Tested : 1997 MGF 1.8i

Considering it first appeared in 1995, in many ways the MGF still feels modern – there’s something about the old girl that you can’t help but love, and isn’t that what these cars are all about?

Keith Adams takes a spin in an early 1.8-litre car and comes away with the distinct impression that, despite the well-documented heritage issues, here’s a car that can step up to the plate and delight the driver.

Compromised, but wonderful…

Ultra-modern when launched, but in many ways harking back to the style pioneered by the rubber-bumpered MGB…

We all know the story of the MGF – developed on a budget that might just have kept BMW’s staff canteen in Munich in bratwurst for a couple of weeks and using a raft of components dug out of the Rover parts bin, it arrived at the height of the roadster boom of the mid-1990s, and proved a rather profitable venture for the company. Yes, its critics may dismissively describe the MGF as little more than a back-to-front Metro with a big engine in it, but after a recent re-visit, it’s difficult not to come to the conclusion that Rover’s Engineers were pretty good at re-cooking their meat ‘n’ two veg into something rather spicy…

Take a look at the styling, and time has been kind to the MGF – the organic curves may be a little out of fashion right now, but that doesn’t stop it being balanced and characterful. Considering it’s mid-engined, non-car people would be hard-pressed to tell that you actually sit in front of the powertrain. Fans of Italian supercars might think that’s a bit of a waste – but low-scuttled wedge designs and Metro front bulkheads don’t really mix. So, given that compromise, you have to conclude that Gerry McGovern and his colleagues made a great job of the MGF.

The running gear’s a masterclass in stirring the pot – Metro Hydragas interconnected suspension, K-Series engines, offered initially in 1.8-litre form, but expanded to include the VVC cylinder head, and a bunch of R8 and R17 interior parts. For someone into 1990s Rovers, it makes the MGF a delightful place to sit. However, the Chassis Engineers developed it into something rather special – and, if you’re worried about the idea of a Hydragas-suspended sports car, then fear ye not… Once you get your head around the idea, and actually drive it, you’ll be pretty pleased…

Performance and Economy

Okay, so at 1087kg, the MGF is no lightweight – and there are plenty of sporting hatchbacks with plenty more muscle and trimmer bodies that will leave it for dead in a straight line, but that’s not what this car is about. It’s no cruiser, either – slightly frantic gearing and a peaky engine means you’ll not be slogging at low speeds in a high gear in the pursuit of effortless progress.

No, the MGF is a car that you actively have to work at to make decent progress in – and that pays penalties at the pumps. Cars of this nature are supposed to be easy on the pocket, but 30mpg’s about the best you can expect if you like to go quickly. However, for most owners, who have chosen one as their second car, that’s probably not the handicap it would normally be.

In a straight line, it’s quick enough, though. Thanks to excellent traction off the line, 60mph comes up in 8.7 seconds, and the top speed is a respectable (for its 118bhp power output) 123mph. In the real world, a mildly quick turbo diesel will leave it far behind on the motorway, but factor in traction exiting corners or roundabouts, and the sheer amount of lateral grip available (in the dry) and the MGF more than holds its own.

Handling and Ride

The MGF is a compact and wieldy car and that means you’ll enjoy hustling it through bends. That’s pretty obvious really – it’s fairly low and the engine’s mid-mounted, resulting in near-perfect weight distribution. However, what will surprise – and hopefully delight – is the excellent ride quality. Okay, it’s no Rover 75, but we’d compare it favourably with a number of newer family hatchbacks in terms of control and softness.

That said, the relatively compliant ride and well-controlled damping don’t lead to rolly-poly cornering – like many Hydragas suspended cars, it’s flat in bends too. For anyone with a pre-2005 MG TF, a ride up a rough B-road will be an enlightning experience and, in fact, a bit of a revelation. It’s only the scuttle shake and associated rattles that will really ruffle you – not the boneshaking ride normally associated with such cars.

You’ll be able to tackle your average cross-country run at enormous speed as a result – unhindered by the crashiness and joggling you might expect from contemporary rivals, and be egged on by the sheer amount of lateral grip on offer. The driving experience all seems rather effortless, and you’ll only realise you’re mullering the road you’re on by the speed you catch (and pass) the cars around you.

In the wet, it can’t bend the laws of physics, though – and snap oversteer can turn into a very nasty spin… so be careful when playing.

In short, the rough and tumble of the city streets shouldn’t be too much of an inconvenience, rough roads are pretty much shrugged off – aside from when the short wheelbase conspires against you, and motorways are a stable and four-square planted affair…

At the wheel

Is this place special enough for you?

