Car reviews

A Morgan in the mountains is the perfect start to driving season

by Nik Berg
17 March 2023 10 min read
A Morgan in the mountains is the perfect start to driving season
Photos: Barry Hayden

It’s -15C at the summit of the Julier Pass. Visibility is zero, a full-blown whiteout. The edges of the road are practically invisible with the blizzard sending horizontal sheets across the windscreen. Snow ceaselessly accumulates onto the already compacted ice surface.

I’m the first person outside of the factory to be allowed behind the wheel of this updated 2023 Plus Four, and I briefly wonder whether perhaps we’re both a little too far out of our comfort zones. It may well be the most extreme test the roadster has ever been through. At the very least I suspect it is a situation in which precious few owners of Morgan’s latest Plus Four will find themselves.

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This is, after all, a machine meant for pleasure drives and holidays. For meandering English country lanes, pausing for a pint and a ploughman’s lunch, or perhaps an ice cream by the coast. At an elevation of 7500 feet, the ice isn’t in a cone. It’s everywhere.

It’s the fifth and final Swiss high alpine pass that I’ve driven in as many days. Once I’m out of the mountains it will be a long haul across the autoroutes and routes nationale of neighbouring France to the UK, back home. But before we come to the end of this 2000-mile test drive, let’s go back to the beginning

Scaling new heights

Best road trips

In what has been the biggest shake-up in the boutique British sports car maker’s 110-year history, Morgan redesigned its four-wheel sports cars from the ground up in 2019. The process breathed new life into the Plus Four and replaced the long-running Plus 8 with the Plus Six. Morgan’s stalwart, steel ladder-frame chassis was retired in favour of a superformed aluminium structure dubbed “CX.”

The benefits of the CX chassis are extensive. Instead of having to measure, cut and fit Morgan’s trademark ash wood frame and aluminium body panels to each one individually, the company can now produce identical chassis and pre-cut frames with incredible accuracy. The process streamlined production and created a significantly stiffer structure – all while maintaining Morgan’s hand-built traditions.

Morgan has always relied on external engine suppliers, including Ford, Fiat, Rover, Coventry Climax, and others. Continuing a relationship that began in the early 2000s with the V8-powered Aero 8, Morgan turned to BMW for the Plus Four and Plus Six engines. The former uses a 2-litre, 253bhp turbocharged four-cylinder, while the latter uses a 332bhp 3-litre turbo straight-six. With BMW power came more sophisticated engine management, automatic transmissions, and even a digital dashboard.

For 2023 those engines remain unchanged, but the power now comes with even better control. Suspension dampers and bushings have been finessed. There are AP Racing brakes, new calibrations for the automatic gearbox and, for the first time ever in a Morgan, electronic stability control and dual front airbags. These significant updates mean that the Plus Four will meet America’s federal regulations (under the Low Volume Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Act) and join the Super 3 in America before the end of the year. The value to Morgan of this foothold is immense.

Meanwhile, the interior has been enhanced with a wider choice of fabrics, a single-piece aluminium dash, wonderful wooden marquetry for the centre console, and a Sennheiser audio system which uses the uses the chassis structure to resonate bass.

These changes, on paper, should make the modern Morgan quite the grand tourer. That’s exactly what I plan to put to the test.

Ready to roll to the Swiss Alps

My destination is the Swiss town St. Moritz, home of The ICE, a gathering of some of the world’s most exotic classic cars on a frozen lake. The Plus Four may be a new car, but Morgan hasn’t much changed its styling in 80 years – and thank goodness for that, frankly. I reckon it will fit in.

Storage space has never been a priority for Morgan. There’s room behind the seats for a couple of soft bags and a box of snow chains, but everything else will have to go in waterproof duffels strapped to the Plus Four’s chrome rear carrier.

One area where technology has noticeably progressed: paint. The Volcano Orange finish looks sensational. I’m a sucker for bright colours, and the first time I set eyes on the Plus Four I adore how the orange accentuates the car’s classic curves.

