Drive Story : MG Maestro EFI

The MG Maestro: it could have been the ultimate success story, but instead, a quarter of a century on it’s almost become notable only for being largely forgettable. If ever there was a car that deserved more, this was it.

Words and pictures: Jonathan Sellars


King of the ’80s hot hatches?

MG Maestro EFi takes a 600 mile day in its stride....

MG Maestro EFi takes a 600 mile day in its stride....

IF you could have any ‘80s hot hatch, which would it be? It’s a question that’ll always be the subject of furious debate among motoring hacks and enthusiasts alike but I can almost guarantee there’s one car that’ll never so much as enter anyone’s mind, not even fleetingly: the MG Maestro. It could have been the ultimate success story but, instead, a quarter of a century on it’s almost become notable only for being largely forgettable. If ever there was a car that deserved more, this was it.

By the time the original MG Maestro came along in 1983, the idea of sticking gutsy engines into small cars was nothing new. The rise of the hot hatch had been gaining in momentum steadily and, by the early 1980s, it seemed everyone in the business of making cars wanted their bite at the cherry (even Nissan). Before long there would be warmed-up versions of almost every mainstream hatchback conceivable, all groaning under the weight of the various plastic addenda. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was little more than one big marketing ploy, but the hot hatch revolution brought with it some surprisingly credible drivers’ cars. The Maestro was one of them.

The shortcomings of Austin Rover’s first attempt at a sporty Maestro have already been touched upon elsewhere on this site. There was nothing discreet about the hastily-conceived MG 1600’s crimson carpets and seatbelts or the infamous electronic instrumentation but lukewarm performance, recurrent carburetion problems and serious questions over quality were never going to earn it a place in the history books other than for all the wrong reasons. The 2-litre fuel-injected car that replaced it was a far more rounded product but the damage had already been done. Keen drivers went to Volkswagen or Peugeot and bought a GTi.

Now, though, that we’re in the midst of a growing hot hatch revival, I feel it’s time to redress the balance. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves what the MG is all about. Can it still entertain after all these years, or is it one of those things best left in the past, along with some of the decade’s more questionable fashions?

To decide, I’m heading west. My route covers 600 miles in 13 hours of driving and takes in everything from sustained high speed motorway running to the sweeping, undulating moorland roads of North Wales. It’s the perfect post-rebuild shakedown and a much needed chance to rekindle my fondness for a car that hasn’t really been a part of my life for over a year now. The MG I’m driving is one of the ordinary non-turbo, pre-facelift ‘EFi’ models with retro black plastic stick-on bits and just over 109,000 miles showing. From the outside it might just as well be new – it even smells new. However, I’m only too aware it’s not 1987 any more and, before I go anywhere I fit a new set of HT leads, check water and oil levels, PAS fluid, tyre pressures, lights, brake efficiency and so on. The Maestro’s cavernous boot is filled with spare oil, water, leads, belts and tools. I’ve learned the hard way not to leave anything to chance, especially where infrequently driven cars are concerned.

By the time I set off Surrey to North Wales and back in a day is looking adventurous but by no means impossible. The first part of the drive is through slow and rather congested local roads but, with the sunroof open wide and wall to wall sunshine forecast all day, I’m content enough. I pause briefly in Farnham to brim the tank ready for the long stint on the M4 and then the journey begins in earnest.

Once on the motorway, it’s plain sailing for the 2-litre MG. I’m used to driving a thoroughly unruffled V6 Rover 75 so I’ve been expecting to find the Maestro quite uncouth at speed, but no… it’s not like that at all. Once it settles down it’s actually quite civilized and, because of the way it’s geared, there’s still quite a bit of clout in reserve if you need it. Inside a Maestro isn’t a bad place to be on a long run. The velour sports seats support you in all the right places and the light and airy feeling of spaciousness is unrivalled in a car of this size. If anything it’s the details that infuriate. It’s a shame that AR couldn’t have tried a bit harder with the plastics, some of which appear particularly flimsy and can become brittle with age. Driving through some roadworks near Swindon, where the limit drops to 40mph, sets up a resonance within the dash that begins to grate after a few miles. Must do something about that…

Once over the second Severn Crossing and into Wales, everything is running smoothly and the car has had a chance to clear its throat. I leave the M4 just before Newport for the run up to Abergavenny but, at the end of the slip road awaiting a gap on the busy roundabout, it’s clear that the car’s idle isn’t as fast as it should be. Worse, I can just about make out a faint misfire through the pedals. Clearly some of the car’s old gremlins are still there despite the shiny new exterior.

In Abergavenny the traffic builds up. The car can be a bit of a handful to drive smoothly around town. Find yourself in the wrong gear for a given situation and you’ll quickly be rewarded with something that would pass as a pretty good imitation of bucking bronco. It doesn’t help that the clutch on this car is now biting rather low since its replacement and so occasionally it’s necessary to double-declutch to assist changes between first and second. You just have to hope that the driver behind is the patient sort! Anyone who’s only experience of the Maestro involved the VW-sourced gearbox in the 1.3 and 1.6 will find the Honda PG1 in the 2-litre cars a breath of fresh air. The shorter throw and positive feel through the gate makes all the difference, enabling swift changes and removing all the infuriating vagueness of the complex linkage arrangement.