Although it wouldn’t be correct to describe the MGF‘s interior as anything other than functional and a little drab in the industrial greys and blacks of our car, there’s a certain style that will endear it to AROnline readers. You’ll be clasping an R8 steering wheel, twiddling R17 knobs and peering into Metro/100 rear view mirrors – making this a sports car that you’ll feel quickly at home in and not at all intimidated by. Some aspects of the ergonomics are exasperating, such as the electric window and foglamp switch placement, and you’ll be wondering at what the point of some of the tiny storage compartments actually is.

The controls themselves are generally good to use though. The EPAS steering is over-light and slightly under-geared so long-term ownership might be more enjoyable with the fuse pulled out; also the gearchange lacks the snickety-snick of a Mazda MX-5 and the brakes don’t seem to have much initial bite. The seating position’s also a bit on the high side – there’s no real reason for this, other than making the MGF new-car test-drive friendly.

These are small niggles, though, and within a few miles, you’ll be feeling confident and happy.

Finish and equipment

Hood down, the MGF looks good…

As explained previously, there’s an awful lot of carry-over equipment in the MGF and, to the sanitized fingertips of your average 21st century car enthusiast brought up on soft-feel plastic and damped grab handles, it probably feels a little low-rent. Don’t be fooled, though, because it’s all solid and functional – even if it’s unglamorous. The hood itself is elegantly simple, well engineered, and you’ll get it up and down just as quickly as your average C+C poseur, but without all the weight and complexity.

It would be nice if there had been a glass rear window from the beginning (MY2005 TFs received one – too little, too late), and the exposed mechanism of the single-skinned hood looks a little quaint – but don’t let that put you off. Not at the money these cars are now fetching…

…and it’s not too bad hood up, either. Open to closed is a 20-second job if you don’t rush it


The MGF has developed a bit of a reputation for being a nail-technician’s car – and we’re not entirely sure why. After all, it’s a good drive and you can’t depend on it as a day to day conveyance (just Google the term ‘MGF breakdown‘ if you don’t believe us). This is a fully-fledged classic car, because an MGF needs constant care and attention – you cannot just get in and thrash it in the way you can, say, a Mazda MX-5 – and, for those who do, MGF ownership is a frustrating and ultimately expensive experience.

That said, at today’s prices, it’s something of a steal, too – as long as you find a loved one that you know has been in the hands of an understanding owner and you have access to a specialist who knows their way round an MGF. If you do, and you can live with its peccadilloes, then you’ll enjoy a car that is quite outstanding in what it can do considering the parts that went into it.

If not, walk away and don’t look back… We’ll understand completely.


Scores out of 10
Handling and ride

MGF 1.8i specifications

Vital statistics
Engine K4 1796cc, DOHC, transverse mid-mounted
Transmission Five-speed manual
Maximum power 118bhp at 5500rpm
Maximum torque 120lb/ft at 3000rpm
Maximum speed 123mph
0-60mph 8.9secs

[Editor’s Note: Our thanks to Mark Jeffs for lending us his car – and remember, if you want your car featuring like this on AROnline, please do get in touch!]


Keith Adams


  1. The last company I worked for bought an early one no 584 IIRC if its not scrapped by now its a training car unfortunately it will mainly ” naughty school boys) working on it. I briefly had one and loved it but at that time it was one of a few and the partner at the time had children so not really practical if I could I would have another one like a shot

    • I don’t think there were plans to type approve it at production, Rover had ditched the US market after the 800/Sterling (indeed the facelift and coupe were designed to meet US market demand/regulations) which is a shame as a modern MG roadster would go down well in the US.

      The last TFs can be imported but only as “show and display”.

      • The market for small sports cars is shrinking in the states. People like them, but everyone who actually is willing to buy one already has one.

    • I am told (not sure how true it is BMW vetoed the sale in the USA) as they thought it would take sales away from them

  2. I reckon these have stood the test of time pretty well, and visually I like them more now than I did when they were “modern”.

  3. i dont think the people in the States were waiting for HGF MG trouble i think… its a shame that they can make nice cars but never finish them well… i know, i had a lots of rovers & mgs and still like them…

  4. I Never owned an MGF, but I drove several over the years and loved them. I remember keeping a hard driven BMW Z3 behind me on my way cross country from Peterborough to Solihull one morning, which was a hoot, even including the point at which the car demonstrated that ‘snap oversteer’ mentioned in the piece…. When the BMW driver finally went a different way, he even managed a polite nod!

  5. I always thought the MGF was a good modern looking sports car at the time of its launch. Just what MG needed to refresh the brand image and restore some tradition to the marque. It still retains an air of modernity.

