Years back, when British Leyland was headline news, the arrival of the MG ZT 260 would have inspired hallelujahs across the land. But in its much reduced state, MG Rover, the Birmingham-based remnant of the massive BL, has garnered no more than a few favourable footnotes for this car, which I doubt many have even heard of.
Yet you may know of the Rover 75. That was the only car completed under BMW's brief ownership of the company, and though now five years old, it's still a good car. A major part of MG Rover's survival strategy since independence has been to offer most of its Rover hatchbacks and saloons as MGs too, and though this might be cynical badge-engineering, the results have been effective on the road and in the showroom. But its most ambitious conversion is of the 75 to ZT 260. Whereas lesser versions of the ZT are front-wheel drive and powered by four- or six-cylinder engines, the 260 is propelled by a 260bhp American V8 driving the rear wheels.
For powerful cars like this, the question of which are the driven wheels is critical. Formula One cars are powered from behind for reasons of cornering balance and controllability, the front tyres relieved of the task of transmitting power to the track as well as steering the car.
But converting a front-drive car to rear is no small task - for complication and inconvenience, it's like converting your home to run on solar power.
All this to allow a 260bhp V8 from the Ford Mustang to burble beneath the MG's bonnet, making the sort of noise usually heard from cars in 1970s American cop films.
It's a burble laden with promise - namely, 0-60mph in 6.7 seconds, and 149mph - yet at first one suspects it might not be realised. The MG feels a little heavy, the V8 a little unwilling to rev. That's because this engine is all about subtle thrust, and once on the move the 260 can compress journeys with the same painless ease as a locomotive. But if motorways are swiftly consumed, they are not the best showcase for this car's attractions. For that, you need an empty, open road and time. Ten, 15 or even 50 miles won't be enough for the ZT, not because it is slow but because it is so entertaining.
What you'll enjoy is noise, a finely balanced machine and the unlikeliness of the whole thing. Stretch it, and the V8's rhythmic beat turns to savage rasp, the pace quickens and you discover that this car is something of an athlete in corners, changing direction with an authority so satisfying that your confidence rises by the turn.
The ZT is a genuine sports saloon, offering more intoxication per mile than any BMW 3 Series short of an M3. You don't pay in refinement either. Although firm-sprung, the ZT surmounts bumps with aplomb, and at a cruise the V8 mumbles comfortingly to itself.
There are drawbacks, though. One is wallet-ravaging fuel consumption - and its concomitant, taxable CO2 emissions - and another is a lazy air conditioner. But if you buy a ZT, your biggest problem will be convincing your peers that you haven't taken to wearing a Union Jack waistcoat in private. Yet this is a fine British car, whose fate, sadly, will be to remain largely undiscovered. It deserves better.
SPECIFICATION MG ZT 260
Max power 260 bhp
Max torque 302 lb ft
Max speed 149 mph
0-62mph 6.7 sec
Fuel consumption 21.2 mpg
CO2 emissions 314 g/km
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