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Grip and Agility

Surely not. A 50 year old design that matches a modern car in corners?

Well here’s my experience. The hire Spites/Midgets are fitted with good quality 165/70 radials – the biggest tyres that can be fitted without arches. My other two cars are a Vauxhall/Opel Zafira (on good Michelin 195/70) and a Fiat Barchetta on top class rubber (Michelin 195/60 Pilots). The Fiat is a modern and fine handling sporstcar that Car magazine said cornered faster than the MGF or MX5, so quite a performer.

So let’s take these three round my favourite test corner. This is an open right hand sweeper, I can see right round it, the camber and surface is good, there’s a huge run-off on the left, it’s safe to play.

The Zafira – At 60 mph she’s got lots of grip but is carrying a lot of understeer, push her hard to 65 and a combination of roll and huge understeer makes you back off – if there was an immediate left hand bend to follow the big body movement would make things very hairy.

So fail-safe, lots of grip but only on a sweeper, make it an ‘S’ and it would get very untidy.

The Barchetta. – great turn in, 60 mph still pretty flat and tyres just starting to dig in. 70 mph roll setting in quite a lot and a lot of G force being generated! Very impressive, but add 2 mph and you can feel the rear end ‘walking’ as the suspension geometry changes, still gripping but feels edgy and I really don’t want to lift off mid-bend. At 65 very agile but at 70 it simply doesn’t inspire confidence.

The Sprite. – 60 mph. Turn in, feel the tyres load up, clamp your foot down on the floor and accelerate round because that’s what she begs you to do. 65 mph ditto. 70 mph – not sure I believe this but still hammering round the corner, Lifting off tucks the nose in but she really likes the power on (not enough power to go faster!). You can feel the slip angles of all four tyres, feel them (and that old solid rear axle) squirming under load but it feels utterly safe and neutral. You feel like Sterling Moss the car approaching a four wheel controlled drift (though in truth that’s probably 10 mph away). With such little roll and weight, a change to a left hand-bend is accompanied by little body movement, it’s as if every bend is treated individually, there's no pendulum feeling. Through an S-bend she makes the Fiat feel bloated.

I know this all sounds crazy. When I returned to a Sprite (after 15 years absence) I expected it to be hopelessly outclassed by a modern sportscars like the Barchetta - good handling but no grip. Now the above doesn’t prove anything, I didn’t take the Barchetta to the point of no return (because I’m not an idiot) but I did take it to the point where I felt uncomfortable. At this point the Sprite was still hanging on and feeling very balanced. Yup I’m as surprised as you. But it's not just me that thinks this. Recently a US magazine did a rebuild of a Midget as a project. They wanted to compare it to an MX5 (Miata). BEFORE the rebuild they took the knackered, rusty MG to a short race circuit. On the rolling road she'd showed 42 bhp at the rear wheels. As comparison they threw an MX 5 round the track - the Mazda clocked 42 second, the little, worn-out MG - 45. Now considering how much quicker the Mazda must have been on the straights just think how fast that agile little MG was round the corners... And remember our Spridgets are mildly tuned, giving around 60 bhp at the rear wheels.

True story...

Once the first of the Sprites arrived I obviously began to use it – I used it out-of-choice at all times rather than my Barchetta – again I was surprised. But one day I had a long drive and it was raining, so I decided to give the Fiat a run. After a few miles I came to a roundabout and as I went round the back stepped out a fraction – very odd – a patch of diesel? Five miles later the same thing happened but this time requiring a big helping of opposite lock! I pulled over because I though I’d a flat rear tyre or maybe something broken in the rear suspension. No it was because I’d become so used to the Sprite’s agility that I was taking the corner too fast even though I’d not considered I was going fast for the conditions. Where the Sprite would have given plenty of feel through the steering the Barchetta gave none.

So for those worrying that they will be driving an old car with much lower limits than their own, nothing could be further from the truth. A week in the Sprite or Midget may well leave your own car feeling lumbering and clumsy.

So is the Sprite quicker point-to-point than the Barchetta? No, the Barchetta will pull away by virtue of greater power and superior brakes and here modern cars do have an advantage – the Sprite’s brakes require a hefty shove!

However having said all that there is a car with the same 'seat of the pants' feeling combined with simply astonishing cornering ability, and that is the S1 Lotus Elise. It rockets round that corner, accellerating hard at 80 mph, flat and feeling like there's another 20 mph to come - which is why I own one...

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