  6. Always liked the MGF but never had the money to buy one. For me this was a real MG, following the tradition of old. Looked at one in 2005 after the closure and they were cheap, but couldn’t afford one then either. Shame.

  7. Loved mine. Had it for eight years before getting an Elise back in 2009. And I used my F daily. Over the years I had it tweaked a bit – solid front subframe mounts, TF steering rack, it was lowered. Agility with a civilized, composed ride – my abiding memory of the car.

    It wasn’t hopelessly unreliable either. HG went after 70K miles, other than that I can’t remember any major issues. The main dealers were robbing *******s, though, which is why I took it the the MGF Centre in Wolverhampton for its yearly service.

    Still, all these years later I can’t help but wish the F wasn’t built.

    If they were determined to further develop the R6 mechanical package, I can’t help thinking that Rover might have been better off spending the F’s £110m development budget (and the £5million they spent on the Rover 100) into making a new small hatchback. With Mini styling cues. Dr Moulton told Car that the R6 was the great grandson of the Mini. What kind of business would an R6 based new Mini have done for Rover? A lot more than the F I would have thought.

    The benefit of hindsight, and all that.

    An MG could have followed later. Or it could have been developed in a low-budget manner with the likes of Lotus – along the lines of the Vauxhall VX220 – or TVR.

    • While the mid-engined Healey WAEC was overweight and suffered from poor performance even in 1275cc Cooper S tune, could the weight have been mitigated and performance improved had it made use of the 9X 6-cylinder (or bored out 4-cylinder) engines?

      It is also surprising that the mid-engined WAEC idea was not immediately considered for the Mini as opposed to ADO16, given it might have resulted in a lighter car.

  8. After 5yrs of ownership, I recently part exchanged my Mk2 “F” for possibly the boring hatchback ever made…
    Regretted my decision to sell, almost instantly.

    Fortunately, there are still lots of MG F’s around and are cheap as chips.
    So, I will definitely get another one day.
    Just have to convince the Mrs first 🙁

  9. great article, I shouted myself a 75th anniversary model 2 years ago. what a car I just love its great fun and does everything and more that I want. had some issues with the cooling pipes rusting out last year but all sorted and was very surprised at the easy availability of parts.

  10. There is a major problem with the MGF as a classic.

    The hydragas displacers have a nitrogen baloon. This leaks out slowly, owner sees their MGF sitting low. No problem, they will pump up the suspension.

    Do this too often and the suspension is all fluid and no gas. It is like running on solid shocks. I suspect alot of MGFs are like this and the owners don’t realise.

    Easy solution, change the displacers. Alas the tooling has been destroyed, and NOS are getting rare and pricey. The units can in theory be refilled, but that is expensive as well.

    With those issues I would be warry of buying one.

    • Refilling the Hydragas units with fresh Nitrogen is not expensive, and – if nothing else fails – will last for more or less 15 years. The next refill is then very cheap as it will not need modifications to the units. Running them on hard Hydragas units will cause damage to the displacers themselves (making them unserviceable for refill) and the suspension not designed to take such loads.

      • When mine comes off the road (MOT expires in September and it needs welding) I’ll look into getting mine recharged – need to do bushes/balljoints at the front anyway and I really think the Hydragas setup is what makes the MGF so good.

        • Richard,

          without having had the chance to ever drive in a F, I would agree. In fact the suspension is what really sets the F apart from all other small sports cars of the time, so that’s where ultimately the historical interest should be once the car enters the age of classics.

      • Isn’t it around a £100 pound a corner? Not cheap on a car which has a value around a grand.

        The rear displacers aren’t easy to get at and that is assuming the units are good enough to refill. They could be rotten, or have internal damage.

        Classic cars with unusual parts are a hostage to fortune.

        I also suspect that alot of MGFs are currently running with too much fluid in the suspension, permanently damaging the displacers.

  11. There was a MG TF that appeared in the USA for evaluation and market research purposes I understand, and talk of NAC assembling cars in Oklahoma came to nothing.

  12. As the proud owner of a very late TF 135, I must admit I’m jealous of the F’s “Dr Moulton’s Magic Suspension,” however I’d go as far as to say that the F/TF are very inspired designs and could be viewed as “the poor man’s Ferrari.”
    I prefer the cleaner and sharper styling of my TF and feel more confident of its conventional suspension set-up, however it’s resolution of most of the car’s reliability issues by 2005 which really makes me want to keep it as my sole car and (almost) daily-driver ….. as well as my Trans-Continental Spyder/Tourer.
    {Well into its 5th year as my only car – and almost 40k miles later – its sole niggling faults are occasional, minor electrickery gremlins ….. otherwise, it’s been wonderfully dependable}.
    N.B. It’s ONLY the 80th Anniversary TFs (and only in RHD) which can be imported as “Show & Display” vehicles into the protectionist US of A.

