First Drive : MG TF LE 500
After three years and one or two false starts, the MG TF LE500 finally goes on sale in the UK and Ireland. Once the darling of the convertible set, has the reborn MG lost its sheen during the intervening years?
Words and pictures: Keith Adams
It’s back, but is it any good?
IN 1992, the MG RV8 hit the market. As it stood, it was an interesting project – Rover Special Products took a Heritage MGB shell, added a V8 engine and gearbox, and kitted it out with as many components from the parts bin as it could lay its hands on. Project Adder might not have set the world alight in terms of dynamics, style or charisma but it allowed the company to put a sporting roadster on the market after a hiatus of 12-years. Now, 16-years on, the current custodians of the MG marque are performing the same trick – only this time, it’s been a mere three years since one of the brand’s roadsters graced the New Car Price Guides.
Back then, the TF was hailed as the UK’s best selling two-seater roadster and, although production volumes were reasonably low, the model’s profile was high and it had an enthusiastic following. Now it’s back – and under new management. Initially available in a limited run of 500, a vastly different Longbridge is producing the Anglo-Chinese TF – hopefully as a prelude to new roadsters in the coming years.
Today, however, the world’s moved on. Buyers’ memories are short and Mazda’s wholly competent MX-5 has made the UK market for affordable roadsters its own. Not just because its stylish, accessible, is available with a folding hardtop and is as reliable as the changing of the guard – but because it’s excellent value and pretty much the only choice in that price range for anyone who wants open-topped thrills without having to resort to a whale-tailed coupe-cabrio. The TF LE500 plunges straight into this market and comparisons are inevitable.
The car’s priced at £16,399 and that has already received a fair amount of flak – mainly because it’s a sticker laden with numbers that people weren’t expecting to see. Given the Chinese content and age of the design, many were expecting to see a bargain basement price. After all, the cynics reasoned, what other justifications are there for buying a car that’s going to be tough to buy parts for and is at least a generation behind the opposition? Hell, it’s still got Montego mirror switches.
Prepare to be surprised: although it’s not perfect, the TF LE500 is actually worth considering.
Styling and engineering
You already know the score about the TF LE500’s looks. It’s basically the 2005 car with a fettled front bumper. The single slot grille is certainly less fussy than the last TF’s gills and the meshed and slightly reprofiled air intake looks more homogenous. There are plenty of LE500 identifiers around the car, including wing badges and 16-inch alloys but, in truth, very little has changed. That’s no bad thing, though, as the TF was never short on style – and that remains the case today.
Inside, the trim has a higher quality feel than its older cousin even though very little has changed visually. Piano black surrounds look and feel good, while the leather upholstery felt acceptable to us, looking reasonably hard-wearing too. A close examination reveals that the vents and switches in the centre console look like recreations – they’re minutely different, while the main change is limited to the instrument pack. That part of the update, it has to be said, hasn’t exactly been successful – the warning lights are small and poorly lit, while the dials themselves are gaudy and look like they’ve been sitting in Proton’s store cupboard for the past 20 years (despite being designed by MG Rover).
We did find that the TF LE500 had a gear change upshift light… but, at first, we thought that a warning light was trying to tell us about some impending calamity.
Under the skin, it’s also a very familiar story – the N-Series engine sounds and smells roughly like the original and the chassis settings are an evolution of the softened 2005 set-up that finally earned the TF serious praise. You’re going to be disappointed if you are looking for something new but, if you’re after the reassurance of familiarity, then the TF is right down your street.
Especially if you’re a fan of Rover 200 column stalks.
Performance and economy
With 135bhp on tap, the TF’s never going to be considered a road burner. The vital statistics paint an accurate picture though – 0-60mph in 8.5secs and a top speed of 125mph mean that it’s brisk enough but, for your £16,399, there are plenty of ways to spend your money and go faster. However, that’s not what the TF is about really – it was always a tactile and pointy car and one that’s best enjoyed on a B-road, alone, with the roof down. Taken in that context, it’s absolutely fine.
Fire it up and there’s the reassuringly familiar K-Series bark, but slightly watered down. It’s difficult to put one’s finger on it exactly but, in N-Series trim, you’re treated to a slightly different soundtrack; it’s rather like they took the original and washed it through a noise filter. The sound is still there but, somehow, the emotions it evokes are different.