Morgan Plus Four review

The run down to Folkestone through a still-sleeping London is easy and remarkably efficient, the ZF-sourced eight-speed automatic gearbox maintaining an engine speed that’s barely above idle for most of the journey. At the 70-mph motorway speed limit wind noise isn’t too bad, but one issue rears its head that will plague the entire trip: winter chill seeps through the door seals. Naturally, it only gets worse as the temperature drops. Despite switching on the heated seats and cranking the heater, the next five days will be spent either too hot, too cold, or, somehow, both at the same time.

The car is a pre-production model, and Morgan assures me that customer cars won’t suffer in this way. But the new Sennheiser audio system isn’t quite behaving, either. In order to get it to pair with a phone via Bluetooth, the unit needs a complete reset only achievable by disconnecting and reconnecting the battery. Again, Morgan says, a pre-production glitch.

The French connection

Morgan Plus Four road trip

I meet photographer Barry Hayden near the Channel Tunnel to France. We play a short game of packing Tetris, filling the meagre available space with luggage, photo equipment, and other road trip odds and ends. “It could be worse,” says Barry. “You could have got a Super 3.”

Soon enough we pass through the Chunnel and under the sea that separates Britain and its nearest European neighbor. We reach France and waste no time, motoring south at 80 mph.

The extra 10 mph that France permits on its autoroutes brings a rush of wind noise into the cabin, despite the closed soft top. Dialling up the volume on the stereo, with the bass vibrating through the bulkhead, just about overpowers the drone but reduces in-car communication between Barry and me to hand gestures. Sennheiser’s Calmo noise-cancellation system would be a welcome addition (and may come later, says Morgan).

The run down to Lucerne is forgettable – around 500 miles whisking us past Reims, Metz, and Strasbourg. This is not the most picturesque part of France, being largely flat, and the grey winter sky is doing nothing to enhance the aesthetics. Fortunately, the cabin of the Plus Four is surprisingly comfortable. The seats are excellent and even after four hours or so behind the wheel Barry and I experience no back twinge or muscle ache.

Toll booths prove a challenge in a car this low and uncommonly shaped, but you didn’t need me to tell you that. It takes a few runs to accurately assess where the front corner of the car is, but by the time we reach the Swiss border we’ve just about perfected the teamwork required to collect or pay for a ticket without the passenger having to unbuckle and stretch out.

Despite the sustained high speed, we’re covering around 250 miles on a tank of fuel and averaging around 33 mpg, demonstrating acceptable touring credentials.

Into the Alps

Morgan Plus Four road trip

We overnight at a cheap pub/hotel on the banks of Lake Lucerne, slightly bemused by its English football theme, and the next morning make an early start for a day in the mountains. It’s still dark as we make our way out of the city through a series of tunnels, one of which is so long that the sun has actually risen by the time we reach the exit.

Soon we’re climbing up and over the Brünig Pass, which as far as alpine views does not quite reflect the spectacle it appears to be on the map. One section looks like a toddler’s scribble on paper, and is indeed a delightfully dizzying series of hairpins, but rises to only 3000 feet or so. Staying below the treeline means views aren’t of the Swiss postcard variety I’d hoped for. We drop down to lake level, running parallel with the frosty blue waters of Brienzersee and Thunersee before cutting due south for our approach to Alps.

Driving in Switzerland during the winter takes a little pre-planning, as many of the country’s most famous mountain passes are closed for the season. The handy AlpenPasse website will tell which are open at any time. Right now the Grimsel Pass I had been hoping to take is… unpassable.

The alpine anticipation is building as we head toward the base of the Bermese Alps. Abruptly, in the village of Kandersteg, the road simply stops. In its place is the rickety Lötcschberg tunnel railway that takes us through the belly of the mountain. It’s only a 15-minute ride, at the price of 27 Swiss Francs, but it takes place in pitch darkness; the only illumination comes from my fellow travellers’ cell phones which, as a testament to Swiss efficiency, retain a strong 5G signal throughout.

Emerging into the light, we unload and immediately begin to ascend. The road is sufficiently twisty to begin experimenting the Plus Four’s various engine and transmission modes. Nudge the slightly incongruous BMW shifter over to Sport and gears can be selected manually by pushing and pulling the lever or using the steering column-mounted paddles. Keeping both hands on wheel seems prudent as the bends come thick and fast, so it’s paddles for me here and, although the shifts are rapid I do feel the lack of a physical connection. The paddles themselves would certainly feel nicer in aluminium instead of plastic, and if they had just a bit more movement the whole shifting experience would be elevated.

