MG F (1996-2005): Buyer's Guide

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Buyer's Guide: MG F Buyer's Guide: MG F Buyer's Guide: MG F
Buyer's Guide: MG F Buyer's Guide: MG F Buyer's Guide: MG F
Buyer's Guide: MG F Buyer's Guide: MG F Buyer's Guide: MG F
Buyer's Guide: MG F Buyer's Guide: MG F Buyer's Guide: MG F

Continuing a long tradition of fun British sports cars, the MG F still offers plenty of bang for your bucks.

MG F (1996-2005): Buyer's Guide
Buyer's Guide: MG F

 

MG F (1996-2005)

The MG F was the car that could have saved Britain’s sports car industry from virtual extinction. Maybe under new ownership it still can. The fact that the original car didn’t simply confirms that many areas of British motor industry management had learned absolutely nothing from the Leyland debacle.

Before the F’s 1995 introduction, MG had been missing from the sports car mainstream for close on 15 years. In 1992, MG launched the bespoke RV8, but only 2000 were made and the majority went to Japan. From Japan came the cars that MG enthusiasts should have been buying – MX5 Mazdas and Toyota MR2s – cars that helped the market to quickly forget the brand that was once synonymous with open-top motoring.

Rumours of a mid-engined MG surfaced during the 1980s when an EXE concept car based on the Group B VR6 rally rocket was displayed. Prototypes commissioned during the late-’80s were front-engined and front-wheel drive and it took until 1991 for Rover-MG to get serious about its mid-engined aspirations.

The car should have been powered by a turbocharged version of the durable 1.4-litre K Series engine. However, following BMW’s takeover of Rover-MG it was decided to ditch the turbo option and enlarge the K Series engine well beyond its optimal capacity.

The techniques employed in lengthening the power unit’s stroke generated serious durability issues and immediately blighted the F’s reputation. A Variable Valve Control (VVC) system using a control unit mounted inside the cylinder head gave 20 percent more power but added to the car’s potential for mechanical failure.

Ride quality had always been a secondary consideration in sports car design, but MG managed to produce a car that rode even better than it handled – and it handled very well. Problem was, MG employed a complex ‘Hydragas’ suspension system using nitrogen to control movement of hydraulic fluid within displacer units and failures were inevitable.

Initial Australian shipments arrived in 1997, with standard cars priced at $45,000 and the VVC (Variable Valve Control) version $8000 more expensive. Power output was 90kW, with the VVC engine delivering an additional 17kW. That’s a lot of money for only a small power hike.

A five-speed manual transmission was standard across the range until 2002 when the TF120 was offered with a ‘Stepspeed’ constantly variable automatic (CVT).

Initial sales were brisk and more than 1000 cars sold during the F’s first 18 months in the Australian market.

As in the UK, a single-make race series was organised to promote the model and ‘Limited Edition’ versions were produced to flesh out the range and generate additional sales.

The car’s 2002 upgrade, which included adoption of the ‘TF’ designation, most significantly brought a switch from Hydragas to coil springs. A 120kW TF160 model was introduced and virtually every MG F sold here after 2002 came with a degree of exclusivity.

In early 2004, a run of just 30 ‘80th Anniversary’ cars were imported, followed by 30 of the TF160. In 2005, just ahead of the receivers’ sale, 15 Spark 160 variants were launched with a price tag of $54,000.

ON THE ROAD

Most owners won’t even notice the F’s shortcomings, which were panned by critics who allowed their disappointment in the packaging to overwhelm objectivity.

Instead, they’ll see a still stylish little convertible with decent performance and probably the best ride/handling attributes in its category. It’s a fun car to drive, economical and increasingly affordable.

Even in non-VVC form, the 1.8-litre F delivers 0-100km/h in nine seconds and economy around 8 litres/100kms.

The mid-engine/rear drive configuration manifests in slightly twitchy on-the-limit handling, however few owners will find those limits unless pushing too hard on a damp surface. Loss of front-end grip needs to be managed by gentle easing of the throttle, not a panicked stab at the brake pedal which can produce an unwanted reaction from the weight-biased rear.
Electric power-steering was a relative novelty in 1995 and the system fitted to the MG F could have used a little more refinement and durability testing. Even cars built during the 2000s can suffer from imprecise response and the odd sensor problem.

The manual gearshift isn’t especially precise but you can’t fault its spacing of ratios. Second slot in a VVC car runs to precisely 100km/h, with third managing almost 140. VVC cars don’t deliver maximum torque until 4500rpm (standard cars do it at 3000rpm) so drivers who aren’t prepared to flip between cogs to stay in the 4000-7000rpm range will probably view the upper-echelon F as dull and disappointing.

CVT cars are silky-smooth (or should be) but trade convenience for performance. They also have a couple of kilowatts less than manual cars and 0-100km/h takes two seconds longer.

For those measuring under 1.9 metres, the compact cabin should provide comfortable if slightly claustrophobic accommodation. The standard seats are high-set but well shaped and fairly comfortable. Rear visibility with the roof in place – or the desirable hardtop – is restricted, so ensure the mirrors are adjusted before driving an unfamiliar car.
And the white-faced instruments are throwbacks to the T Series era of the 1950s and not that easy to read in bright sunlight.

