The cars : Rover 200/25 and MG ZR
Developed as a Metro replacement, on a shoestring and using a whole host of carry-over parts, the re-born Rover 200 should have possessed all the appeal of a damp weekend in the Lake District.
However, thanks to clever packaging and classy styling, it was really rather good – shame, though, that it was horrendously overpriced at launch…
Chrome equals prestige?
By 1995, Rover was definitely a car company on the up and up. The stylish 600 had demonstrated that Gordon Sked’s design team could turn the rather anonymous Honda Accord into a classy, elegant looking car. Depressingly for some observers, however, the following model, the 400 did not look nearly different enough from is Honda relative to stop some commentators from muttering ominous noises about the fact that independence at Rover was now in the past and that their future now lay in re-chroming Honda products.
These doomsayers did not count on the projects that Rover had been feverishly working on since the late Eighties, of which the first had appeared in February 1995, the MGF. Secondly there was the project to replace that most British of cars, the Rover Metro.
Since even before the R6 Metro appeared on the roads, Rover strategists knew that it was going to live a significantly shorter life than its predecessor. In their eyes, there was no way that the car could not: no matter how effective it was, using its new K-Series engine and reinvigorated Hydragas suspension, the bodyshell and therefore its internal packaging were by 1990, some fifteen years old. All rivals within the supermini market were now significantly larger and the little Metro could not hope to compete in the class that it once called its own.
Rover’s intended plan to replace the Metro was initially drawn up in late 1990 – and it centred on a plan to build a Honda, only superficially modified as had been the case with the Rover 600 before it. Following on from the SK1/SK2 naming series, the new Rover badged Honda would be called the SK3, but the skids were soon put under the plan, when the full cost implications of the plan were realised by British Aerospace. Rover needed a larger car, right at the upper end of the supermini class – and an alternative plan would need to be devised. Unlike the HHR Theta, which, at the time was being drawn up largely by Honda, it was always intended that any car designed to replace the Metro would be entirely British. Following on from the ill-fated SK3, the company began casting around for new ideas on how to replace the R6, and the conclusion was rapidly reached that the cost of developing an entirely new platform was out of the question – BAe were controlling the finances of the company and because Rover were still unable to generate the large profits that their masters expected of them – so, adapting an existing platform was the only feasible option.
With this proviso – and the fact that Rover only built one modern mid-sized platform, the R8 – the conclusion was quickly reached: the new car would need to be based on the existing car. Of course, given the all round competence of the R8 within its class, this was hardly seen as a drawback.
By May 1991, project R3 was approved to go into development – and the Metro’s replacement soon began a rapid gestation. Given that the project was given a budgetary limitation of £200 million (compare that of the £275 million of the Metro, back in 1980), Rover soon changed their plans for the upcoming small car. This was because a very interesting phenomenon was taking place on the market place, which had literally taken the company by surprise: that was the unexpected sales success of the R6 Rover Metro. Soon, they figured that to maximise their opportunities on the marketplace, the R3 should be taken slightly upmarket – away from the Ford Fiestas of this world and nearer to the Golf and Escort market. Certainly, given the styling success of the 600 and the fact that the new car was already emerging as a stylish model in clay, perhaps it would be the ideal vehicle to continue the “premium” branding values of the marque, giving people the option to buy a stylish Rover instead of a more humdrum Ford or VW. So the new car was quickly moved from its initial 1990 role of Metro replacement to a car that would supplant the Metro and also take over from lower models in the larger R8 range. The HHR would look after the job of replacing the top of 200/400 models; but most importantly, Rover could now see themselves moving away from direct competition with their rivals, offering up a range of small to medium cars that offered something different, whilst (in the interests of BAe and their shareholders) commanding a higher purchase premium. With this change in marketing and development focus, the project was renamed the R3.
During May and June 1991, David Saddington worked on defining his shape for the new car – in his mind, the R3 needed to appeal not only to traditional Rover customers, but also to the younger generation of hatchback buyers that above all, demanded style as well as ability in their car. As Saddington himself stated, acknowledging the elegance of the larger Rover 600, “We knew that the 600 was a good looker so there was plenty to work with. The challenge was taking its inherent British “Roverness” and stretching the boundaries to encompass a younger market.”
Certainly, Saddington and his team of graduate stylists produced bold concepts in double quick time – and because the majority of the company’s design resources a Canley were involved in the development of the MGF and HHR, the R3 style was very much the product of a small and focussed team. The fact that the R3 was constrained by the condition that it was built on a slightly shortened version of the R8 platform did not cause any problems for the team, because, apart from being stuck with the existing car’s (low) scuttle and front overhang, the platform was remarkably flexible.
The project was certainly beginning to cause some excitement within the company because, essentially, the R3 was emerging as a genuinely British design, with no Honda influence, whatsoever. After years of an increasingly all-pervading Honda influence, it was certainly a culture shock to design and plan a car for themselves, without having to consider the wishes of an increasingly dominant technical partner. So, it is with some irony, that Saddington plumped for a swoopy, almost coupe style design, with many design features redolent of that most Japanese of Rovers, the 600. It has to be said, that it was a good call to make, because the built around the trim proportions of the smaller car, these cues worked very successfully.
