The MG SV has been worked on for nine years by three different manufacturers. If time spent in development is directly proportional to the quality of the product, it ought to be the best car we’ve ever driven.
It began life with de Tomaso, went into production briefly as the Qvale Mangusta in 2000 but was hauled back into a darkened room when Qvale was bought by MG later that year.
Four years of concepts, rethinks and a total carbonfibre reskin followed; it was only last week that we finally found ourselves holding a set of MG keys, looking at an SV and an open road.
The temptation is to jump in, belt off and see just how good nine years of thought can make a car. But the SV is so arresting to look at that you can put the driving off for another 10 minutes just to walk around it. It looks exactly like what MG needs it to be; a hero car, festooned with outrageous details which can be toned down and echoed on MG’s humbler offerings.
When combined at full volume on one car, the result is monstrously aggressive and quite unlike anything else on the road. But you could never describe it as pretty and, prompted for specific criticisms, we’d identify the amount of air in the wheelarches, which seems to shrink the 18-inch OZ rims, and the very un-sports car-like gap between the ground and the front air dam.
The mad detailing distracts your attention from the SV’s very conventional three-box profile and a roofline which, at 1320mm, is only a little lower than a BMW M3’s; the sports and supercars it’s aimed at sit at least 100mm lower still.
You can get in and out easily, and there’s masses of headroom, light and visibility, but the driving environment is a bit saloon-like and can’t match the drama of the exterior.
The windscreen and dash are both very upright, and the excellent Recaro chairs adjust commendably low, but leave you with no view of the long prow. An electric seat-height adjuster raises the chair should you be sitting too low, but it lifts only the rear end of the seat, to tip you towards the dash.
And you may be surprised to find racing harnesses to strap you in place, part-compensation for the absence of any airbags. The dials and dash aren’t exactly 85 grand’s worth to look at either, and the interior build quality is the usual low-volume Brit sports car stuff, despite much of the SV being made in Italy.
There are flashes of perfection in the shutlines between the doorsills and the dash and the exposed carbonfibre panels, and the surface of the body is impressively smooth. But there are terrible lapses, too, not to mention the all-pervading smell of glue. But there’s little point comparing the build quality of cars like the MG and TVR with Porsches; the former could produce several new models each with the interior budget of the new 997.
The MG’s failing is that, unlike a TVR, it doesn’t do anything sufficiently exciting inside. It also suffers from the inheritance of the drop-top Mangusta; the area behind the seats where the roof once went is now a reasonable luggage area, but the worryingly small 56-litre fuel tank and battery leave only a couple of awkward spaces under the bootlid.
The SV’s all-alloy Ford quad-cam V8 is available in two strengths. Both are built by tuner Sean Hyland in Canada; the SV produces 320bhp and 301lb ft and the R, tested here and bored-out to 5.0-litres, makes 385bhp at 6000rpm and 375lb ft of torque at 4750rpm.
Drive is to the rear wheels via a Tremec five-speed gearbox and a Dana limited-slip diff, with switchable Ford traction control, but no stability control. All this in a 1500kg carbonfibre-bodied sports car sounds promising, to say the least.
Claimed performance figures are 5.1sec to 60mph and 175mph flat out. We wouldn’t dispute that acceleration claim, but producing the kind of pace it suggests in normal driving requires high revs and frequent gearchanges. Neither provides much pleasure; over 4500rpm the engine becomes quite coarse and intrusive, and changing gear can be a physical, forceful business.
At lower revs the V8 sounds great; unlike cars which have had their exhaust notes carefully massaged, the noise is honest and always with you. But there just isn’t as much go under 4000rpm as you’d expect from a 5.0-litre V8, and MG admits that below this point there’s little difference between the engines.
Floor your SV-R from 1500rpm in second and it’ll feel no quicker than the SV, and the SV probably won’t feel as quick as you’d hoped.
Given the amount of PR effort MG Rover has invested in the SV’s fire-breathing credentials, you’d expect its slightly disappointing straight-line performance to scupper it. It doesn’t; there’s more to this car than just grunt.
Firstly, the brakes are sensational; 355mm and 310mm cross-drilled and ventilated Brembo discs that give a crisp, immediate response and don’t go off, neither on the road nor – as you can read in the accompanying sidebar about driving the car around Brands Hatch – on the track. Just don’t try to heel-and-toe; unforgivably, the pedal spacing makes it impossible.
The ride is also remarkably fluid for a car with such a hard-core billing, helped by those 18-inch rims with 40-profile Michelin Pilot Sports. But if you want a car to ride and handle well, double wishbones attached to a stiff, light chassis are about the best way to start.
You can feel how rigid the chassis is on the road and feel the suspension being allowed to work the way it should. The ride is supple and quiet without being disconnected, and the steering is quick and accurate in its response without being in any way nervous.
There’s plenty of feel, too, helped by the thin-rimmed Momo wheel (not a standard item – production versions getting a better-finished four-spoker), and the net result is that you can guide this broad bruiser down tight roads with far greater pace and confidence than its size suggests.
The only aspect of the chassis to be exposed on the road is the damping; a series of undulations taken at sufficient speed will eventually get the back end to move and make you lift. But otherwise, this is a well-judged package for British roads; a proper and ballsy driver’s machine, very much in the traditional sense.
But there is a catch, and it concerns the thorny issue of value; specifically whether MG can really justify the £85,000 the SV-R costs. There’s a solid argument that says there are a lot of people who don’t want a Porsche but can afford one, and instead want something rare, idiosyncratic and British. MG’s problem is that TVR, Morgan and Noble already cater for this market and the SV can’t best them in any area other than rarity.
It is also significantly more expensive than a Tuscan S or a Noble M12; the idea of carbonfibre bodywork is appealing but the cost – and the cost to repair – isn’t, and the weight loss counts for little when a TVR with four seats and a vast boot weighs over 300kg less.
Can we recommend you go out and buy one? Objectively, no. But since when has objectivity played much of a role in the purchasing decisions of the typical British sports car nut? Truth is, there is something about the SV that we like. Apart from the price, that is, which is just nuts.