Review and road test of the MG TF (2002 - 2005)
TOP OF THE DROP TOP POPS?
BY ANDREW ENRIGHT
The MG TF range vies with the Mazda MX-5 as Britain's favourite roadster. A development of the massive selling MGF range, the TF offers a more upmarket feel and improvements to the driving characteristics.
The TF has continued to sell well despite a difficult market for roadster models, testament to its enduring appeal. Offering sharp styling, an evocative badge and some punchy engines at attractive pricing the TF makes a decent used buy. With a decent number of low mileage cars now appearing on the used market, the TF looks an attractive bet. TF residuals haven't proved as resilient as early MGF values were, many recognising it as a progression from the MGF rather than an all-new vehicle. The market has moved on as well. The TF is no longer perched on the cutting edge and is often a little too focused for many owners who merely expected a sharper looking MGF. That means it can often represent a canny used buy.
Models Covered: 2dr roadster 1.6, 1.8 (115, 120 STEPSPEED, 135, 160)
It's not an exaggeration to say the TF was born in a period of intense turmoil at MG Rover. BMW had just done their best to scuttle the company and the buyout by the Phoenix Consortium had resulted in a company desperate for new models but without sufficient cashflow to develop them. What they achieved in such a short space of time was little less than amazing.
Aside from the ZR, ZS and ZT model ranges MG Rover also overhauled the old MGF into the TF. Out went the overly complicated Hydragas suspension units and in came traditional steel springs. The styling was given a few nips and tucks to effect a much sharkier appearance, the range being extended to four key models identifiable by their approximate power outputs. The 1.6-litre TF115 acted as the entry-level model and three 1.8-litre cars were also offered, the TF120 Stepspeed, the big-selling TF135 and the range-topping TF160.
A series of small modifications were made to the car in time for the 2005 model year. A heated rear screen improved rear visibility, various trim materials were altered and the suspension settings were tweaked to improve ride comfort. These cars can be identified by their chrome finished badging. The TF's lifespan ended in 2005 with the demise of MG Rover.
What You Get
The TF of course, is the replacement for the successful MGF, which managed to be the best selling British sportscar of the late Nineties, despite being owned at the time by a parent company that wasn't over-keen to promote it. Things have changed of course since then, so you can expect to see one of these on every street corner.
With the MGF, that street corner was likely to include a hairdressing salon. Put quite simply, it developed an unfortunate reputation as something of a 'girlie' car, despite its promising mid-engined configuration. Worse, early examples had a dire build quality record which, though solved in later versions, blighted the car's reputation. One of the chief culprits in this area was the unloved fluid Hydragas suspension system, which in some instances failed at some inopportune moments.
With the MG TF, the overall story is very different - as it had to be. Hydragas (a concept which after all goes back to 1964) was dumped in favour of more conventional coil spring and damper units. Moving to the sheet metal, you might be surprised to find that most of it was completely re-worked for this model. At first glance, you might be forgiven for seeing this as a minor facelift. In fact, stylist Peter Stevens dictated that the whole side of the TF should be new, with contoured curves that give a more aggressive feel to the profile and a 'lowered' look to the whole car. There are also bigger air intakes to allow the mid-mounted engines to gulp in more oxygen. The rear deck, which sits above two chromed tailpipes that displace the foglamps, also has a curvy look, now on all variants including the small lip spoiler originally developed for the MGF Trophy 160SE. High speed stability is far better as a result.
However, it's the front you'll notice first, with projector-style headlamp units that also incorporate the indicators. Between them, there's the latest MG sportscar two-bar grille and below that, a deeper front bumper incorporating a mesh air intake and twin foglamps. It all looks mean enough to frighten off the hairdresser types - though given that these people bought the majority of the 40,000 MGFs sold here, that might not necessarily be something of which MG's shareholders would approve.