HOW MUCH?

With the rekindling of the MG name via China’s Nanjing Automotive, interest in the original British-built cars should escalate. Offsetting that expectation is current economic gloom and persistent anxiety surrounding the cars’ mechanical durability.
Basic versions from 1997-99 are cheap and values will continue to decline for some time to come. Those built after 2002 were virtually bug-free but have still suffered massive depreciation, so low-kilometre 2004-05 cars that cost up to $55,000 new are available in the $20,000-25,000 price range.

Limited-edition models don’t command huge premiums (even though some were made in very small quantities) and preserving a low-kilometre car could prove worthwhile.

Spending $5000 on an early model virtually guarantees trouble, but there’s no guarantee that one costing $10,000-12,000 won’t have problems as well. Providing the body is sound, a cheap car that can be bought and refurbished for $15,000 makes sense for long term ownership.

Andrew Usher, Service Manager at MG specialist Nepean Classic Cars in Penrith, NSW, sees plenty of troubled MG Fs but believes properly maintained cars should present no more durability headaches than most European vehicles and a lot less than some.

"If you get one with sound suspension, that’s had the head gasket upgraded and isn’t overheating they are a pretty reliable car without the price-tag or maintenance costs of more exotic models," he said.

I OWN ONE!

Ben Heppel sounds genuinely sad to be selling his MG F, (phone Ben on 0408 279 539) but practical concerns have finally overwhelmed the "fun factor" that convinced him to choose it over an MX5.

"With the mid engine and marvellous ride for its size it was something different and very well priced for a car with only 45,000km on it," he explains.

I’ve had it for two years and sometimes drive it to work but mostly it was driven on weekends and just for the fun of it."
Even before leaving its original owner and heading to Ben’s garage, the 2001 model had been modified to solve the head gasket problem and has required little attention since.

"I found on the internet the information I needed to fix a problem with a power steering sensor but apart from that it’s been very reliable," he says.

 

BUYER’S CHECKLIST

Body & Chassis

An F that has spent its life in Australia should be showing no signs of corrosion, however crash repairs could have compromised rust protection. Inspect the boot interior (looking also for creasing that indicates a poor-quality repair), around the windscreen base and wheel-arches. Water leaking through the roof will promote carpet rot and floor rust, so feel behind and under the seats for dampness. If you’re obsessive enough to fund a ground-up rebuild, a few brand new Heritage bodyshells are still available for just $5500. Incidental parts are proportionately more expensive – new headlights cost over $400 each and a front bumper $715 plus paint.

Engine & Transmission

Any car that hasn’t been scrupulously serviced and documented represents a significant risk. All MG Fs need pre-purchase checking by a specialist to ensure cylinder head problems have either been rectified or aren’t about to manifest. Andrew Usher of Nepean Classic Cars says the head problem can be cured by using a later shimmed gasket. Any sign of ‘milky’ engine oil, coolant leaks or rusty deposits inside the tailpipe indicate a car to avoid. Overheating can damage the head and also distort the engine block, generating a repair bill that may exceed the value of an early car. Cam-drive belts must be changed at least every 80,000km, along with the water pump, at a current cost of $1200-1500 depending on model. Upper engine rattles in VVC cars at idle can be due to dirty oil or a more serious issue with the VVC cam retaining bolts. Early versions were recalled to have these replaced but expert inspection is vital to ensure problems haven’t recurred.

Suspension & Brakes

The ‘Hydra’ suspension fitted to pre-2002 cars is fraught with potential problems and requires at least annual inspection and recharging. Marque specialist Nepean MG recommends using a tape measure to ensure the distance between the wheel centre and wheel-arch lip with the car parked on level ground is consistent and around 370mm. Sagging or excessive guard-to-wheel clearance signifies problems and new displacer units are no longer available. Power steer cars that pull to the left may be suffering a column position sensor problem that’s fiddly to fix. ABS must be working properly to avoid dangerous wheel locking on wet roads. Brake rotors last around 50,000km but standard replacements cost only $50 per corner.

Electrical & Interior

Exposure will harm brittle plastics, especially column stalks which cost upwards of $150 if you break one. The hood can suffer damage if carelessly stowed and plastic rear windows become yellowed and brittle with age. Make sure the air-conditioning (standard on VVC cars) is working effectively.

 

SPECIFICATIONS

MG F (1996-2005)

 

Number built: 117,000 (approx.)

Body: all-steel, unitary construction two-door convertible

Engine: transversely mounted, in-line, four-cylinder with double overhead camshafts and fuel injection

Power/torque: 107kW @ 7000rpm/174Nm @ 4500rpm (1.8 VVC)

Performance: 0-100km/h – 7.8 seconds. 0-400m – 15.9 seconds (1.8 VVC)

Transmission: five-speed manual or CVT automatic (from 2001)

Suspension: Front – independent with upper & lower wishbones, Hydragas springs and anti-roll bar. Rear – independent with upper & lower wishbones, Hydragas springs and anti-roll bar (all-coil springs from 2002)

Brakes: four-wheel disc, power assisted with ABS

Tyres: 185/50VR15 (Front), 205/55VR15 (Rear)

Price range: $3500-25,000

Contact: MG Clubs in all states

Website: mgcars.org.uk/mgf

 

 

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