well damped, all wheels glued to the road, Hydragas suspension acting as feather-bed to the biggest bumps but gripping the road with a will of iron. The MG threaded its way like a snake speeding through long grass, absolutely at ease despite the high speed.

Oh the joy of driving a small performance car fast! A narrow, short car; a car you almost wear; one so deliciously nimble, helped by that mid-engine configuration. We all agreed: the MGF is not only Rover's best effort in yonks, but it's also the best small roadster ever made. Best in terms of handling, rigidity, completeness. A marvellous engineering achievement. And yet...

ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL pockets of England, the Cotswolds seemed so in keeping with MGFs and Alfa Spiders and Fiat Barchettas and Mazda MX-5s. Two of the three cars lined up against the MGF were brand-new. The Barchetta, on sale in left-hand-drive form only, is Fiat's attempt to muscle back into a market which it (along with MG) dominated before it ran out of willpower and left the way clear for Mazda to make a killing with the MX-5. The Barchetta is a front-drive, Punto-based cutie, full of '60s details, but is far from a dusted-off pensioner. It uses Fiat's new modular 1.8-litre engine capped by 16 valves, the inlet eight of which are variably controlled. It tilts at the '60s roadster, but is not spoilt by it. It's a progressive car, and its old-style details will both please buffer roadster aficionados and intrigue newcomers to the breed. The Alfa Spider is bigger, more luxurious, as much GT roadster as blat-down-the-blacktop firecracker. UK right-hook sales start next spring; our test car was a right-hand-drive conversion done by Surrey dealers Bell and Colvill. Converted, it costs £25,000, pricier than the other three, sure, but you want all the major players, right?

MOST OF US THOUGHT the Alfa would win this comparison. Sure enough, as we gathered at Castle Combe, it certainly looked the most distinguished, a bold, clean-sheet car. Alfa wanted to build the best roadster in the world, and you can't do that by borrowing bits from the '60s. The Mazda looks the plainest. Roadsters are partly about fashion and any car dating from 1989 starts at an immediate disadvantage when up against three 1995-ers. But those who had already driven our example were emphatic: it's still such a good car. Rear-drive, cute, light. Stephen Bayley talks about the MG being a great piece of commercial design, and he's right. But to my eyes it has too much thoroughness, not enough natural inspiration. It could just as easily wear Honda aitches as MG octagons. When it came to catching my eye, the Alfa was the one. And the MG's interior: where were the little pleasures to play with and caress, the little visual treats?
The Fiat Barchetta has them. The alloy-stalk door handles, the gauges in a pod Allen-screwed to the dash, the drilled throttle pedal, the body-colour panels in the cabin, the absence of carpets (such a nonsensical floor-covering for a car that should get wet inside). And, outside, that gorgeously pert little rump and that long, curvaceous bonnet. It is as much toy as tool, which is the way it should be with roadsters. The MG doesn't have any of this, and is the poorer for it.

WE BLATTED OUR way around Castle Combe all morning (see separate story) then headed north-east, up into the Cotswold hills and their villages of honey-coloured stone. It had rained the weekend before our test and there was a delicious smell of wet leaves, mildew and mulch. A smell that was all the richer for driving around in four roadsters.

THE MG IS THE BEST CAR on the road. Only on the worst broken blacktop does it flex, its excellent torsional rigidity helping the ride and handling. It's so supple, so sharp. If only the assisted steering (optional, and best avoided) had a bit more feel. There just isn't enough information coming up from the road to your fingers and hands.

This hurts the precision, marginally masks the car's limits. Not that the MG isn't fun; it is. Any car is fun, roof down, in this countryside. The view out front is pretty ho-hum: long grey dash, stubby little red nose. The gearchange is a little vague. The gearstick is too long: what you want is what the MX-5 has - a stumpy little number. The texture isn't nice, either: it's cheap-grade plastic, like too much of the dash.

