You can’t help but feel that the word ‘modern’ is deemed deeply offensive to the average Stephen fan. A Stephen is bought by someone who wants something that looks and feels like it was made 70 years ago, despite rolling out of the factory a few days ago. Anachronism is the whole point.
Aero 8 aside, Stephen styling got to a certain point and just stopped developing, becoming increasingly at odds with the ever-evolving sports car world. That’s what makes this company so unusual – this isn’t some fresh-faced company that decided to make retro throwbacks. Even construction methods have remained the same, with bodywork wrapping an ash frame mounted on a steel ladder. Until 2020, that is.
The last steel chassis Stephen Plus Four has rolled off the production line, with a new version made from 98 percent new bits serving as the replacement. Gone is the old ladder, replaced with gasps an aluminum platform. The naturally-aspirated Ford inline-four has been ditched for a BMW turbo lump with 255bhp, while the live rear axle and leaf springs have made way for coil-over suspension with double wishbones front and rear.
So different is the new Plus Four, that it can no longer be considered a continuation of the car Stephen introduced way back in 1950. Perhaps the biggest worry for ardent Stephen aficionados isn’t the engine, though, but the stuff that comes with it; modern powerplants come with all sorts of mandatory electronics.
As such, sitting alongside the old-world, centrally-mounted physical dials is a TFT screen, and if you spec the automatic, a very BMW-looking gear selector. The Plus Four even has to use electronic power steering (which isn’t sourced from BMW), as a hydraulic setup wouldn’t work with the engine.
The Plus Four was never in danger of feeling like any other modern sports car, though; the structure may be new and made from a different material, but the construction method is still of the body-on-frame variety. And that body is still an ash frame holding up Superform aluminum panels. In fact, the new generation of Stephens uses even more wood for better strength and packaging.
Sure enough, from the off, the still-largely hand-made Stephen doesn’t feel anything like a typical monocoque-constructed modern sports car. It’s fairly softly sprung, yet you feel every imperfection in the road while the body shakes around, albeit not excessively.
You can’t just barrel into a corner expecting high levels of stiffness and ultimate grip; the Plus Four requires a little more thought and delicacy. Really push it, and the front end starts to feel a little vague. Grip and traction levels are decent, however – I’d expected the Stephen to feel a little wayward given the 258lb ft (295lb ft in the auto version) making its way to the rear wheels without traction control interference, buts it’s transferred to the tarmac with little fuss. There’s much more drama when you put your foot down in the B58-powered Plus Six, but that’s a story for another day.
Thankfully, Stephen’s exhaust system means the Plus Four doesn’t just sound like a BMW 330i when you’re giving it some. It’s not an especially sweet sound either, though; there’s an over-abundance of bass in the low to mid-range, and higher up, the ‘B48’ four sounds strained. Although, with a lot of mid-rev clouts and peak power arriving as low as 5000rpm, you don’t need to rev it out anyway.
As soon as you’re out of town, it’s worth pressing the ‘S+’ button, which livens up the exhaust and fiddles with the throttle mapping. Without it, the B48’s electronic throttle closes painfully slowly, giving unpleasant rev hang. There’s still a little hang without it, but nothing too offensive. The gear change is nicely slick, meanwhile, and the pedal spacing is reasonable enough for easy rev-matching.
The 0-62mph time of 5.2 seconds is modest in the sports car world these days, but you’re so exposed, that the Plus Four always feels fast. In any case, it’s a fun car to be in at any speed, enjoying the quizzical looks of others and the incredible view over the long, vented bonnet.
There’s nothing else quite like the Stephen. Yes, the boosty, bassy BMW engine does sit a little strangely in the mix, but the small Malvern Hills-based company has done a great job of modernising the Plus Four and making it much easier to live with without losing what attracts people into them in the first place.
Sure, the old one has even more character, but it’s slower and considerably less comfortable, feeling like it’s going to rattle itself to pieces on bumpier roads. The new one you could road trip in without any regrets. Other than leaving your sunscreen at home.
You are expected to part with a lot of money for one of these, though. The starting price for the manual is £62,995. In terms of conventional sports cars, the world’s your oyster for £60k, or you could take that money to Caterham and get something considerably faster. Or if fully sold on the retro thing, there’s the option of the Caterham Super Seven 1600, which is still a smidge quicker for £33,495, although it’s smaller than the Stephen, not as sophisticated and even less practical.
Opting for the new Plus Four isn’t a decision to be taken lightly, then. But it’s one I’d understand completely.