In more objective terms, considering the damp-liner K-Series has been around for so long and it’s only been treated to the mildest of makeovers by NAC MG, it’s still an effective engine. In third gear, from little more than a trickle, it pulls cleanly, but becomes more purposeful as the revs pass 4K – and because the ratios in that fine-shifting ‘box are quite long, third makes for a very effective B-road gear. The induction noise is appealing too, as it adds an extra dimension to the hard-edged note of the N-Series, when floored from low revs.
The brakes have excellent feel and progression. Here, at least, it seems that great progress has been made.
The official line on fuel consumption is 35.8mpg on the combined cycle, although you’re looking at a real world 30mpg-plus if you drive carefully and just below that once you start hooning it – or decide to make heavy use of the air conditioning system.
Handling and ride
Here’s where you’d expect the TF to score well and you’re not going to be disappointed. We’ve already mentioned that the LE500 rides on 16-inch alloys and has adopted the softer chassis settings of the final 2005 cars – and, even armed with that knowledge, the TF’s ride still impresses on your typical British roads. It’s no Citroen, but attack a pock-marked secondary at any kind of speed, and the TF shrugs it off effectively. There are also far fewer rattles and squeaks to listen to now. That could be down to the quality of the dashboard, which comes as a welcome surprise.
The TF still scores well for steering – the gearing is quick (but the turning circle is poor) and being in touch with the road encourages you to press on. For those looking for a go-kart, though, it might be best to shop elsewhere. The TF remains as friendly now as it ever was at sensible speeds.
Head for the corners and the TF feels nicely planted. The supple suspension means that you’re not constantly trying to dodge potholes and mid-corner lumps won’t necessarily through throw you off the road, as they might once have done. Body roll is reasonably well contained, although it’s not eliminated. In short, it’s a good B-road companion which handles in a novice-friendly manner but can also cover ground incredibly effectively if you want it to.
Living with the TF LE500
The TF LE500 is going to be an easy car to live with, assuming the reliability is there. All the elements that made the original so appealing remain in place; while there have been a number of quality improvements along the way to make you feel that some progress has been made during the past three years.
The interior is just about roomy enough and has just about enough stowage space. The seats are supportive and comfortable, although they are still, infuriatingly, mounted too high. The controls are logical and everything works as it should – although the instruments cheapen what comes across as a nicely honed package.
The TF is nice and friendly to drive and the snappy gearchange and talkative steering mean that, when you want to pick up the pace, you can do so with confidence. That makes it the perfect roadster or second car…
We like this latest incarnation of the TF. That should come as no surprise as we felt the same about the last one – and the MGF before it. For the 300-plus people who have already ordered an LE500, this test should reaffirm their decision – it’s good to drive, feels as it should and, most importantly for some, carries the MG badge on its shapely snout.
However, leaving aside NAC MG UK’s plans for the future – and how positively they like to spin them, we’re talking about the here and now and the realities of laying out cold, hard cash on one of these cars. Despite what looks like an optimistic price tag, the LE500 remains reasonable value if you take into account the equipment tally. Bring an MX-5 1.8i up to the same specification, and you’re looking at the thick end of £20,400.
All of a sudden, the £16,399 that NAC MG UK is asking for this car doesn’t seem quite so steep. Remember, too, that once the initial batch of LE500s have been built, they will be replaced by the regular TF 135 for a more appealing £14,999. You lose the air conditioning, hardtop, and passenger airbag though.
Potential owners may have some concerns about depreciation and, while XPart and NAC MG UK are working together to sort out the problems, there are still some TF parts which have been NLA for over a year. However, assuming that situation can be overcome and residual values remain firm once production of the standard TF 135 starts, then a fairly convincing case for new MG ownership could be made.
The TF, though, is never going to be a purely rational purchase and, if you’re buying with your heart, then at least you know that you’ll be spending your money on a characterful, interesting and sporting roadster.
Welcome back MG!
Scores out of ten
|Handling and ride|
MG TF LE500
|Engine||1796cc, DOHC, 16V|
|Maximum power||134bhp at 6000rpm|