On the windy B-road stuff, the Barchetta comes closest to matching the MG's composure. It feels more spirited, too - partly because it's got more power and partly because its engine sounds much rortier. There's a real impatience about the Fiat; it's a perky little thing, tremendously communicative. Its steering dances around on the bumps more than the MG's does, but it never tells lies, and the short-throw gearchange, twin-cam bark and its general liveliness all make for a ceaselessly entertaining companion. It grips well, and handles the undulations surprisingly well, too - if not with the ease of the MG. The Fiat's feedback means it's fun to drive at any speed; the MG only brings out the big smiles at silly speeds, when its sheer competence has a chance to shine.

The Mazda doesn't ride as well. It bounces and bucks more. But at lower speeds its very direct steering makes the car almost hypersensitive. The MX-5 also has the best gearchange, bolt-action-rifle positive, effected through a lever barely six inches long. The rest of the cabin, though, now looks old and cheap. It has the easiest hood, though. You can up it or down it from the driver's seat, single-handed. The Fiat's is the next-quickest. It stows away most neatly, hiding under a dainty metal cover, obviating the need for a vinyl tonneau. The MG's cover is the most fiddly: a fingernail-breaking effort.

The Alfa proved something of an oddball in this company. It always felt surprisingly big, a touch unwieldy. It has the best engine, a gloriously vocal 2.0-litre that shares genes with the Barchetta's motor. It has the best all-round grip and high-speed poise on smooth roads, too. This is probably the best-handling front-drive car in the world. On narrower, bumpier roads, it lacks the Barchetta's ˇlan: that extra bulk costs speed and fun, and the steering rack is less direct on this conversion than on the factory car. Bumps also show up a surprising lack of rigidity, at least in this company. When the roads twist and snake, the Spider's scuttles begin to twist and shake.

The word from Italy is that Alfa, long famed for the variability of its build quality, has a problem with the Spider. Our 8000km-old example proved it, with bad door rattles. Mind you, hood-up it was the quietest car on the long motorway run back to London, while the Fiat was worst. The Mazda and MG were noisier, roof up, than your average tintop, but I wouldn't baulk at a long motorway journey in either.

I wouldn't baulk at buying any of these cars. The roadster art has come on a very long way since last we welcomed a new MG sports car. And Mazda's still-charming MX-5 was the first of this new breed. But it can't be top dog for ever; indeed, all three of its rivals now better it.

The Alfa, the boulevard cruiser for the style-conscious, handles like a dream and has the best engine. The MG, on the other hand, is for the person who really appreciates clever design and brilliantly complete engineering, and who derives great pleasure from blasting down difficult roads. It is such a manoeuvrable, handy little thing, and no doubt would be even better in pricier and more powerful VVC form.

The Fiat is more for the traditional roadster lover. But it's not for old-timers: its traditional strengths will be loved and appreciated by a whole new generation. It's the car for those who delight in details, for those who get pleasure from meandering through pretty scenery but who also like the primaeval rortiness of the old MG/Healey breed. It's a car of less depth than the MG but, perversely, more character.

DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME - Castle Combe racetrack At the point when g-force overtakes grip, mid-engined cars tend to turn savage: lift-off, oversteer, panic, spin. Not the MGF. This car feels planted on the track, and it stays utterly neutral. Its grip is terrific, yet it isn't so unerring that you can't tidy its trajectory with your right foot. The brakes are brilliant, too. What keeps the MGF from perfection is its steering, which lacks a little sharpness and feel. Indeed, the whole car could be slightly more communicative; it's a bit like the Lotus Elan - you marvel at it, at the same time feeling you're only along for the ride. The Barchetta gives you a bit more to do. You'll need to be more precise at the wheel, partly because the steering is quicker, and partly because the Fiat is basically an understeerer. Still, the nose can be controlled with the accelerator, and without causing a tail-slide. The inside wheel hops if you're really trying and the brakes are a little soggy, but it's quick - quick enough to outweigh the MG's better handling balance. It's also fun.

No such failing troubles the Alfa, whose front-drive handling is in another league. Its prodigious grip is one thing, its resistance to understeer another. If anything, it's more neutral than the MG. Its cornering attitude can be altered on the throttle, too - a game made all the more appealing by the tuneful engine.