Road trips in the Alps Hotel Külm-Bellevue

We’re the ones rising rapidly, as we discover ourselves quickly getting above the trees and into proper snow for the first time. The beginning of the Simplon Pass is marked by the grand Hotel Külm-Bellevue, which majestically overlooks the route. It’s also home to one of the most strikingly designed public toilet buildings I’ve ever seen.

Mountain madness

Roof down in Morgan

It’s here that we drop our roadster’s roof for the first time. It’s not quite a Miata mechanism, as you need to release a couple of external poppers before unlatching it and carefully folding the fabric as you stow the top behind the front seats, but with practice it only takes a minute or so.

“Brace yourself,” I warn Barry, but we soon find that with hat and gloves in place and heat on full it does not really feel much colder than with the roof up. It helps that by now the sun has burned through the clouds, and we’re also some 6000 feet closer to it. The cozy, slightly claustrophobic feeling of the Plus Four’s cabin is replaced with a wonderfully open sensation: that elemental connection with the environment that makes driving a roadster so invigorating.

The road, too, is exciting, with plenty of fast third or fourth gear corners and more than a handful of hairpins thrown in. By the time we reach the end of it we’ve crossed into Italy, passing through a seemingly unmanned border crossing.

Over the next few hours we follow the valley and battle through poorly-surfaced Piedmontese autostrada, diving in and out of tunnel after tunnel, with local drivers seemingly glued to our rear bumper. It’s a relief to escape and get back onto less busy roads, skirting the glamour of Lake Como and heading north again to Chiavenna and the mountains.

At the border the Swiss guards stop us, check our papers, and then seem to get bored. They send us on our way to the simply marvellous Maloja Pass. In the space of just a couple of miles the pass climbs over 2600 feet in a spectacular sequence of switchbacks.

The Plus Four doesn’t have the best turning circle, but there’s another, altogether more entertaining way to steer it: on the throttle. I press the Sport Plus switch, disengage the ESC, and find I can adjust the attitude of the car with a lift to tighten my line or stab the throttle to slide the rear a little. Shifting rapidly back and forth between second and third gears, the Morgan reveals its previously-hidden hooligan side, with pops, crackles and bangs from the exhaust and a screech of the Avon winter tyres singing through every corner. It’s the sort of behaviour one might expect of a Caterham 7 more than a mature Morgan, and it’s wonderful. While Barry flies his drone overhead I make repeated and progressively swifter and noisier runs up and down. Oh how I must suffer for the photographer’s art.

Alpine passes

The pass spits us out just a few miles from St. Moritz where The ICE concours is taking place over the next two days and, as we pass through the town, we get a sense of the kind of clientele it attracts. We see an Aston Martin DBX 707, a Lamborghini Urus, numerous 911s, even a Ferrari 296. We attract just as much, if not more attention, from the sea of camera phones.

Staying in St. Moritz is way beyond our budget, and our hotel in Poschiavo just happens to be over the Bernina Pass. It’s getting dark by the time we reach it and the clouds have also rolled in. Visibility is near zero, so Barry is calling out upcoming curves like a proper rally co-driver from what he can see on Google Maps. Behind me all I can see is a blaze of headlights and, at the merest sign of a straight, a scrappy VW Passat powers past. For a couple of corners I try to keep up, but there’s no beating local knowledge.

Morgan

Over the next two days we travel back and forth to St. Moritz, and I get to know the road pretty well amid ever-changing conditions. There’s fog, snow, sunshine, and showers sometimes all within the space of the same trip. It’s a brilliant road, a good 30 minutes of full-concentration driving through tight hairpins and speedy sweepers, never knowing exactly how much grip will be available on any of them. As such, the ESC stays on and, without being aggressively intrusive, it adds a welcome layer of safety. In the one instance we switch it off on an open, snowy section it elicits a lurid third-gear slide, proving just how effective the system is. “Please don’t do that again,” quips Barry.