With all this effort having gone into making the TF its own car, it's a little disappointing to climb inside and find a sense of deja vu. True, the seat cloths and the instrument graphics are different - but that's about it. To be fair, the Longbridge budget probably only stretched so far and in any case, the cabin did get a bit of a re-work at the turn of the century. Still, we could have done without keeping the narrow, rather highly-mounted seats. The Fisher Price-style controls for the Stepspeed model's gearshift could have been consigned to history too.
This is a car you just have to get in and drive - an addictive experience on narrow twisty roads, thanks to the near-perfect mid-engined balance. The rigid steel bodyshell helps here too as well as creating one of the safest cars in the class. That the MG TF is a soft-top makes it extremely unusual amongst the ranks of mid-engined cars, due to the difficulty of packing the folded hood on top of the engine bay. Not only have the designers managed this (albeit with the drawback of a perspex rear screen), they've also created so much boot space that there's still no need to carry luggage under the bonnet, where it could interfere with safety. You'll still need to specify the optional boot-mounted luggage rack if you want to take more than a couple of soft bags however.
What to Look For
Check the specification of base cars carefully and make sure everything you want is fitted. Look for signs of a hardtop (a heated rear window switch and a short length of plug and cable behind the driver's seat are clues) and haggle for its inclusion - a canny seller may try to sell it separately. Ensure also that the hood tonneau cover (tricky to fit) is with the car.
Although there were early quality problems with rattling trim and poorly fitted panels, generally not much goes wrong with an MG TF. Check for water leaks through the windscreen edges and along the tops of the doors and look closely at the hood for damage - the plastic rear window creases if the hood isn't folded correctly. Check the carpets for signs of damp too. Telltale clues include fading or staining of the dashboard trim where water has leaked in.
Some have doubts over the durability of the suspension and brakes. The recommendation is to take a test drive, listen for knocking from the front suspension and see if the car has a tendency to pull to one side. The TF makes a viable track day car so look for signs of hard driving. As always, a full MG dealer service history is desirable.
(Based on a 1.8 TF160) A clutch assembly is around £130, while a full exhaust is about £610. Rear brake pads should cost £55 and front pads are about £75. An alternator will set you back close to £150, while a starter motor is about £270. A radiator is £125 and a front headlamp about £170.
On the Road
The TF quickly developed a reputation as a car for the keen driver. How so? Well there's that new suspension of course, which at the back end is a completely fresh multi-link affair and is now mounted on solid sub-frames (rather than wishy-washy rubber bushes) in search of sharper handling. The more direct steering rack helps here too and there are uprated brakes, all models also being fitted with improved standard ABS. The whole idea has been to create something sharper, more agile and more responsive.
It's a theme carried forward in the engine department, where the line-up of powerplants was been given a thorough going over, with badging designating the chosen model's power output. The 1.6-litre TF115 variant heads up the range, just below the 1.8-litre TF135, which has a power hike of 15bhp over the core unit that most MGF owners used to choose. That makes the old VVC model redundant of course, but a 'Stepspeed' CVT automatic model with 'F1-style' fingertip gear controls (the TF120) replaced it. At the top of the range, the old special edition Trophy 160SE variant became the TF160, and is seriously quick, with a 0-60mph capability of under seven seconds.
The engineers say that the core 1.8-litre TF135 variant was designed to feel a lot more 'revvy', particularly when you're thrashing the thing along, following some tweaking in the cylinder head and around the cams. To compensate for this, the gearing ratios were been raised to match those of the TF160 version.
The TF feels a good deal hardcore than its somewhat fey origins may lead you to expect. The suspension is extremely firm and even the base TF115 is not what you'd call meek, the engine and exhaust tuned for a vociferous vocal accompaniment.
The MG TF is a car that was far sharper than its predecessor but which may have alienated the very market that boosted the TF to such dizzy heights. The average driver may find the TF experience a little 'full-on' and defect to something a little less intense. That will release a number of TF models into the used arena and bargains can be had. Although with many sports models the more powerful versions seem a little overblown, that's not the case with the TF. The more power you can afford, the more fun you'll have.
MG TF (2002 - 2005) review by ANDREW ENRIGHT