Morgan Aero SuperSports
- Sunday, 29 May 2011 / 3:55pm UTC
It may look vintage with its chromed radiator grille, side-opening bonnet and separate wings, but there's nothing remotely old-fashioned about the engineering of the Morgan Aero SuperSports. And the way it performs is very much up-to-date, too.
Morgan has been hand-building cars in Malvern, Worcestershire since 1910, beginning with three-wheelers and moving to four wheels with the 4/4 of 1936. Essentially the same design has remained in production ever since, evolving gently with new engines and rising levels of equipment, but the same layout of steel ladder chassis, leaf-sprung live rear axle and quirky sliding-pillar front suspension. These 'classic' models are still available, ranging from the 1.6-litre 4/4 at £29,760 to the 3.0-litre Ford V6-engined Roadster at £43,500. At the Geneva show earlier this year Morgan unveiled a new three-wheeler, complete with 1.8-litre v-twin engine, which starts at £25,000.
At the top of the range sits the Aero line, which arrived in 2000 and propelled Morgan into a 21st century world of CAD-designed aluminium chassis, BMW engines and, at first, rather cross-eyed front-end styling which was eliminated when the Volkswagen Beetle headlamps were dumped in favour of Mini lamps in 2007. The Aero 8 roadster was joined by the Matt Humphries-designed Aeromax in 2008, followed in 2010 by the SuperSports tested here.
Style and Engineering
The SuperSports is essentially an Aeromax with a revised roofline which incorporates removable roof panels that can be stowed in the boot. The rear window is fixed, so with the roof panels removed the SuperSports is more an open-air tourer than a true roadster.
Though the reshaped rear end looks terrific from some angles it is less than entirely harmonious from others, and the tiny quarter windows behind the doors look something of an afterthought. But the extravagant curves of the nose somehow look as modern as they do traditional, and give the SuperSports a presence and individuality that some of its flying-wedge rivals lack.
The 1930s-style skin is not as traditional as it looks. Though the body is still framed in ash like the classic models, the aluminium alloy panels are shaped using the Superform process which is also used by Aston Martin, Bentley and Rolls-Royce. Underneath, the main part of the Chris Lawrence-designed chassis is bonded and riveted from aluminium panels which are either flat or simply curved. The front suspension and engine are carried on large aluminium legs, welded together from aluminium extrusions, which double as the front crash structure. The aluminium construction helps to keep the dry weight to a commendably low 1175kg, so the Morgan makes the most of a power output which is less than many (significantly heavier) rivals.
All the Aero cars have been powered by BMW V8 engines, though Morgan's next model, the Eva GT due in 2012, will use a twin-turbo straight six. Originally the Aero used the 4.4-litre M62 V8 with a claimed 286PS, but later engines were uprated to 294PS, then Morgan switched to the 333PS N62 unit. The current 4.8-litre N62 V8, which delivers 367PS, was adopted in the last Aero 8s and the Aeromax. It's mildly modified by Morgan to aid installation under the long, low, side-opening bonnet, as a result of which Munich requires the BMW badges on the cam covers to be hidden with Morgan logos. In its Morgan application the BMW V8 also loses its top-end trim panels, and looks much better as a result. A six-speed automatic gearbox is popular, though a six-speed manual is available for traditionalists. Both are supplied by ZF. It was in manual form that we tested the SuperSports.
Comfort and Convenience
Access to the SuperSport's cabin is through narrow doors, and you need to thread your legs down a narrow footwell which leaves no space next to the clutch pedal for the driver's left foot. Well-built drivers will also be left struggling to get comfortable thanks to a narrow seat. First impressions are not helped by the nondescript airbag-equipped steering wheel and oversized dashboard switches and warning lamps that lack the sophistication the price tag might lead you to expect. Nor is there the level of electronic convenience gadgetry that many other modern cars have.
But there the quibbles end. This cabin has high-quality leather swathing the seats, and the framing for the dashboard and door pulls is not veneered but actually constructed from lumps of timber, exquisitely shaped and finished. The driving position is straightforward, handbrake and gear lever are well located, pedals are nicely positioned for heel-and-toe footwork, and visibility in all directions is good despite the shallow glass area.
Install yourself into the SuperSports and twist the key, and you'll be left in no doubt about the car's potential: the V8 burbles menacingly through side-exit exhaust pipes that end just a few inches behind your ears, filling the cabin when you open the throttles. A longer, quieter rear-exit exhaust is standard, and a necessity in some territories where side-exit exhausts are illegal.
