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Mazda MX-5 Vs MGF

Japan’s Mazda MX-5 is the world’s best seller – because it harks back to the past by using a traditional British sports car desi Published: 20th Feb 2017 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

What The Experts Say...

Lincs-based Trophy Cars is probably the UK’s largest F/TF specialist with a stock of around 50, selling a handful a week with pride and place going to a delivery-mileage TF 160 priced at around £13,000. All cars, irrespective of their price, are fully checked and fitted with the latest head gasket design before being sold with 12 months’ MoT and warranty. The later TF is the most wanted and any special editions in particular. The newest Chinese versions are the most refined and as good as British versions, it adds. Trophy also carries out repairs and says owners – in the main traditional MG enthusiasts – are now looking after them better than previously. Will the car become a classic? It’s a way off yet concedes Trophy, but says prices are already starting to rise for good Fs and TFs.

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How’s this for a real role reversal? When MG and Mazda decided to design their respective new sports cars for the 1990s, guess which one was the most advanced; the one from a Japanese company which stuck with the Wankel engine when every other manufacturer gave up on it as dead loss (and even won Le Mans with it) – or the traditional stick-in-the-mud Brit?

Well ...who would have thought that MG, who had been out of the roadster ‘game’ for some 15 years after Abingdon was closed down, would come up with one of the most radical rag tops ever while the usual forward thinking Mazda looked to the past for inspiration!

MG really went to town with its long awaited successor to the MGB, by making a mid-engined and gas suspended design badged the MGF. In contrast, Mazda bought a handful of original Lotus Elans and made a modern interpretation that more than 25 years on, remains true to its roots and is a global best seller. Both make extremely interesting and worthy modern neo classic that doubles up as a daily driver and cheap, too. Fancy one – which one?

Which one to buy?

Modern VS Retro roadsters

At launch, such was the popularity of the MGF that long waiting lists soon had buyers playing over ‘book’ to jump the queue where at one point, used models were selling over new prices! That seems an age ago because now MGFs are worth shirt buttons and a reported 100 are being scrapped each month.

The Brit amazed us all when it was launched in 1995, boasting a spec and layout that no MG before or since has bettered. With its K Series engine, mid ships and Allegro suspension, it was a car the company could and should have come up with decades before. Nicely styled and bang up to date, the cute but by no means ‘girly’ shape has also stood the test of time well as has the cabin, although not in terms of its stamina.

There’s only been two engine choices – 1.6 and 1.8-litre – but up to 160bhp is available plus there’s the option of two-types of automatic, including one with F1-style shift paddles.

When the MGF morphed into the TF, it gained a new chassis with conventional springing although hints of a 2+2 GT and a hardcore speedster never came to fruition. But there was a cluster of special editions with better appointments and some, such as Wedgewood, 75 Anniversary, Trophy and the TF’s Sprint, are becoming quite sought after although the majority can be bought for under £2000 with confidence if the engine’s head gasket has been changed.

When Lotus decided to make a new Elan, it would have been easy to follow Mazda and build a retro-take as well and you can’t blame Mazda for copying the original classic – after all, it was the benchmark sportster of the 1960s. As compact as it is cute, it’s hard to believe that the Mk1 MX-5 is more than 25 years old. Front engined, rear wheel drive, it’s said that even the Mazda’s twin cam engine taken from the 323 saloon was also designed to look like the evergreen Ford ‘twink’ that originally powered the Elan.

The interior is similarly retro styled, with traditional wood and leather on certain special editions – of which over 30 were marketed in the UK! Bear in mind that, with the MX-5, you also have the choice of going ‘Grey’ with Japanese-imported Eunos where variants which were never offered here can be had, such as automatics. Conversely, self-shifting MGFs need to be considered with care as not only are they unreliable and expensive to repair (so much so that it renders many as scrap) but they are not especially nice to drive in our view.

Like the MGF, the Mazda makes a terrific all year round sports car – even more so if you fit the optional hard tops available for both cars. MX-5s are hardly exclusive or turn heads; MX-5s are everywhere and, if you want individuality, the look elsewhere, but there again, there’s no better roadster to rely on a daily driver as many are.

With MX-5s selling better than ever in the showrooms (and now looking like a scaled down Jaguar F-Type) there’s something out there for everyone. But it’s the Elan-style original which holds the most classic appeal as a classic and Mk1 values are creeping to the point where they can exceed Mk2 and even Mk3 prices. Specialists will tell you that the former are the most rounded of them all with the 1.8 Sport being a cracker. The Mk3 (which employed the platform taken from the RX-8) pointed to a more palatial sportster that initially disappointed but the powered metal roofed versions are the last word in 24-7 usability.

MGF morphed into the TF which is the better car even if the early models suffered a harsh ride (kits are available to cure this). Putting any prejudice aside, the Chinese models are the best: Trophy has a fairly late reconditioned LE for just £5500.

