Top GearOctober 1995

So there's a new MG. But the Mazda MX-5 still has a lot going for it and the Fiat Barchetta is brand new too and super-sexy. Are they better than the Brit? We drove them back-to-back and decided

    The MGF will have no shortage of rivals. Next year there'll be a Z3 from BMW, a Spider from Alfa Romeo and a Spider from Renault in the UK. But there are two much more direct competitors here already; the Mazda MX-5 and the Fiat Barchetta.
    Mazda's MX-5 kicked the whole retro sports car thing off in 1990. Now there are two versions on sale: the plush £17,595 1.8i S and the leaner £14,495 1.8i tested here. Fiat's left-hand-drive-only Barchetta is so new that it only just turned up in time for our test and has no price tag yet, though Fiat reckon it will sell for around £14.000. Can either of these ruin the MG's debut?

There's no doubt about it, Fiat's Barchetta is the best-looking of the three. Its overall shape is gloriously classic, helped by the body-coloured metal tonneau cover which tucks the hood completely out of sight. On top of that are near little details like the frenched-in headlamps, the spindly doorhandles and the rear lamps. Even the steel wheels manage to look good.
    The theme continues inside with old-fashioned-style clocks and air vents, brightened up by clever use of body-coloured metal. It's all good quality stuff, there's plenty of lockable stowage space and the boot's a reasonable size. The hood is easy to fold down, though you have to get our of the car to do it and the plastic window doesn't unzip, so you could easily crease it.
    But never mind that: once you're settled in nice and low behind the wheel you feel good. The Fiat has the most room and the best driving position of the three and, though the seats could be firmer for long journeys, they've got plenty of side support.
    The Barchetta's engine sounds good from outside the car, bur not that refined from the driver's seat. It develops the same 130bhp as the MX-5 but has more torque. You can split the two on the straight line dash but the Fiat is more flexible. Both are quicker than the MG at the top end.
    The gearchange lacks the sharpness and directness of its rivals and you have to concentrate so as not to end up in fifth gear instead of third. Anti-lock brakes come as standard but the pedal feel could be sharper.

The Fiat is the only front-wheel-drive car here and it also has the least sophisticated suspension — MacPherson struts at the front and trailing arms at the rear. But on the vast Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground where we tested the cars, it put up a very strong fight. The power-assisted steering is quick but doesn't have the Mazda's precision. In tight corners it will eventually run its front wheel wide in understeer surrender, but it doesn't throw in the towel as early as you'd think. Lifting gently off the throttle mid-corner usually brings the nose back into line without the tail swinging round.
    But test tracks are flat and smooth. Country roads aren't, and they prove the Barchetta's undoing. Big bumps unsettle the car too easily and by the time you've sorted it all out with the somewhat vague power steering, the other two will be long gone. Over fast, bumpy roads the Barchetta is a handful. It's pretty to look at, pretty OK to drive, but an all-round great it isn't.

M X - 5
It might be the oldest car here, but Mazda's MX-5 can still turn heads. The overall shape was right when it was introduced and it's still right now — only the cheap steel wheels spoil it. Admittedly the pop-up headlamps aren't the height of fashion any more and it's annoying that you can't have even sidelights on without them up.
    The MX-5's interior is not as good as the Barchetta's; it's more cramped, lacks adjustable steering, has a horrible steering wheel and poor stowage, is gloomier with the hood up and has less colourful trim. Yet it has the best seats of the three, and a better driving position than the MG. There are few frills and few toys to play with, but then when did electric windows make you go round corners quicker? You can quickly raise and lower the hood from inside the car, provided you don't bother about the plastic tonneau cover.
    The Mazda's four-cylinder, l6-valve engine does need revving hard. The pulling power is weak at just 112lb ft and it doesn't come in until high up the rev range; hence the need for fearsome throttle work.
    You won't complain about having to work the engine hard though, for the gearchange is simply superb, as short and direct as any you'll find in a race car. The clutch and the brake pedal are perfectly weighted too — there's not a millimetre of wasted travel or free play. There's no anti-lock but the Mazda's all-round discs are well up to the job.

    A classic rear-wheel drive layout and expensive racing car-style double wishbone suspension all round give the Mazda near-perfect balance when it comes to handling.
    But if there's a downside to driving the Mazda's it's the non-power-assisted steering. It's weighty without a terrific amount of feel, if direct and accurate.
    While it has the hardest ride of the three, bumps and rutted roads don't phase the MX-5. When it misbehaves, it's because you've told it to. A bootful of throttle and a tug of the wheel out of a right bend and you're into a glorious, ensily-caught tail-slide. It's fun, just like a proper sports car should be.

There was a roll-around-on-the-floor scrap in the road rest department when we came to deciding this.
    Let's start with what we agree about. If looks alone could win this test, the Barchetta would clinch it. Because it will be sold in small numbers, it will always have exclusivity on its side, too.
    We're also agreed that, despite its age, the MX-5 still captures the true spirit of an affordable sports car. And most importantly, we're also agreed that the MGF is not the best car here.
    Firstly, it doesn't have the looks. It's awkwardly high — parked next to the low-slung Mazda and Fiat it looks more like a coupe convertible than a proper sports car. The driving position is cramped, too and the seats are poor.
    Its mid-engined layout and Hydragas suspension give superb, safe handling, so as a driving machine it has few faults. Or so says Jeremy. Tiff doesn't agree — but then he drives harder than most. We're in between; we'd say the handling's good bur not thrilling. Which makes you wonder why Rover opted for such a costly mid-engined set-up. We've got an old X1/9 so we know how special a mid-engined car can be #&151; but the MGF isn't.
    So which is the best? Here's the squabble. The Fiat has looks and value but against it are its left-hand drive and handling which can fall apart on the bumpiest British sideroads. For a sports car that isn't good enough; for a good-looking funster, it probably is.
    The Mazda, though, manages to be both. It makes you smile from the moment you get in it because it feels so right. Every control has a sharpness, and precision to it that the other two cars lack. For sheer driving fun it has no peers. It's still the best affordable small sportscar around. Sorry, MG