LAMBASTED as an irrelevant folly, the MG XPower SV has always divided opinions – why? Because MG Rover should have spent its finite financial resources elsewhere… Others would say that if the company was going down, why not do it in style?
We take a drive in one for ourselves – and decide that the truth is rather more interesting than the politics.
Words: Keith Adams Pictures: Alisdair Cusick
Heart and soul…
SITING snugly in the Alcantara-lined interior of the MG XPower SV, strapped into the racing buckets and holding the tiny leather bound Momo racing steering wheel, it’s hard to escape the notion that this is a very nice place to be. Start up that monumental V8 and hear it burbling away gently in the background and – and you’ll never want to leave.
So, the SV was everything we expected it to be – low, sleek and bespoke, with the ability to make its driver feel very special indeed.
Of course, it could be argued that it bloody well ought make any journey an occasion given its astronomical price and a development programme that spanned nine years and three different car companies.
That’s right – the SV’s development is so full of twists and turns that it’s impossible not to broach the subject – after all, understanding where a car came from and the thinking behind it always ensures the finished product to be appreciated all the more.
A long time coming
Although MG Rover first unveiled the X80 prototype at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 2001, the basic design had been kicking around since 1996 – when it was first unveiled in the form of a De Tomaso Bigua prototype.
Although the Ford V8 powered roadster and Coupe wore a pukka supercar nameplate, it suffered from the effects of having been hatched in the ugly tree, only to fall out hitting every branch on the way out. The idea was a sound one – and true to De Tomaso tradition. It used an American power unit, and was conceived to pass US legislation right from the beginning.
However, De Tomaso couldn’t afford to put the Bigua into production, and turned to motor industry mainstay, Kjell Qvale for financial assistance. Qvale figured his Company would make a mint from selling the car, and all for a modest sum of money required to complete development and productionise the car…
Four years after the original unveiling, the newly named Qvale Mangusta commenced production in supercar central at Modena. Sadly, it didn’t last long – the lack of a credible nameplate might have been a hindrance to sales, but much less so than the hideous styling.
Still, the Mangusta’s failure to get off the ground was great news for MG Rover. There were people within the company that felt what MG really needed for a successful relaunch, following BMW’s sale in 2000, was a halo model to sit atop the range.
What better to provide that than a grunty V8 powered supercar?
Setting out the new MG
In the spring of 2001, MG Rover bought the ailing supercar project from the Qvale Automotive Group – and in the process picked up a ready-made car, fully homologated for the US market. The design was shipped to England, and Peter Stevens’ styling studio set about restyling it. It wasn’t an easy job, given the need to retain much of the old car’s underpinnings as possible, but given these compromises, the transformation from Italian cool to Brummie purposefulness was sensational – even if Stevens wasn’t convinced with his own efforts initially.
So when the wraps came off the X80 in Frankfurt, Stevens was already preparing for a restyle. MG Rover originally planned the car to be built in aluminium at the rate of about 10,000 per year – but soon concluded this was a long shot given MG’s lack of experience in that market sector.
Stevens returned to Longbridge and redesigned the car – and MG Rover downsized its production ambitions. Although the X80 was clearly viable, it was never going to sell at these anticipated volumes, and it was moved upmarket. A new company, MG Sport and Racing, was set-up to build the X80, and Peter Stevens was made Managing Director.
Stevens gave the car a much more aggressive look, the chassis design was headed by talented engineer Giordano Casarini, and carbon fibre was chosen as the main material from which the X80 would be fabricated. Productionisation was intensive, and Sport and Racing essentially started again from scratch, scrutinising every aspect of it.
The final product was unveiled in October 2002; quite an achievement – even if De Tomaso, Qvale and MG Rover had spent plenty of time developing it. The car now looked aggressive and purposeful and its identity was now more clearly defined. Much was made of the performance potential of its 32V V8 engine, and Peter Stevens even proclaimed it could be upgraded to 965bhp. The list price of £65K certainly raised a few eyebrows – most pundits were expecting it to be cheaper.
We had to wait over a year before SVs started trickling out of MG Sport and Racing, and by that time, the uprated SV-R had been announced – upping the horsepower count from 320 to 410, just in case you found the original a little gutless. The price rise to £82K seemed a little rich, though – especially as rumours abound that the 5-litre version suffered more than its fair share of teething problems.
A great drive
Plenty of hype has surrounded the SV since it first broke cover, and it’s also had more than enough detractors – the sort of people who questioned MG Rover’s wisdom for producing a car like this when its most pressing priority was to get a replacement for the MG ZR and ZS into production. But we weren’t here to question the SV’s existence, but to address the most important issue of all for a supercar – is it any good to drive?
Even before you jump in, it certainly makes an impression – the engine roars and the exhaust burbles deliciously. Walking around it, you drink in each styling detail, and wonder at Peter Stevens’ ability to produce a car that looks utterly menacing. In XPower Grey, the SV has a prehensile style that stops you dead in your tracks – it’s not beautiful, but it is arresting.