What’s the best to drive?

Surprise, surprise?

Here’s another turn up of the books… would you believe that you may prefer MG? The F may be saddled with Metro subframes and gas suspension, but the British engineers did a remarkable job of turning it into one of the best, and certainly most user-friendly mid-engined chassis ever. Unlike snappy Ferraris, and Toyota MR2s, the MGF (if on good, recommended tyres at least) is as predictable as any frontwheel drive hot hatch yet retains that darty agile feel only a mid ship enjoys.

Also (if the hydragas is set correctly), its supple Elan-like ride means that this MG is no bone shaker either. Perhaps the only disappointment remains the electric power steering which is devoid of real feel. Fit uprated dampers and lower it and the MGF becomes a brilliant handler, ideal for track days.

Is the spring suspended TF an improvement? In ultimate handling terms then yes, but the harsh ride trade-off may not be worth it for many. It’s a fault that led to a softer handling kit being made an option soon after launch.

The K Series engine, living behind the driver, has little to apologise for – well apart from dodgy head gaskets that is! Sharp and free revving, even the 115bhp 1.6 is no slouch while the 145bhp VVC model would keep a similarly engined Lotus Elise in its sights. The MGF/TF would be quicker still if MG hadn’t saddled the car with unusually tall gearing for a sports car. However, this does result in an unusually relaxed touring gait and up to 40mpg on a not too gentle run.

If you are of the rear-wheel drive, hang the-tail-out fraternity, then it’s just got to be the MX-5. In an age of frontwheel drive, Mazda really caught the spirit of the classic roadster with a bestof- all-worlds flavour the 2017 model still enjoys. It’s not just the fun-filled handling and eager nature that makes any driver smile, but Mazda’s sheer attention to detail elsewhere, such as the rifle-bolt gear change and the precise steering. You actually feel that you’re in an old sports car but without the associated hang ups. This is the reason why the car has appealed so much to even non car enthusiasts. Performance is good enough, without being too fierce (although avoid the weedy 88bhp entry model) and overtax the chassis or driver.

Well up to Elan standards, most 1.8 models will show a TR6s a clean pair of exhausts and leave one for dead cross country. It’s not all fun in the sun, mind. Up to a point, the Mazda is a delight to corner with gusto and very predictable with it, but overstep the mark, especially in the wet, and it can bite the hands that feeds it unleaded. The Mk2 is more predictable while early Mk3s seemed to lack that certain something despite 2-litre power but to be fair, Mazda quickly engineered tweaks to the chassis and steering. Try one and see what you prefer – the later car certainly has refinement and civility on its side.

Owning and running

Mazda is the ‘New’ mgb

On the one hand being an MG, the F is well served by the well established army of clubs and specialists meaning that general servicing and part obtain-ability is okay via Rimmer Bros and David Manners, for example. But on the other hand, is their low values and resultant high scrappage numbers and it’s this sad high attrition rate that has led to non-availability of parts both new and used; Hydragas spheres are obsolete, for example. There is a kit to convert F over to conventional suspension but at a price of well over £1000 this conversion is worth more than many cars.

And that’s been the underlying problem with this modern for a number of years. You can pick up an MGF for just a few hundred (and we know of one which was written off simply because the hood was vandalised…) and values are now only starting to pick up. A blown head gasket, with all the trimmings, can cost anything from £600- £1000 which is more than many, even nice, cars are worth on the open market.

It’s not all bad news mind; BMH is reproducing certain OE body parts and there’s an increasing number of MGF specialists sprouting up (such as Reborn of Poole, Dorset and Lincs-based Trophy Cars) that will restore one to your specification.

Alternatively, you can go to the likes of Brown & Gammons for nearly new TFs; it currently has a FSH 2010 one for £7995.

It’s a clear win here for the Mazda when it comes to everyday practicalities, and this section could swing the vote for many. The MX-5 is dead reliable and it’s as inexpensive to run as a Fiesta LX, plus there are plenty of good specialists and parts suppliers around to help, too.

The flipside is that the MX-5’s Golf-like durability leads to neglect by non-enthusiast owners who use them like this Volkswagen! Mk1s can rot in a major way too, so don’t think you can buy the world’s best sports car with impunity.

And The Winner Is...

Logically speaking, it has to be the MX-5 if for no other reasons that it’s still in production and so respected. The Mazda is not dubbed the “New MGB” for nothing and over the years MX-5s will become as well liked as a classic as our evergreen British sports car. But we reckon that MGFs will catch on in a pretty major way too, especially as their numbers dwindle. There’s an increasing fanbase and already you see them in large clusters at classic shows, a fair few owned by elderly MG enthusiasts who also have a MGB tucked away in their garages… The Mazda shades it for being a brilliant retro modern sports car that appeals to many in so many ways – but you make your own mind up!

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