Back on the open road and the MG’s incredible torque makes light work of dispatching slower traffic swiftly and safely. A tractor shortly after Builth Wells is a good example. Vision opens up, move out, squeeze the throttle in second and the O-series hum becomes an urgent roar. The acceleration isn’t breathtaking by modern standards but it’s surefooted and positive. It inspires confidence.

The brakes don’t. You’d think that vented discs and servo assistance would be up to the job of bringing 984 kg of Maestro to a halt easily enough but achieving the desired effect does require a surprising amount of pressure on the middle pedal. This takes some getting used to and, on one deceptively tight turn, I’m caught out and end up turning in before I’ve finished braking, let alone sorted the gears out. There’s no drama, but it does serve as a reminder as to how much things have moved on since the MG was current and you have to modify your driving accordingly.

Beyond busy, tourist-ridden Bala there’s a real treat in store. Leave the A5 at the quiet village of Cerrigydrudion onto the B4501 north and you’re onto the kind of roads that are a destination in their own right. Fast, sweeping, undulating and with some challenging camber and perfect sightlines across open bends, things just don’t get much better than this – it’s here that the Maestro truly belongs. Once out of the village there’s no traffic and I savour the opportunity to explore the MG’s performance and handling in a little more depth. The new Pirellis cling tenaciously through the corners and, while there’s undoubtedly some body roll present, it doesn’t feel at all messy. In fact, the car handles so predictably and instils such confidence that I soon have to remind myself it’s irreplaceable and tone down my enthusiasm a little!

The big yellow fuel light appears all too soon and brings an abrupt end to my party. When I eventually locate a filling station that’s open in Betws-y-Coed it’s dark and the car is almost running on fumes. I’d forgotten how easy it is to get caught out up here. I’ve covered 316 miles since brimming the tank in Surrey earlier in the day. A quick calculation suggests a 36mpg average for the trip so far, which comes as a pleasant surprise.

The return trip is a monotonous five hour motorway run and I have to pace myself with plenty of stops. What’s remarkable is how admirably the 21-year old MG has coped with the demands placed on it. Checking the levels at Warwick Services everything’s just fine, although the offside rear indicator has stopped working thanks to a poor contact on the circuit board. That’s easily sorted. As night becomes morning, and the roads empty, the MG delivers such a relaxed drive I completely forget its age. It’s quite happy barrelling along at the national speed limit. Any more and there’s a sense of urgency you don’t want on a relaxed motorway cruise and that’s undoubtedly down to the low gearing which can result in a slightly stressed note from the engine when pushed.

The verdict, then… Why should you buy one? The bog standard EFi never quite offered the exclusivity or the straight line adrenaline rush of the better known forced induction variant and neither will it ever be looked upon with the same glowing affection that some of its contemporaries have enjoyed, but you have to ask yourself how much any of that ultimately matters. The qualities of this car are altogether more subtle and you won’t have to drive all around the country to discover the simple pleasures and all-round driving appeal it offers to those prepared to look beyond the surface. Once again the MG has delivered an unforgettable drive and, after 21 years, that’s everything I could have asked for. The biggest problem nowadays is finding another.


Summary

Scores out of ten
Performance
Economy
Transmission
Handling and ride
Accommodation
Boot/storage
Visibility
Instruments
Depreciation N/A
Ventilation
Noise
Finish
Equipment
Verdict

Vital statistics

Vital statistics
Engine 1994 cc O-Series, Transverse, Front wheel drive
Transmission Five-speed manual
Maximum power 115bhp at 5500 rpm
Maximum speed 114mph
0-60mph 8.4 secs
Keith Adams

About the Author:

Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and watched it steadily grow into AROnline. Is the Editor of Classic Car Weekly, and has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, Classic Car Weekly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, and the the Motoring Independent... Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.

9 Comments on "Drive Story : MG Maestro EFI"

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  1. John says:

    What a great article. From 1986 to the early 90’s we had 3 Maestro 2.0 EFi’s in the family; one from new and two from virtually new.

    Okay, they had their faults, from the usual rust issues, disposable wheel bearings, exhausts and shock absorbers, to alloys that would let the air out of the tyres and steering that (in standard, non PAS, form) was unforgivably heavy!

    But, on the plus side, they were hugely characterful, torquey, good looking (both inside and out) with a huge glass area and a brilliant couldn’t-give-a-damn image that I found hugely appealing when all the sheep were buying Astra GTE’s and Golf GTi’s (come to think of it, the sheep still are buying Golf GTI’s!).

