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?
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.
|Scores out of ten|
|Handling and ride|
|Engine||1994 cc O-Series, Transverse, Front wheel drive|
|Maximum power||115bhp at 5500 rpm|