Kings of sport: it’s supposed to be the height of summer in Britain, so Tony Meredith decided to check out the latest fashion in sport little numbers … before it started to rain!

Kings of sport: it’s supposed to be the height of summer in Britain, so Tony Meredith decided to check out the latest fashion in sport little numbers … before it started to rain!

Tony Meredith

My friends all think that I have a really great job: I get to drive around in all these highly desirable cars and then write about them. OK, so that does sound like a pretty good job, but let’s get one thing straight form the start: I’m not a sports car nut. Really!

It could be my age, I suppose, or just the fact that, at 6ft 4in, I find most sports cars a little on the small side. Just getting into one can be a life altering experience. And, when I do manage to squeeze or contort my body enough to fit in, I find that the pedals have been made for Action Man, not for my ridiculous size 12s.

But even for someone that really doesn’t like sports cars, it’s hard not to have a grin on your face as you climb into a shiny two-seater, roof down, sunglasses on and press down on the accelerator. Whoosh! The wind rushes past and the feeling of exhilarating speed is overwhelming.

Now, of course, I know that the sports car is not your typical sight on many company fleets. But with the increasing take-up of PCPs (see Cash for Cars feature in this issue) there will undoubtedly be a growing number of these thrill seekers in company car parks around the country. That is, if we have a half-decent summer to entice potential buyers that a convertible is a good idea for the UK, of course.

But, weather aside, these cars should provide you with an idea of what sports cars are available. There is no real theme to the particular cars chosen here, with a mix of convertible and coupes at a range of prices. The only real thing they have in common is that they look good–a vital factor for any sports car.

Take the MG TF for example. There’s no getting away from it, this a real sports car. And I mean a real sports car. Once you’re in the driving seat you can almost sense the ride ahead is going to be an exhilarating one.

I was given a 1.6-litre manual in British Racing Green (what else?) which will set you back 15,750 [pounds sterling] but doesn’t include anti lock brakes which are an additional 550 [pounds sterling], Kenwood CD tuner (165 [pounds sterling]), Passenger airbag (275 [pounds sterling]), windstop accessory (211 [pounds sterling]) or 16in, six-spoke alloy wheels (525 [pounds sterling]).

Cornering was a treat as the extremely sensitive steering guided the car almost effortlessly with the aid of the specially tuned Electric Power Assisted Steering (EPAS). The new coil spring suspension and multi-link rear axle, which replaces the MGF’s interconnected Hydragas system means that you feel more involved with the car. The body structure has also been stiffened, producing a 20% more rigid shell, which has allowed improvements to be made in windscreen header vibration.

Adding the ABS to the TF cuts braking distance by 10%, according to MG, and, although I never actually had to test that fact myself, I can confirm that the braking was certainly sharp enough to handle any situation I put the car in.

While the head and legroom in the TF was not what you could call spacious I did manage to get a reasonable driving position which is more than I could achieve in the Hyundai Coupe.

This was undoubtedly my least favourite of the cars on test here. Now before you all go baying for my blood, let me explain.

First, there is the problem of size! I find sitting in the Hyundai uncomrfortable, my head virtually has to fit through the sunroof or it ends up jammed against the roof. Then I found that gear changes were a bit awkward as the handbrake does not lie flat when released, so that moving from first to second occasionally found my hand crunching into the end of the handbrake lever.

And then there’s the problem of indicating. This is an interesting experience as the indicator arm is (for some strange reason) on the right hand side of the steering column, while the windscreen wiper arm was in the more usual indicator position on the left. So, I managed to wipe the windscreen more times than I indicated to turn–at least I could see where I was going I suppose!

But putting all these problems aside, the car was exciting to drive. The 2-litre SE that I tested had a firm suspension and positive steering, giving it an positive on road experience. And at a mere 16,499 [pounds sterling] for 136bhp, it will get you to 62mph in 9.2s, that’s good value for money in my book.

Especially when you get anti-lock brakes, four airbags, cruise control, air conditioning, leather seats and ultrasonic alarm fitted as standard. The top speed of 128mph is none too shabby either.

For me, most exciting thing about the Coupe for me though is the look. The car was designed by the in house team at the Hyundai Design centre in Namyang, Korea–costing around US$230m to develop, worth it every cent. It would easily win the Sexiest Look prize of the cars tested but sadly we are not giving out prizes in that category.. at least not this time.

