27 JANUARY 2001, Page 69

Sporting chance

Alan Judd

Sports cars are unseasonable, so it's a good time to buy if you can find a good one. Many owners hold on to them until spring or early summer in the justifiable belief that weather affects what people purchase. It's the same with classic cars and motorbikes.

If, that is, you really want a sports car. I once owned an MOB GT (if that counts), which I bought partly because everyone else seemed to like them, but really seeing what enthusiasts see in sports cars demands of me a leap of imaginative insight on a par with appreciating opera or ballet. I know charming, articulate, intellectually sympathetic exponents of both art forms, and vainly do I try to share their worlds. I am as one who has never seen the colour red but who has nevertheless learned to use the word and concept correctly ('Like the sound of a trumpet,' said one blind man, memorably, when asked how he imagined redness).

The traditional pleasures of rag-top motoring — wind in the hair, Battle of Britain exhaust note, girl sharing the cockpit, low-down, corner-hugging potency through the leafy lanes of Betjernan's Home Counties, spurts of gravel on manorial drives, blasting away from the lights as from the deck of an aircraft carrier, admired cynosure of pub carparks and petrol stations — are all better imagined than experienced. For me, the facts undermine imaginative appeal — awkward ingress and egress, cramped cabin, bottombanging ride, leaks and draughts, compulsory close inspections of the insides of motorbike exhausts, realising that your head comes only halfway up the wheel of the thundering 40-tonne lorry just six inches away, and often being left standing by saloon cars. It's like seeing live ballet after seeing it only on telly — they don't hang in the air for that long and when they come down they do so with distracting thumps and slithers.

To the enthusiast, though, all this is as nothing, or is even part of the attraction. That is certainly the case with traditional Morgan owners who relish the rigours of the ash frame and a suspension system first designed in 1909. The imaginative appeal of those cars and its ability to colour experience is not to be underestimated: I know a woman who got engaged to a man largely because he picked her up in a Morgan. She

grew out of both, in good time, but she might well have found herself at the altar if he had picked her up in the latest offering of the family firm in Worcestershire — the Aero 8.

This is Morgan's big break with tradition, a laser-cut, bonded aluminum alloy structure with monocoque chassis, 4.4 litre BMW V8, six-speed Getrag gearbox and sophisticated race-bred suspension. The body is still coachbuilt and the aluminum panels are still supported by an ash frame, which is now a cockpit feature, and the styling retains retro — particularly Thirties — elements, but it is at the same time unmistakably contemporary. Early accounts suggest that handling has nothing whatever in common with Morgan's traditional cart-race-across-ploughed-field experience, and that performance is in modern super-car territory (top speed 160 mph, 0-62 mph in under five seconds, 286 bhp at 5,400 rpm, 325 lb ft at 3,600 rpm). Its looks have not been universally praised but they're the sort of novel good looks that will improve with familiarity. Its drive is probably — I haven't driven it — very good indeed, given the thoroughbred development of drive train and suspension. Purists may or may not take to it but those who don't will still be able to buy its venerable predecessor, the current Plus 8. Some 550 customers obviously do like it because they have placed firm deposits. It costs £50,000 and if you order now you will get it by the Christmas after next.

Another sports car that has just updated itself is the sought-after Lotus Elise. of which there is now a new edition with new tyres, brakes and engine management system, as well as significant suspension, gearbox and body modifications. I drove the old (1996) Elise on Lotus's Norfolk test track, a wartime aerodrome on which you scatter partridges as you whizz through chicanes, impress yourself mightily on the straight and humble yourself on corners. Then you are taken round by a Lotus test driver who shows you how the car really goes (like a whippet) and you realise why he was yawning beside you as you did your run. Reports suggest that the new Elise is more stable at speed, better through the gears and easier to get in and out of. At £22,995 it is only very slightly more than the previous model and it's on sale this month. You can be pretty sure that, if you liked the old one, you'll love this.

Were I in the sports car market and looking to play safe I'd go for the attractive and reliable Mazda MX5 at £16,000£19,200. If I were bolder I'd be tempted by both the Morgan and the Lotus. As it is, it's back to Betjeman.