Never one to pass up a celebration, David Morgan raises a glass to 30 years of the MG Maestro EFi/2.0i and tells us why the appeal of this MG is still so special to him…
Go on, admit it, you have probably overlooked this milestone in the history of the Maestro, not to mention of hot-hatches in general. This is rather understandable as last year saw LM10, the Maestro, officially celebrating its thirtieth anniversary. Meanwhile, a smaller contingent will be remembering that it was 25 years ago this year when the low volume MG Turbo variant officially went on sale.
This is a shame because out of all the Maestro variants produced, the MG EFi/2.0i is arguably the most consummate in its driving appeal and also the more significant from an engineering perspective.
During the long, torturous gestation period of LM10, no serious consideration had been given to employing a 2-litre engine. Furtive development of a twin-carburettor version of the 1598cc R Series for the MG variant had taken place during the eleventh hour in the Maestro’s development programme. At the time benchmark hot-hatches such as the Volkswagen Golf GTi and Vauxhall Astra GTE were already upping the game to fuel injection and 1.8-litres, meaning the 103bhp MG Maestro 1600 would be at a distinct disadvantage in terms of performance when it arrived in showrooms from March 1983. Austin Rover Group also wanted to standardise the use of the end mounted Volkswagen gearbox with all engine choices which effectively limited the opportunity to use larger capacity engines in the Maestro’s stumpy engine bay.
Only when the Montego arrived in April 1984 offering a Lucas L type multi-point electronic fuel injected version of the 2-litre O Series engine, married up to a more compact Honda K6 series gearbox design, did this signal the opportunity for a 2-litre powered MG Maestro.
It was a shrewd move as both the Golf GTi and Astra GTE were producing 112bhp and 115bhp respectively. The 2-litre O Series could easily match this, even if its long-stroke displacement lacked the smoothness of the smaller 1695cc unit that had seen service in the Austin Princess, Ambassador and Sherpa van. One early story suggested the 2-litre MG Maestro had originally been built as a development hack for evaluation by Austin Rover’s senior management, including managing director Harold Musgrove. When he drove it he was said to have been more than impressed by its capabilities and asked why it wasn’t in production.
The MG Maestro EFi was officially announced on 3rd October 1984 which was just two weeks before the start of the British Motor Show. With its 115bhp 2-litre O Series engine delivering 134lb/ft of torque and enabling the 0-60mph dash to be completed in as little as 8.4 seconds, the MG EFi was no slouch. It also represented good value too, with its showroom price of £7,279.41 undercutting both the 3-door Astra 1.8 GTE at £7,344 and Golf GTi at £7,992.
The keen-eyed were able to spot the MG EFi’s subtle differences over the outgoing MG Maestro 1600. These comprised of a new, body colour-keyed grille design and colour-coding to the door handles and mirror cappings. Meanwhile, the carry-over 14-inch alloy wheel design wearing 175/65 HR rated tyres – often casually referred to as the ‘cheese-grater’ design by aficionados – now featured the ‘MG’ letters in the centre trim. Inside were new Flint Grey-coloured Marle Deco and plain velour seat facings.
In those days the array of body colours on offer on the MG Maestro EFi proved to be more comprehensive than those found on other hot-hatches. A total of seven hues were offered at launch: Arum White, Black, Moonraker Blue metallic, Opaline Green metallic, Silverleaf metallic, Targa Red and Zircon Blue metallic.
A further ace up the MG’s sleeve was that it offered a number of equipment and technology-based optional extras. These included a solid state digital instrumentation pack with voice synthesiser featuring the soothing tones of actress Ms Nicolette McKenzie. Essentially the same unit as had previously been fitted as standard to the MG Maestro 1600, it was actually a £194.99 option on the MG EFi. Few owners ultimately subscribed to it and by late spring 1985 it had been consigned to history. More popular were electric front windows (£179.89), power-assisted steering (£296.27), sliding steel sunroof, (291.20), rear seat belts (£83.16), a choice of two upgraded radio/cassette options (£112.68 or £154.11) and black (£54) or metallic (£94.99) paint.