    What I do find interesting is how 115 bhp and a 114 mph top speed seemed so quick at the time. My old 1.6, 115 bhp, MINI Cooper seemed completely flat in comparison; perhaps, if the weight really is under 1,000 Kgs, that might explain it as the MINI must have weighed in at around 1,200 Kgs. The subsequent supercharged Cooper S (170 bhp) was so close to the old MG in character and performance. Probably around the same overall size too!

    Would I have another MG Maestro 2.0 EFi? If I could find an immaculate, low mileage, one with PAS I’d be tempted, but I wouldn’t feel the same about the MG badge, now that it’s sold out on its uniquely British identity.

  2. David 3500 says:

    I actually own a 1989 example which is about to undergo a major restoration, having been off the road for five years – yes, it has the optional power asssted steering although it retains the standard ‘keep fit’ manual window winders.

    It is down to its torquey 2-litre engine, reasonable fuel economy and sheer fun factor that I am commited to giving it a new lease of life. Admittedly I am not a dye-in-the-wool MG fanatic but the MG Maestro, particularly in EFi/2.0i form, has always been a great car to drive.

    Because of its condition I used to take it to local classic car shows and display on the windscreen the advert announcing that “the Golf GTi will be along in a second.” Oh how people used to smile and even laugh at the claim, while enthusiasts of the Golf would mutter something under their breath or be explicitly rude about the Maestro and then walk away.

    In my eyes the appeal of the concept is far greater than the badge it happens to wear on its radiator grille.

  3. John says:

    Just looking back at those photos again, this really was a good looking car! I remember writing off one of the tyres on a piece of wood in the road when the car can only have been a few weeks old. They were relatively “trick” low profile tyres then and hugely expensive to replace! 175/65 R14!! How things have changed, they look so narrow and tall by today’s standards and they wouldn’t be out of place on a caravan now 😉

    The other memory was catching the front spoiler on a kerb in a car park; the add on front spoiler acts as a perfect ratchet and (if it gets snagged on the opposite side of the kerb) will rip the front bumper off when you reverse away. Oops!!

    C755 HBH was sold to make way for a used SD1 VDP which was a huge mistake! Shortly after the MG was sold it was taken to a garage for a service, where the “road testing” mechanic completely wrote it off while “road testing”. Grrrr!! I’m not sure that it even made its third birthday 🙁

    The SD1 was only around for around 6 months until we traded it in for a virtually unused and immaculate 2.0 EFi, that stayed in the family until it was finally taken away on the scrap yard’s lorry…

  4. John says:

    PS: Despite what you might think, “EFi” actually stands for “Extremely Flash initials”. Don’t let others mislead you into thinking otherwise….

  5. david says:

    The met garage staff used to call this car the 60second orgasm. Not sure why.

  6. Nate says:

    Always felt that there was a big gap between the 115 hp MG Maestro EFI and the 152 hp MG Maestro Turbo that needed to be filled with a 129 hp version of the former, while having the 1.6 S-Series EFI or neglected 1.7 O-Series push out 110-115 hp and sitting underneath as a properly resolved version of the undeveloped 103 hp MG Maestro 1600.

    So the MG Maestro range would above as follows:

    MG Maestro 1.6 EFI or MG Maestro 1.7 EFI (both 110-115 hp)

    MG Maestro 2.0 EFI (115-129 hp)

    MG Maestro 2.0 Turbo (152 hp)

  7. Nate says:

    6) Nate

    My bad, I meant “would look as follows:”

  8. David 3500 says:

    @ Nate:

    I can understand where you are coming from in terms of the noticeable engine power gap between the 115bhp of the MG Maestro EFi/2.0i and the 152bhp of the MG Maestro Turbo. However, in terms of performance there wasn’t a huge difference between them, particular mid-range between 30-50mph. Only in the 50-70mph time in fourth gear was the forced-induction variant around one second quicker (thanks to the turbo spinning at this engine speed). The difference in 0-60mph was just 1.7 seconds, as the MG EFi/2.0i was actually quite fast compared to its obvious rivals such as the Volkswagen Golf GTi 8-valve (“which will be along in a second”), Ford Escort XR3i and Vauxhall Astra 1.8 Gte.

    The MG Maestro EFi/2.0i was also a more fluid handling car than the Turbo version thanks to its chassis being able to handle its power. The MG Turbo variant which did not have any major changes to either the suspension or braking over those of the EFi/2.0i was a different story, however…

  9. Nate says:

    Though in the Maestro Turbo’s case production was only limited to 505 cars, while much more could have been done to prevent the Maestro EFi/2.0i from getting lost in the shuffle during the mid/late-80s Hot Hatch wars through receiving a useful power upgrade to 129 hp.

    Which would have not compromised the fluid handling of the existing 115 hp car compared with the 152 hp Turbo, while making the upgraded Maestro EFi/2.0i much more competitive against rivals prior to being replaced by the R8.

    Obviously it will eventually be left behind in any case as its rivals eclipse the upgraded Maestro EFi/2.0i’s 129 hp though it would not be completely forgotten or be easily dismissed by others as in real-life for its 115 hp output that even today few really appreciate (while the Maestro Turbo is another matter entirely).

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