At the other end of the money scale we have the Maserati Coupe. This is a beast. But a beautiful beast. As soon as I saw this Coupe, which replaces the 3200GT, I felt it had a distinct Aston Martin look and feel about it–which can be no bad thing.

For the 60,000 [pounds sterling] price tag you get a thumping 4.2 V8 normally aspirated engine–which the Coupe shares with the Maserati Spyder–capable of projecting you from 0-62mph in a heart-stopping 4.9s. And as if that’s not enough it has a top speed of 177mph to scare the pants off you.

I got to drive the Cambiocorsa model, which has an electronically operated gearbox with paddle controls on the steering wheel for changing up and down, a la F1 machines. This does feel a little strange at first–especially if you’re not a budding Coulthard–but it doesn’t take long to become quite adept at changing gear without a centrally-mounted changer.

Even so, good as the Cambiocorsa was, I still felt a little removed from the car. There is something to be said for the traditional gear changer and the feeling it evokes as you flick it through the gears.

On the road this is the car to beat out of our test vehicles, which may come as little surprise perhaps. Power delivery is something else (actually it is still power delivery but you know what I mean). It simply flies, willing you to push it faster and harder–which of course I did.

Maserati claims that its Coupe is a true four seater and as long as you don’t try and stick basketball playing-sized people in the back that would seem a fair comment. From a driving perspective, there is plenty of room up front.

The 4244cc, 90 [degrees] V8 compact engine is mounted longitudinally at the front and weighs just 184kg–20kg lighter than the 3200GT engine. Producing 390bhp, it’s easy to understand why this car feels like you have an entire herd of stallions pulling you along.

Although Mazda has just launched a limited edition version of its top selling MX-5 called the Phoenix, for this test I got behind the wheel of a 1.8 Sport which at 17,495 [pounds sterling] features a six-speed manual box, ABS, leather trim, remote central locking, and driver and passenger airbags.

The MX-5 is the world’s best selling sports car with its own entry in the Guinness Book of World Records to prove it, and who can argue with that?

My body shape posed a bit of a problem in getting the best driving position but anyone that has a normal sized frame should have no difficulties. Even though my thighs were jammed up against the steering wheel I felt the ride was suitably firm in that high-back bucket seat.

With 146bhp, getting from 0-62mph takes just 8.4s and the MX-5 is capable of turning in a respectable 129mph. It’s a fun car to drive and a real head turner. It’s easy to see why this car became a best-seller.

Handling is sharp and the ride is firm but not bone-shakingly rough. It’s a close call for me between the two convertibles but I think the MG just pips the Mazda, mainly because it was a marginally more comfortable fit.

A sports car is not your average company car but in the changing world in which we live, the company car as we know it is fast becoming extinct. It can’t be long before sports cars like these see their way onto fleets more frequently then they do at present.

Considering that, as I said, that I am not a hard core sports car fan, I could still easily imagine myself at the front of the queue waiting to get my hands of one of these as my next company car. Now how’s that for the converted doing the preaching?

And the three that got away …

Of course, there were some cars that we would liked to have tested but for various reasons were unable to. Aston Martin, Lamborghini, BMW, Mercedes–the list of manufacturers that make sports cars is a long and pleasurable one.

But here are three cars that would certainly turn a few heads in the company car park.

The Honda NSX which, when it was launched 10 years ago, became the first all aluminium production road car has had some visual changes for 2002 including faired-in headlamps and new front and rear cowls and spoilers. There’s also a drop in price–you can now pick up an entry-level NSX Coupe for 59,995 [pounds sterling].

The Ferrari 575M Maranello, with its 65 [degrees] V12, cranks out a massive 515bhp and features an F1-style gearbox for the first time. Revealed at this year’s Geneva Motor Show, the car goes on sale in the UK this summer.

And, finally, the Porsche Cayenne, which, the company promises, will break new ground in performance and four-wheel drive technology.

It certainly looks different. The five-seater Cayenne Turbo’s 4.5-litre V8 turbocharged engine, 450bhp and 0-62mph time of 5.6s should also make it an interesting car to drive.

COPYRIGHT 2002 DMG World Media Ltd.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group