The ad men were clearly in their element with the MG Maestro EFi. “Just light the red touch paper!” they eulogised at its launch. This was quickly followed by “Now injected with Adrenalin” and, from late 1986, “Red Letters, Performance Figures”. By the summer of 1988 the war of words became more blatant when the acceleration figures from a comparison road test published in the August 1988 issue of What Car? magazine enabled them to announce that “The Golf GTi will be along in a Second”.
Within two months of its launch the 1,000th example had left the factory gates at Cowley. The 10,000th MG EFi followed in spring 1986 just as customers were getting used to the new Montego style dashboard fascia, locking fuel filler flap and the new colours of Azure Blue metallic and White Diamond. By now its on-the-road price had crept up to £8,049.33.
Despite its strong performance and competitive showroom price credentials, the MG Maestro EFi did not set the hot-hatch sales chart on fire or receive huge amounts of praise. Its awkward styling, questionable build quality and the fact it was an Austin Rover product did not see it winning mass acclaim against more illustrious offerings. At a deeper level it did not help that both the two main MG clubs and their members were less than embracing of the 1980s MG saloons and publicly displayed their discontentment over Austin Rover Group’s strategy for MG. After all, it was still a Maestro at the end of the day!
That said, in What Car? magazine’s group test of an MG Maestro EFi, Vauxhall Astra 2.0 GTE and Volkswagen Golf GTi, published in May 1985, it did draw on some favourable comments. “If you are looking for a sense of raw excitement, then the MG has to be the car to go for”. “It’s the Maestro that feels the gutsiest”. Praise indeed.
By the autumn of 1987 the EFi identity had been replaced by ‘2.0i’ due to changes in the company car taxation system relating to engine sizes over 1800cc. It was at this time the colour range underwent a minor revision, with Moonraker Blue being replaced by Atlantic Blue and Azure Blue being superseded by Strata Grey. Black, Silverleaf, Targa Red and White Diamond continued to be offered. Inside, standard Flint Grey carpets replaced the red items. However, the changeover from standard alloy wheels to steel wheels with plastic trims and the introduction of a standard fit glass sunroof had actually been undertaken back in the early summer under the ‘EFi’ identity.
Despite these minor changes the MG Maestro still conveyed a somewhat dated profile against the more favoured offerings from Ford, Vauxhall and Volkswagen, which by now had heavily indulged in the practise of colour coding secondary trim such as spoilers and sill spats. It was not until the doors of the 1988 British International Motor Show were flung open that the MG Maestro raised its profile with colour-coding for the front and rear spoiler treatments, side protection strips and sill spats. Gone were steel wheels to be replaced by new multi-spoke 15-inch alloys sitting on 185/55-sized tyres.
Admittedly the makeover, together with the two new exterior colours of British Racing Green metallic and Flame Red alongside the existing Black and White Diamond in the colour chart, had transformed the MG’s appearance for the better.
What was perhaps disappointing was the interior where those tasteful looking sports seats were anything but supportive or well made, thanks to softer foam now being used. The sculptured velvet and plain velour seat facings were the same spec material from the 1988 Model Year MG Montego, so were prone to losing the stick-on diagonal red stripe and ‘MG’ emblem from the backrests. It was almost as if Austin Rover’s designers had used up the entire development budget for the exterior enhancements.
The 500,000th Maestro rolled off the assembly line in the autumn of 1989, with this example being an MG 2.0i finished in White Diamond. It was sold through the dealer network rather than kept as a milestone car.
Aside from the availability of a catalyst from November 1990 as a £306.52 extra cost option, no further changes would filter through for the MG Maestro. In November 1991 it ended production in a typically low key fashion, its on-the-road price now being £12,910. Electric windows cost £306.52, power-assisted steering £311.63, a choice of two upgraded Philips cassette/radios were £86.84 or £178.80 respectively, while black paint was £132.82 and British Racing Green metallic £209.46.
