This would be the most perfect car for America, but . . .
MALVERN, U.K. — Think of the very pinnacle of modern small-series automobile production; a chassis made of aluminum riveted, bonded and welded together just like the latest from Aston Martin or Lotus. Then think of English ash-wood framing on top of it, draped in expertly hand-beaten aluminum panels just like the earliest days of the motor car – the 2020 Morgan Plus Six in all its anachronistic glory. It’s like walking onto the Space Shuttle command deck to find an astrolabe in the corner.
But then Morgans are weird, of that there’s no doubt, although there’s no arguing with the figures. This latest Morgan Plus Six will accelerate from 0-62 mph in 4.2 seconds and go on to a top speed of 166 mph, assuming your license can stand it. At this point you might be laughing madly, especially if you know Morgans. It’s all flies-in-the-teeth acceleration, medieval chassis technology, and never mind the handling because you’re in the air half the time anyway.
John Beech, Morgan’s chief engineer (formerly of Lotus) and his small team have worked miracles. This CX chassis (Roman numerals for 110) debuts under this Plus Six model, along with a new double wishbone MacPherson strut-derived front and four-link independent rear suspension with 19-inch wheels, plus an all-new engine and transmission.
The relationship between BMW and Morgan continues, though this time, they’re doing what Peter Morgan, the second generation Morgan to run the company, once described as ‘mission impossible’: cramming a straight-six engine under that traditionally long and heavily louvered bonnet. Peter chose instead to create the legendary 1969 V8-powered Plus Eight, but now a BMW B58 turbocharged inline-six, displacing 3.0 liters and making 335 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque, snugs under the Plus Six’s center-hinged hood. It’s coupled to a ZF eight-speed torque converter automatic transmission driving the rear wheels.
This is one of the finest ‘sixes’ in production, and in the Plus Six it combines performance with excellent on-paper fuel economy. It’ll achieve 31.8 mpg in the generous European test cycle, but we could only manage 23 mpg average during our drive. Regardless, it’s fully Euro emissions compliant, partly because the car’s featherweight 2,370-pound curb weight means the engine isn’t heavily taxed moving the Plus Six about. The outgoing and dipsomaniac 4.4-liter V8 Aero and Plus 8 models attracted punitive taxation in many places.
Cramming in the engine has taken a lot of work, though. Ancillaries have been relocated and the cooling system has been redesigned, with new hood nostrils and extra louvers in the hood to get the superheated air out. Even so, the front hood release on the turbo side of the car gets too hot to touch even after a gentle run – owners will need to carry gloves.
Climb into the cockpit (not the most dignified of maneuvers) and the biggest change becomes clear – it’s still intimate enough to be a sports car, but there’s a lot more space. By the tape, the Plus Six adds 0.8 inches to the wheelbase, which somehow freed up nearly 8 inches of leg room, 3 inches of width across the cockpit, and a deeper and more useful rear parcel shelf.
Pretty much anyone will fit into this new Morgan and it’s comfortable, too, with a tilting and telescoping adjustable steering column, air conditioning, even power door locks. Taller drivers might want for a slightly lower seat height (there’s room to get an inch or two lower) and maybe a bit more width in the seat backs, but it’s genuinely possible to spend a day behind the wheel without feeling like a piece of unfolded origami on climbing out, which you certainly did in the previous models.
The dashboard retains the traditional Morgan layout with a central speedo and rev counter, but with modern instruments and a small digital display screen in front of the driver flanked by stark and unattractive gauges for fuel contents and coolant temperature. There’s no navigation, but there is a Bluetooth system so you can use your phone instead.
The leather upholstery is quite lovely, especially the quilted finishes. The gear knob is provided by BMW, but Morgan does the handbrake and a very plasticky steering column surround. The hood is beautifully made, but like Morgans of old, it’s a finger eater to erect and you’ll struggle in the downpour to tug the windscreen capping down. In addition, the aluminum frame rattles over bumps and, with the hood furled, the aluminum cockpit trim reflects distractingly in the windscreen.
Stab the push-button start and the big BMW mill growls into life, refined despite the upgraded exhaust fitted to our test car. It’s only in the upper end of the rev counter that it produces any real sturm und drang.
You need to recall that this car is at least half a ton lighter than any other BMW fitted with the same engine and Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat, it’s fast. The twin-scroll turbocharger picks up early and fast and the bluff nose surges, unzipping the horizon towards you. Push the gearlever to one side to access the Sport program, which sharpens up the gear changes and throttle response and then there’s an additional Sport+ button to give yet more alacrity. Mid-range response is effervescent but the top end is simply stupefying.
If you launch it from stand still, those rear 255/35/19 Avon tires will leave perfect black lines for just as long as you want them to. Few owners are going to drive it like that, but when you’re overtaking, it’s a nice edge.
And unlike the previous hot Morgan models, this one isn’t frightening. The Plus Six is quick, but it’s also extraordinarily composed and refined, and that long-travel throttle and gentle-giant low-end response makes it an easy car to drive briskly.
As in other BMW applications, that ZF ‘box can be a bit obstructive, reluctant to kick down at times, although there are steering-wheel paddles with which to flip down a ratio and the Morgan’s lightweight and extra work on the transmission software make it feel a bit sharper.
Despite having a laughably infinitesimal amount of wheel travel, Beech and his team have found a compliance and chassis balance that rides and handles over some pretty poor road surfaces. No longer do sharp undulations leave the exhaust scraping the road and the nose goes where it is pointed. It is set up gently and the mien is slightly more gran turismo than all-out road racer, but that’s where the market is and that light weight means you can still play with it. The steering isn’t particularly communicative (and it could do with a slightly faster ratio), but those Avons are faithful and true; if you decide to push the tail out under throttle, you can get it back without too much drama.
For those used to Morgans this is a sensational debut, for those new to the marque, it’s the first Morgan that needs little excuse to include it in sentences containing Jaguar’s F-Pace, BMW’s Z4 and Porsche’s Boxster. What’s more there’s more to come with Aero models and sports derivatives, which will answer some of the minor niggles mentioned here.
It’s on sale now priced at £89,995 for the First Edition models, £77,995 for the standard cars. Each car takes about four weeks to build and Morgan is hoping to build up to nine a week; there’s a waiting list of 150 already.
And now the bad news, Plus Six won’t pass US production-car safety tests and while there are nascent new laws which might allow it to be sold, we’re still waiting for them to be enacted.
This would be the most perfect car for America, but if you want one, you’ll have to contact your senator.