Old Mog, new tricks

Before I set out I wasn’t quite sure how I’d take to a modern Morgan. Could it really offer a 21st century sports car experience with such old-school styling, and would that combination actually be appealing anyway? Would it be up to such an extreme cold-weather task on harrowing mountain passes?

Yes, yes, and yes. The Plus Four is both capable and entertaining beyond expectation. It wouldn’t be a match for a modern Porsche Boxster in objective terms, but it edges much closer than one would think given the vintage aesthetics.

In the media tent at The ICE I hear people talking about the “crazy Brits” who drove all the way in a Morgan mid-winter. I turn my head and have one more look at the orange Plus Four cooling its heels on the snow. Somehow it all seems perfectly sane.

Six more Swiss passes you have to drive…

  1. Flüela – Davos to Susch, 17 Miles
  2. Furka – Gletsch to Realp, 14 miles
  3. Susten Pass – Innertkirchen to Wassen, 28 miles
  4. Gt St Bernard – Aosta to Martigny, 50 miles
  5. Stelvio – Bormio to Stilfs, 26 miles
  6. Gotthard – Airolo to Adndermatt, 16 miles
Morgan Plus Four

2023 Morgan Plus Four specifications

Price: £70,195
Powertrain: 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder; eight-speed automatic (six-speed manual available)
Power: 253bhp @ 5500 rpm
Torque: 295 lbft @ 1000–4300 rpm
Layout: Rear-wheel-drive, two-seat roadster
Suspension: Double wishbone front/rear
Weight (dry): 1009kg
0–62 mph: 4.7 seconds
Top speed: 149 mph

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Comments

  • Mark Sutton says:

    Great article about both the new Morgan and the drive. Whet’s the appetite for such a trip!

  • Dave+Hampton says:

    Brilliant article. informative & entertaining in a concise way!
    Dave

  • Dvaid Potts says:

    Brought back some memories. We’ve done all those passes and more in all seasons with our 2004 Morgan with the older chassis, suspension etc. and can confirm it’s fabulous.

  • Reddo says:

    Entertaining – almost as much as the price!

  • Nigel+Griffiths says:

    My wife and I are planning to do the bulk of the Swiss Grand tour this summer in the Triumph Stag. All the passes should be open by then. Really looking forward to this trip, even without heated seats! But the roar of that V8 will be music in the valleys and passes.

  • Steve Gough says:

    Very jealous – must have been a superb experience. Well written, and hats off to Barry for his wonderful drone pics. Just one critisism, Nik – you might have smiled once or twice for the photographs – you look so miserable!

  • Sidney says:

    BMW drivetrain in a Morgan. That’s an abomination. Prepare for new and exotic unreliability and jet fighter nosedive plummeting depreciation.

    • James Mills says:

      But BMW has been Morgan’s supplier since the days of the Aero 8, Sidney. Have you heard stories of unreliability from Morgan owners, as we haven’t. And as for depreciation, Morgan’s perform pretty well in that respect, historically.

  • Nik Berg says:

    Serious driving face reflects concentration rather than misery although in my defence it was quite chilly!

  • Chris Rabbets says:

    Get a Sanef tag for the French Autoroutes, it removes all the toll booth hassels

  • Robin Bendall says:

    Absolutely, the Sanef tag is excellent. I used one on a 2,650 mile return trip from Nether Stowey in Somerset last May to Monaco for the Monaco Classique Grand Prix, driving a Tifosi Rana, 1979 Frogeye Sprite replica.
    It is an invaluable aid, saving considerable time and hassle!

  • Yvonne and John says:

    Morgan, V6 3700 roadster loves the open roads, travelled from Shrewsbury , M25 , tunnel, through France last September taking in the sights and sounds , used the tag , duration of tour five weeks . Destination cote de zur, Saint Tropez and Monaco. Touring Scotland September, Morgan loaded can’t wait, weather will be cooler, car enthusiasts will know it’s the journey, freedom , and fun Morgan always brings a smile to faces were ever we go !

  • Yvonne says:

    Should have typed , Cote d’Azur, lol

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