Your eyes linger on the deep front air dam with integral splitter, and the almost ludicrously flared wheel arches. The cast alloy wheels are intricately detailed, and do a great job of showing off the huge brake discs. Enormous gills perforate the front wings – and they’re not just there for show. As the engine idles away, you can feel the heat pouring out of them. It seems that everything on the SV is there for a purpose.
At the rear and sat atop the pert, high rear end is a monstrous rear wing. In true SV style, it’s there for a reason – to provide additional aerodynamic downforce, while working in conjunction with the diffuser beneath the rear bumper.
The quality of the body also surprises. The Italians have fabricated the all carbon-fibre body beautifully, and the shut lines are tight and even. Paint quality, too, is exceptional – especially considering what it has been applied to – as it’s smooth, flaw-free and impressively deep. Overall, for a bespoke hand-built car costing well under £100K when new, it exterior is well up to the job.
There’s no doubt about it – the SV looks like nothing else on the road. It’s cleverly styled though, because although it looks slammed on the deck, it’s actually quite bulky.
The relative tallness of the SV is no bad thing, though. It makes getting in extremely easy. Once ensconced, you’ll also marvel at the amount of headroom – in fact, all round, it’s a very nice place to be, and the bright red trim means it’s a world away from traditional coalbunker supercar interiors. There’s also plenty of glass, and visibility is excellent.
Considering its intimidating exterior, this airiness and general feeling of accessibility on the inside come as a welcome surprise.
The seats supplied by Recaro have a good range of adjustment, and grip the driver firmly in place. The racing harnesses are a nice touch and hold you in far more effectively than three-point belts – but they are there as compensation for the lack of airbags.
So we now know that the SV’s a relatively practical place to be – but not only is it roomy for the driver and passenger, but there’s plenty of room for their luggage, too. The boot might not be enormous, but you’ll get your weekly shop in there, and when you lift the lid, you’ll be treated to the sight of the carbon fibre weave. It’s a constant reminder of this car’s special construction. More importantly, there is plenty of room behind the seats – enough, in fact, for a pair of full-face helmets.
With the Sean Hyland-built quad cam V8 burbling away, it’s now time to see how the SV goes. With a maximum power of 320bhp and 301lb/ft of torque, it wasn’t the most powerful car you could buy for your £65K. But a Dana limited-slip differential, with switchable Ford traction control, meant there’s plenty of fun to be had – especially as the SV weighs in at 1500kg.
Once underway, the first thing that hits you like a hammer blow is not the acceleration, but how well it rides. Even though the SV sits on 40-profile tyres, the suspension is fluid and the body feels remarkably rigid, even on the roughest road surfaces. It handles too – there’s little trace of body roll in cornering, and the turn in is sensational through the well judged steering.
These factors (as well as the great visibility) add up to a car that can be threaded through the tightest of lanes with complete confidence. The pace will be as hot as you want, and neutral handling will be your reward. The SV can be pushed into power-oversteer, but it’s so controllable on either the throttle or the steering that there’s little concern to accompany playful opposite-lockery.
In a straight line, it’s fast enough, but there were plenty of cars around at its price point that would blow it into the weeds. Despite that, a 0-60mph time of 5.6 seconds and a top speed of 165mph are enough to keep you amused. It’s easy to go quickly, too – the torquey nature of the engine means you can pootle along on the merest whiff of throttle, but if you need meaningful acceleration, it’s there with a flex of your right toe.
To roll along on the torque curve is to not get the best from the SV, though. It might be a V8, but it’s also a free-breathing motor, and it will pick up its skirt and fly if you venture beyond 4500rpm. The accompanying bellow of the sports exhaust system makes flooring the SV an addictive experience.
Would we buy one?
Overall, the SV is a capable and charismatic supercar. Its relative lack of straightline grunt should be an issue, but thanks to the sensational chassis and brakes, it isn’t. It handles like a thoroughbred and looks like no other car.
However, it didn’t sell, despite all these pluses, and that lack of success should be put down to two factors – its high list price and poor marketing. Outwardly, it seemed expensive in comparison with TVRs and Nobles, but neither of those cars could hope to compete with the sophistication of the SV’s body engineering. Had MG Rover bothered to play up the SV’s carbon fibre construction, which was unique at this price point, and highlight its bespoke nature, then it may well have attracted a few more buyers.
Yes, the SV has its fair share of faults, but MG Sport and Racing had done a great job making it work and building it well. For that reason alone, it seems a real shame that this profit making part of the MG Rover empire was not considered strong enough to attract a buyer during the early months of this year – because given the right price tag, marketing and backing, the SV would have flown out of the showrooms.
And with a steady stream of second hand examples hitting the market for between £30,000 and £40,000, the SV really starts to add up.
We were smitten the moment we set eyes on it, and given the chance, we reckon plenty of other buyers would have felt the same way given half a chance…
|4601cc, V8, DOHC, 32V
|320bhp at 6000rpm
|302lb/ft at 4750rpm
Thanks to Jerry Flint, who owned the car at the time of testing…