A decent-sized boot makes the SuperSports viable touring transport for two, though stowing the roof panels swallows up much of the space.
Performance, Economy and Emissions
It is the effortless nature of the Morgan's performance which makes it truly special, a combination of the engine's broad torque curve and the low overall weight.
According to Morgan's own figures, the SuperSports can accelerate from rest to 60mph in less than 4.5 seconds in manual form, or 4.2 seconds with automatic transmission - with no assistance from four wheel drive or traction control in either case. It will go on to a top speed of 170mph. Though there was no opportunity during our test to verify any of these figures, they are eminently believable. That means the Morgan is quicker to 60mph from rest than an Aston Martin V8 Vantage Roadster, despite a lower power output - though the Aston has a higher maximum speed. Other low-volume rivals - other Astons, Ferraris and the like - offer considerably more power and more performance, but usually with a higher purchase price.
Once you're used to the hefty, short-travel clutch pedal you can use the SuperSports' six-speed gearbox to keep the V8 spinning in the middle of its rev-range, where it delivers immense performance with no more than a prod of your right toe. It is the effortless nature of the Morgan's performance which makes it truly special, a combination of the engine's broad torque curve and the low overall weight.
Neither exhaust emissions nor overall fuel consumption are likely to be very important to the SuperSports buyer. We estimate that the Morgan will return around 27mpg in mixed use, giving it a range of about 325 miles between fuelling stops.
Ride, Handling and Braking
The Morgan's suspension is firm enough to give good body control, but there is still enough wheel travel to soak up all but the worst road surface irregularities. The result is a chassis which copes with the worst the road can throw at it while still delivering predictable grip and a pliant ride. The stiffness of the Morgan's structure translates into a deftness and precision of road manners which makes the SuperSports hugely entertaining on a twisty road.
Driver and passenger sit a long way back in the SuperSports' wheelbase, giving the Morgan's handling an old-fashioned feel. But there's no denying the basic competence: grip levels are high, and beyond the limit the direct steering makes it easy to catch any rear-end waywardness induced by over-enthusiastic use of the throttle.
Big steel discs at all four corners, with four-pot AP Racing calipers at the front, make light work of braking duties. Pedal pressures are higher than in the average over-servoed modern car, which is no bad thing - and provides the driver with a more stable fulcrum for heel and toe downchanges.
Safety and Security
Deft handling and strong brakes give the SuperSports impeccable primary safety credentials, and the Morgan has modern safety systems like anti-lock braking and electronic brake force distribution. The maker says the SuperSports meets crash performance standards worldwide thanks to the inherent strength of the aluminium structure and specific safety measures such as steel impact bars inside the (ash-framed) doors. There are driver and passenger airbags, too, but the full complement of airbags commonly found on uprange saloons is missing.
Equally, the SuperSports is unlikely to be as impregnable to thieves as a BMW or Mercedes – but then it's much less likely to be parked in a position where it will be exposed to such threats.
Quality and Reliability
The combination of BMW engine and ZF gearbox is likely to be as reliable a powertrain as any in the industry. As far as the rest of the car goes, the fastidious care that goes into the manufacture of every Morgan is obvious when you tour the Pickersleigh Road factory. The skill of Morgan's craftsmen is in no doubt, and sensible application of automation and modern methods - for example in the wood shop, and the superforming process which makes the body panels - has helped to keep build standards high. That should translate into a dependable machine, and certainly Morgan owners seem to report few major problems.
Even if the Morgan's throwback looks did not make it such an individual product, then its combination of price, performance and exclusivity would. It fills a gap in the market between cheaper, slower and more commonplace fresh-air performance cars like the Porsche 911 Carrera Targa or Aston V8 Vantage Roadster, and quicker, pricier cars like the 911 Turbo and V12 Vantage. Buyers looking for a fast, open car with plenty of character might also be tempted by a Corvette.
In times past the most obvious rivals might have come from TVR, but the Blackpool marque is no more. In mainland Europe the closest rival is probably the Wiesmann GT and Roadster, which also uses the BMW N62 engine, but that is not available in the UK. Morgan's own classic models might be considered an alternative, but they are very different cars - with neither the performance nor the sophistication of the Aero range and with much cheaper price tags.
Thanks to an advanced aluminium structure, and a relatively restricted range of equipment, the Morgan Aero SuperSports has light weight which manifests itself in deft handling and a surprising turn of speed given that its power output is modest compared to many rivals. It successfully blends old and new into a hugely entertaining package, and it has an individuality and exclusivity which leaves it with few true rivals.