The final MG 2.0i was finished in White Diamond and built for the home market. It was not retained as a milestone car for the collection of vehicles held by the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust, but was sold on through the dealer network and registered on a J’ registration. A number of examples, usually those that had not been fitted with power-assisted steering, remained unsold until as late as 1993. Two examples – both finished in British Racing Green metallic – are known to have attracted L’ registrations.
Despite being superseded by the new, better built and more aspirational R8 generation Rover 200 GTi variants, I still mourned the passing of the MG Maestro, despite my enthusiasm for these new Rovers.
My own acquaintance with the MG Maestro first came in 1989 when my parents bought a three-year-old EFi version for my mother to have as her daily use car (where are you now C574 UMX?). As a reward for spending three long days transforming it from a well used dog wagon into a gleaming ‘car of the week’ special, I was allowed to have driving lessons in it. What fun it was. A baritone engine than sounded like it had been on a strict diet of prime British beef and even red seat belts masquerading as the automotive equivalent of a stockbroker’s trouser braces. It was hard not to get seduced by the hot-hatch phenomenon.
I will admit that the non-assisted steering meant that I did not need to take out a subscription to the local gym in order to build up my biceps. The throttle response was always instantaneous and crisp, while the deep grunting sound the engine delivered when changing up early to a higher cog never failed to raise the grin factor. This was a car you never tired of driving.
Even after I had started working as a motoring correspondent for a regional newspaper back in the mid 1990s, I was still driving one; this time a 1989 MG 2.0i finished in British Racing Green metallic and fitted with optional power-assisted steering. In fact driving an MG Maestro proved to be a useful yardstick from which to measure progression (and occasionally regression!) of new car design. The MG’s brakes, for example, always came across as being adequate rather than something assertive, while the 2-litre engine’s healthy low-end torque delivery was something that would often be lacking in more modern engine designs, particularly sixteen-valve units that delivered their torque far higher up the rev band.
Load a 2-litre MG Maestro up to its headlining after a trip to the DIY centre or even when transporting all the props needed for a club stand at a car show, and it still had the ability to muster up a healthy serving of torque to ensure you could maintain your position in the outside lane.
Occasionally I used to praise the seats for their comfort compared to those found in some bigger, more expensive cars. Even the gearchange was noted for being relatively light while the power-assisted steering offered plenty of feedback about the dialogue going on between the front drive wheels and the road surface. In many ways it put me off ever wanting to drive something more, well… sensible and clinical.
Sadly fate would deal me a cruel hand in May 2006 when my own example was involved in an accident caused by another motorist, who obviously thought he was a lone rally driver in a narrow country lane not being used by others travelling from the opposite direction.
Rather than scrap it and say good-bye to a near 13 year partnership, the damaged car was kept. Plans are in place for it to undergo a ground-up professional restoration in the near future, despite the cost far outweighing what it would sell for if it was ever sold in Concourse condition. But that is what love affairs can sometimes do – cause you to take all leave of your senses in pursuit of something that gives you personal reward.
For me, the MG Maestro’s simple ingredients of a torquey 2-litre engine, H frame rear suspension with front and rear anti roll bars and the same wheel-in-each-corner principle as the Mini enabled Austin Rover Group to deliver a cocktail of explicit good fun. It also had a more endearing quality – honesty where it could easily live up to the rather modest hype given to it, while also excelling in other areas not normally rated highly by hot-hatch enthusiasts. Too right I love the MG Maestro EFi and 2.0i!
So, in typical Eighties fashion, raise your can of Quattro fizzy drink with me and salute the thirtieth anniversary of one of the great unsung members of the hot-hatch phenomenon, the MG Maestro EFi/2.0i.