  13. I owned an MGF for 5 years, as a 2nd car. To be honest, I didn’t have high expectations, after having previously owned a TF.
    However, I was completely surprised by how much better built MGFs were than TFs.The MGF also proved to be far more reliable too.
    This article is absolutely spot on, in that the inclusion of Hydragas suspension made them far more comfortable to drive than rock hard TFs & that you also need to ensure you buy one that’s been well cared for, by a sympathetic owner, who understands these cars. Sure, they have their little quirks & faults (Water Leaks) & the Achilles heel (HG failure), but you learn to accept them as a part of the car’s character.
    They are also no different to any car that stands for a long period of time, making them vulnerable to problems like flat batteries & seized brake callipers. With regular use & maintenance they are excellent budget sports cars to own & enjoy.
    Just beware that there are some “old dogs” for sale & choose carefully should you purchase one – You won’t be disappointed.

  14. I am a recent owner of an MGTF 135 and I have to say I love it to bits. Its a late registered 05 plate and at 10 years old has had many admiring comments . Yes it has its faults and yes it should have been sold in the USA. I think that the MGTF GT would have sold by the bucket load and was yet another missed opportunity . Trouble with my TF is keeping my wife away from it . ( Only kidding dear ) :~(

  15. Nice, but nowhere near as good as an MX5. Blobby looks put me off as did the difficulties of working on the mid-engine. In the end my Mk1 MX5 bought at 2 years old lasted a further 9 years before being chopped in for something sensible (when baby arrived). I now have another (later) MX5.

    Good, but not good enough.

  16. With Mazda MX5 reaching end of MK1 production and near launching MK2, BMW Z3, Alfa Spider and Fiat Barchetra it was quite a resurgence for these cars. Clarkson (when he found where the engine was) raved about the MG when it came out. I fell for the pretty barchetta I am afraid. Given its origins the MGF performed really well in head to head road tests, although was seen to be quite expensive by comparison with the Mazda and Fiat. Let’s not forget Mayfower who stumped up £24m of development costs – and I guess the production of bodies by them having to be shipped to Rover by road would have restricted the volume required for new markets such as the USA. Irony that they ended up with a mid engine car rejected by planners 20 years earlier in favour of front engine RWD TR7 whose main market segment was the USA – don’t get me started on ADO24 !!

  17. I have nothing but good memories of my 1998 British Racing Green VVC and later on, my Charcoal 2003 TF135 🙂

  18. Just catching up – Reference the high seating position of MGF – as always, there WAS a reason – it was the only way that the airbag system could be made to operate satisfactorily.

    In a visit to Xpart the other month, they told me that they offered a coil-spring conversion for the MGF – not quite the same as the MG TF, which of course had geometry changes as well as the coils, but it is one solution to non-availability of Hydragas units. They said that the kit couldn’t be used on Rover Metro/100 series, though, despite the similarity of the system.

    I like to think that the REAL inspiration for the idea of using FWD bits to make the mid engine MGF was much earlier than the Honda Beat – just think of all the middies based on Mini subframes – Cox GTM, Unipower etc.

    • The problem with coil conversions is the body was never designed to take those kinds of loadings, leading to fatigue issues.

      There have also been a few horror stories on forums about some of the available conversion kits. Cars that couldn’t be setup to right ride height, noise issues and other problems.

      I like the MGF in theory but I have test driven a few and everyone had a rock hard ride, which the owners thought was fine but indicated to me the suspension units had failed.

  19. Know exactly what the article means about lift off oversteer. Must have been one of the first people in Britain to spin one of these on a public road. South Circular road roundabout 2 days after the UK launch in our only demo.

    Was a strange way to almost “hand in my notice”.

    Got away with it though.

    • Remember an evening returning home from the cinema, I was passenger to a pal who’d learned to drive late in life and only because his job required it. There was a an unexpected fall of snow and I was now more nervous than ever, not being the world’s most relaxed passenger. Almost home and exiting a large roundabout the MGF in front promptly swapped ends and departed the road backwards. The verge was broad and flat with nothing to hit so no-one would have injured, and we didn’t stop as my driver was too pre-occupied with getting us home intact. Didn’t help his confidence though, despite my reassurances that his diesel Polo was unlikely to misbehave in a similar fashion.

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