The Mazda is the slowest in a straight line and its tyres don't hold on as hard as the others' - with obvious results in lap times. But that doesn't make it any less fun. It steers with satisfying directness, and its slower-acting rack makes corrections easier to apply. The need for such opposite-lockery can be brought on by barrelling into a tight turn on a trailing throttle, which can send the tail skipping outwards. The Mazda feels direct, taut, like a precision instrument, and responds eagerly to keen wheelmanship.

Best Lap of Castle Combe
Alfa Spider: 1min 24.6sec
Fiat Barchetta: 1min 25.3sec
MGF: 1min 26.8sec
Mazda MX-5: 1min 27.3sec

SMALL THINGS BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL I don't care what the tune-on, turn-in and flat-out team says, these cars are really all about style. Only shallow people don't judge by appearances. The MG is the most modern - a neat design with a terrific, chunky, no-flab posture, like a muscle-bound terrier. In contrast, the Alfa Spider is a lascivious, adult shape, a tart of a car wearing a tight sweater over some arresting body sculpture. It's dramatic and more elegant than the MG, but over-scaled next to it. The Mazda and Fiat are much more similar to each other, although the Japanese car is beginning to look dated (scarcely a criticism in a sector where retrospection is a styling resource). The 1963 Lotus Elan was a starting point for the MX-5, but the Mazda is an exquisite synthesis with no errors of proportion and a nice, light stance.

The Fiat is the most interesting, but from side and front elevations there is something badly wrong with the proportions - it's attenuated and too narrow. The rear, however, is superb, its wonderful kicked-up arches giving off an intoxicating whiff of Targa Florio '57.

The interior of a roadster should be at least as amusing as its external style. Here, the Mazda is about as exciting as a '70s pick-up. The Spider is a disappointment inside, too: the sculpture of the angled binnacles is too strident, and sloppily executed. And I haven't even mentioned the driving position... The Barchetta's refined dashboard, quirky body-colour panels and sublime door handles earn it the interior prize on a plate, though there's little wrong with the British car's cabin. As modern industrial design, the MGF is not measurably short of a masterpiece. But the Barchetta has a smidgen more of what you expect from a roadster; it's more of a sports car, less of a well considered object. I'd put the MG in The Design Museum, but I'd steal the Fiat.


James May: I don't think they should have called this car an MG. It's not a real MG. It's much too good. Old MGs are arthritic jokes. MG is like Bugatti - a name that should never have been resurrected. It even has connotations I'm not comfortable with. It suggests to other people that I'm misty-eyed about the marque. I'm not!
Richard Bremner: Why on earth shouldn't Rover resurrect a great old brand name? If they're successful, the marque will take on a new meaning for a new generation. That said, I'd take the Barchetta. I think its rawness is actually a benefit. The MG is absolutely sensational in some areas but it falls down in romance and flair. The truth is, the MG's designers and stylists simply didn't do a good enough job. I think they were overawed by the apparent enormity of the task.
Gavin Green: It's as though the MG was developed over a very long time by a very talented team of engineers, and they really have delivered a very professional car. But the Fiat has the odd flash of absolute brilliance about it, even though the total workload that's gone into it is very much less.
Colin Goodwin: And the Fiat guys probably had a helluva lot more fun doing it.
GG: The MG is like a Honda NSX. What an achievement, but you know you'd rather have a Ferrari F355 - for which, in this context, substitute Fiat Barchetta. This class is all about passion, about irrationality.
RB: But Rover would counter that the MG was designed to be able to be used day-in, day-out. And it's so good that it would indeed do that job very well.
JM: The MG reminds me too much of good Japanese cars: well honed to the point of being just a bit characterless.
CG: Although that's not true of the Mazda, because it really is fun.
JM: And I still love the Spider. All round, I reckon that's the best car, because it's just so civilised and ... and lovely.
RB: I know I'd buy a Barchetta before the others. There are so many pleasures to be had from it - just looking at those details, and enjoying its verve even at low speeds.
GG: So are we going to give a win to a car that is only second-best? We all know that the MGF is the best car, and by some margin.
JM: We're saying that to be competitive a roadster must exceed a certain level of competence. But after that, it's down to passion, romance and having a good time. The Barchetta easily exceeds that threshold. And it's such a hoot.

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