A trip to the Malvern Hills to drive a Morgan is always exciting. As the wider automotive industry continues its apparently inexorable push towards automation, seeing cars a Morgan summoned into life on Pickersleigh Road is a real treat. Even when the cars weren't all that brilliant, the experience and the cherished memories were more than worth the effort. That thrill was never dimmed by the reality one little bit.
Now, though? The anticipation is off the chart. Not only does this new Plus Four carry with it the weight of expectation created by the Six's impressive showing, it's only PH's second manufacturer test car in nine weeks. Frankly the first post-quarantine test could have been of Morgan's two-wheeled effort with Pashley Cycles and we'd have been along post-haste.
Originally the Plus Four was meant to launched to the world's media in March, after a glamorous Geneva reveal. With both events cancelled (this very Plus Four was driven back from Switzerland, in fact), the brief is now far simpler: take the car from nine, return it by five; there's an auto here if you want to try it. The sun is shining, there's not a cloud in the sky, and the first test in a 'new normal' world is a Morgan with 250hp per tonne and a manual gearbox - you could hardly wish for a better arrangement.
As with the Plus Six the auspicious signs are there from the start. Despite being narrower than its six-cylinder compatriot, the new bonded aluminium architecture means the Four is relatively easy to get into; with the optional sports seats it actually sits the driver better than the Plus Six we tested, not so perched and better placed in the car. Those low doors always ensure a sense of vulnerability, only now it's a much more fleeting sensation - you soon think little of it.
The interior is pure Plus Six, with the familiar buttons, dials and displays. It remains nice, the slabs of wood and knurled metal on the handbrake especially, though the chunky steering wheel feels as incongruous here as it did in the larger car. Hopefully something more befitting of the car's status, a wheel that combines both modern and traditional approaches, will be along soon.
That this new Plus Four replaces both the previous version and the Roadster in one fell swoop makes life rather tricky for the BMW B48 2.0-litre turbocharged unit. Because while on the one hand it boasts 65 per cent more power than the Ford four-cylinder motor, it's also inevitably going to lose some of the aural appeal that was there in the Roadster's V6. Nobody needs reminding of the appeal (necessity, really) of a sweet-sounding engine in a drop-top sports car. Because what's the point otherwise?
With an optional sports exhaust, the Plus Four's first impression is a positive one. It gurgles and chunters at idle, the noise surprisingly authentic given its prosaic origins, and continues the tribute act nicely as first is selected and the factory gates open. Perhaps the volume and fizz of an old engine isn't quite there, but 2020-grade efficiency most certainly is. Given the constraints on low volume manufacturers, it seems a good effort.
Like the Plus Six - noticing the theme? - it doesn't take long for the Four to show off the benefits of its new underpinnings. Cars like the old BMW-engined Plus 8 could feel like driving Buckaroo; even when things looked to be going fine, there was sneaking suspicion that impending disaster might not be far away. Memorable, exciting and good fun for a while, sure - though you were always grateful just to get out as well.
Not anymore. Even at low speed the sense of additional composure is abundantly clear. The extra rigidity gives the suspension renewed purpose, an ability to absorb what's going on at the road rather than conduct a pitched battle on two fronts against body and the wheels. A little shake remains detectable, though it's no longer sufficient to jolt your arm from its comfy perch on the door.
What does force two hands on the wheel, though, is the Plus Four's performance. This engine might be detuned from other installations to 260hp - in a Mini GP it is rated at more than 300hp - but don't forget this Morgan is tremendously light: at 1,013kg it's 62kg less onerous than even than the Plus Six with which it shares so much. With the wind gusting to a gale around you, a manual gearchange to think about and fairly narrow rear Avons, 0-62mph in five seconds feels plenty brisk enough.
Although initially charming - with an accuracy and satisfaction that isn't there in three-pedal BMWs - the manual does begin to lose its appeal after a while. (Don't fret, the PH membership card is being handed in on the way out.) The clutch travel feels too long, the engagement a little high and vague, and there's absolutely nowhere for your left foot to go. Fine in something as extreme as a Caterham, rather less so in a Morgan that's more Stoke Park than Cadwell Park. Add in overly long ratios - second reaches 80mph at the limiter - as well as a clutch and shifter that don't like to be rushed, and it's hard to be too enthusiastic about the manual Plus 4.
Handily, the automatic is a much better fit, even with the borrowed paddles like an awkward hand me down from a distant cousin. Not only is your left foot free, the shorter ratios (third in the eight speed only going about 5mph more than second in the manual) and swifter changes turn the Plus Four into a proper hot rod. The figures support that - with more torque, as well as four-tenths taken off the 0-62mph sprint - and the experience makes the point undeniable, the Four fairly romping through its ratios. Some buyers may want the Plus Six for the sound - both are quite whooshy turbos, the six more tuneful than the four's gruffer blare - but it's impossible to imagine them craving more performance.
Same is true for the drive, in fact. With less weight over the nose, more compact dimensions and the increased sense of immediacy that comes from it, the Plus Four is a more rewarding car to drive than the Plus Six. It still isn't a pure-bred roadster of any kind, lacking razor sharp responses or much in the way of steering feel - though that rather misses the point. The Morgan is an immersive experience like little other, one that requires fewer excuses than ever.
The wheel arches mean it can be placed on the road perfectly, grip can be felt along the side of the car because you almost are the side of the car, and any loss of grip or traction can be heard through squealing tyres. The Plus Four remains a car about approximate inputs rather than millimetric adjustment, point and squirt rather than duck and dive, though the improvements here over the old Morgans (and even the Plus Six) are manifest and appreciable. This is a Morgan to be enjoyed early on a Sunday morning as much as it is pootling off to lunch later in the day.
As such, it's impossible to exit the Plus 4 without an enormously positive impression. That always sort of happened with a visit to Malvern, though now it's a car to admire because of what it can do - not despite what it will do. By keeping so much of what makes a Morgan beguiling - the way it looks, where you sit, the view out - and addressing the vast majority of dynamic issues with the new platform, the Plus 4 makes a compelling introduction to the Morgan range.
An expensive one, mind. Of course the usual arguments can be made about depreciation, the cost of craftsmanship and the car's bespoke nature, but the fact remains: £62,995 for a 2.0-litre Morgan is a lot of money. That's before adding in the sports exhaust, automatic gearbox or sports seats. Call it £65k and it's impossible to avoid comparison with four-cylinder F-Types and similarly configured Porsche 718s; heck, you want good-looking, manual, evocative, traditional sports car that won't depreciate much, buy a Boxster Spyder.
Of course that comparison is no less facetious than it's always been - for most prospective Plus Four buyers, only a Morgan will do. And this time around, they've every reason to be impressed. Fact is that one of the last Plus Fours still costs £60k anyway so there simply isn't an affordable way into a four-wheeled Morgan. But for combining the timeless appeal of its predecessor with a welcome dose of contemporary dynamism and performance, for just about the same money, the new Plus Four can be considered a resounding success. If nothing else it proves that nothing compares with the Morgan experience - and that deserves celebrating now more than ever.
SPECIFICATION - MORGAN PLUS FOUR
Engine: 1,998cc, four-cyl turbocharged
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive (8-speed auto optional)
Power (hp): 260@5,500rpm (260@4,400rpm)
Torque (lb ft): 258@1,000-5,000rpm (295@1,000-4,300rpm)
0-62mph: 5.2 seconds (4.8)
Top speed: 149mph
Weight: 1,013kg (dry, auto 1,009kg)
MPG: 39 (40, WLTP)
CO2: 165g/km (159g/km, WLTP)
Price: £62,995 (£64,995)
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