Living with: MG TF 160

Words by Matt de Prez @mattdeprez
Photography by Rowan Cullen @rowancullen

It’s hard to remember a time in my driving career without an MG; I’ve had 2 MGFs, a ZR, a ZT and a TF. It’s also hard to remember a time that I haven’t had to justify my vehicle choice to those who tell me I don’t know what a ‘good’ car is.

Let’s start by dispelling a myth: ‘head gasket failure’,  yes, it happens. The K-Series motor has been consigned to history as a head munching mayo factory. A reputation that MGR has taken to its grave. The truth is; although failure is pretty much habitual, it’s not a difficult job to put right – and it’s even easier to prevent with the fitment of modified parts and correct maintenance. Also, if you’re reading this with the intention to buy a TF, rest assured that pretty much all of them have already suffered, been repaired and up rated, ready to give many more years of loyal service.

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When it isn’t suffering from head gasket failure the 1.8 litre engine is a gem, let’s not forget this is the same engine Lotus used for the Elise – and is also the motor of choice for many kit car builders. In the TF 160 it develops 158BHP and 128lb ft of torque. Enough to propel the 1115KG car from 0-60MPH in 6.9 seconds and on to 137MPH. It’s an engine that loves to be revved. There isn’t much to talk about before 3000RPM, but once the variable timing system (VVC) starts working its magic the TF 160 is happy to scream right up to the red line gear after gear.

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The engine is mounted in the middle, behind the passenger compartment and the rear-drive TF has very balanced handling as a result. Thanks to stiff springs there is minimal body roll and on country lanes the TF is a fun car to drive fast. Despite being electrically assisted, the steering is well weighted and more responsive thanks to a faster rack than that of the MGF. Stopping is no problem either, 4-pot AP Racing brakes are fitted as standard along with ABS.

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To really test the handling the TF needs to be taken on track, here the true characteristics of the chassis start to manifest and it’s disappointing. At high speed the TF lacks the poise that made it so enjoyable on country roads. Turn in at speed and the TF rewards you with heavy doses of under steer, the rear end is almost impossible to break free – unless it’s wet, where the limits of grip can be difficult to judge. There is little warning of snap oversteer (trust me, I’ve experienced it) and the TFs lack of stability control is a clear sign of its dated origins. If you are looking for a tail happy car to slide around roundabouts then the Mazda Mx5 is going to be more your thing.

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The interior has been subjected to much criticism by the motoring press, most notably that the seats are too high, the steering wheel is too low and it is a few years behind the best. There is some truth to these points but it really isn’t that bad of a place to be, especially if you are under six foot. Anyway, once the roof is down you have endless headroom and all the problems seem to disappear. The gear shift is well placed and despite being cable operated, swapping cogs is a pleasant activity.

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So, thus far we have a 20 year old car with a dated and cramped interior, an engine with inherent design flaws and when you really push it – not that great to drive?

Why then have I owned three, why do I know hundreds of people who love, cherish and adore their MGs. Why do I drive the entirety of the M25, in the middle of the night in February, with the roof down alongside other MGs?

The TF embodies what being a car enthusiast is all about. Sure the TF has flaws, every car does. But the TF is more than just a car, it’s a lifestyle. Owners clubs have been around for many years but none can quite match the MG owners club for passion, heritage and diversity. I find myself increasingly drawn towards the people in the club rather than the cars. Years ago we would spend hours talking about suspension, steering and rust but now we spend hours talking about ourselves like old friends.

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The passion for the marque is astonishing given the fact the manufacturer closed down over 10 years ago. Modifications are endless, there are MGF/TF specialists all over the country, some of which are mobile, and an array of people making parts and upgrades from seat belts to exhausts.

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A true car enthusiast understands how a car can be more than just a mode of transport, more than just a machine. More commonly the cars we choose are the plucky underdog, the ones that fall short in some areas but excel in others.We love them for their own quirky reasons, we want to take care of them and we want to share them with the world. If that doesn’t make a car ‘good’, then I don’t know what does.

 

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