By July 1991, a quartet of quarter-scale clay models were produced which, barring a few minor details, reflected the finished concept. As Saddington himself concluded about this amazingly fertile period in the car’s conception, “It happened very quickly but the ingredients were all there. We had good front and rear tracks, lots of plan shape to visually shorten the front overhang and balance the short bob-tail rear, and a sporty, almost coupe-like profile.” Clearly very pleased with the R3 design, management approved the car for the next stage of its development programme and instructed the construction of a full-sized clay model of the best design. By October 1991, this process was complete and Saddington used the clay buck sell the design to various interested parties, both internal (the production engineers) and external (the customers) to Rover. It was soon found that the R3, although very much more avant garde than the existing R8, did not prove to be the headache that perhaps it might have done for the production engineers, even in the curvy form presented – and once they were satisfied, the model was used to gauge the reaction of the buying public.
Certainly, the reaction from the clinic was positive – and it was all the encouragement that Rover needed that they were on track for a remarkable renewal of the range as a whole, by the end of 1995. Now that the exterior design had proven itself in clinics and with the engineers, Rover needed to take stock of the situation.
The trouble was that although the R3 was undergoing a remarkably complication-free gestation, the company were also required to focus on many other projects – and has been traditionally been the case with Rover and its antecedents, they just did not have the resources to work on any number of parallel projects. In October 1991, the point at which the first full-size clay model was produced, the company were also working on the following cars: MGF, Rover 400 (hatchback and saloon model which was unique to Rover), Rover 600 (nearing completion), variations of the R8, including the Tomcat coupe and Tracer cabriolet – and Pathfinder, which would eventually evolve into the Land Rover Freelander. Something had to give, and although the exterior design of the R3 was frozen and signed-off for production in May 1992, the company made the decision to put the car’s development on hold for six months, pending the advancement of the other designed in development.
In the six month hiatus in the development programme between May and November 1992, Rover knuckled down to their other ongoing projects, but the company view was that the R3 was far from dead, even if it may have appeared that way at the time. Saddington ensured that every minutiae of the project was recorded for its eventual re-start. Of course, the official line touted by Saddington was that the project had advanced quickly and that the break did had no adverse effects on the R3 team at Canley, but of course, there was a degree of disappointment at the time, especially given that it appeared that the were having to give way to the very Japanese Theta.
As in the case of the Metro, which also was subjected to a break in its development programme, the six month pause in development meant that new rivals appeared (namely the Peugeot 306, in particular) which forced Rover to up their game and make a couple of late-programme changes, which perhaps would not have happened had the R3 enjoyed an uninterrupted development.
Initial plans for the R3 were to use the existing R8 dashboard carried over unchanged. This decision, again, was taken because of cost factors, but when the company decided to add a passenger airbag as an option, it was found that it would not fit in the existing moulding without significant modification. The cost of designing a new dashboard was no greater – so, thankfully, a new moulding was adopted
Rear suspension was also to be carried over unchanged from the R8, but given the excellence of the new Peugeot 306, Rover decided that the adoption of a new H-frame torsion set-up was essential to remain competitive on the marketplace.
If it seems puzzling that Rover should be designing the R3 to be competitive with the larger Peugeot 306, when it was designed as a supermini-class competitor, it is because Rover were now intent on pushing the car into the next market – and price it accordingly.
Where did that leave the company in the lower parts of the market? Rover decided late in the day to keep the R6 in production for as long as it made financial sense for them to do so – now that it was selling well… the market was shifting upwards again, the R3 would find itself in the larger end of the supermini market, the R6 below it in what the marketers were now calling the “sub-B class”.
The marketing department at Rover were now going into overdrive and throughout 1993 they formulated their 1995 plan. The R3 would indeed be used to replace the lower versions in the old Rover 200 range, but the pricing would be pushed further upmarket, away from the mass end of the market. One cosmetic adjustment made towards the end of the R3 programme to reflect this push upmarket was instigated by BMW: the liberal use of chrome for the grille. There were two reasons for this: the styling treatment was considered redolent of Munich’s own, but also the chrome was considered to add a little more class to the youthful new design.
Until 1994, the R3 was to be named the Rover 100 (as the R6 had been overseas), but with the emphatic push upmarket came a new name – 200 – signifying the fact that the R3 was now viewed as a genuine Golf class competitor. There were two reasons for this re-positioning – Rover were very confident in the design and engineering quality of the R3 and decided that it would easily stand against the Volkswagen Golf and Peugeot 306, despite its less than generous accommodation. Market research had shown that younger audience Rover were aiming at were not so concerned with rear seat room, as much as boot space – and so it was thus: the R3 was given a commodious in preference to a large rear seat.
Secondly, increased prices meant higher profits and Rover were all about generating profits during the ‘Nineties. “We’re not looking for volume sales with the new 200, so we’re not price chasing the opposition”, said Rover at the car’s launch on the 29th November 1995.
Rover were highly confident of the success that the new 200 would achieve – and it definitely showed in the pricing of the new car: not only above the supermini rivals the car was conceived to fight, but also higher than its Golf class rivals, too. John Towers reflected the company’s newfound confidence by stating that the pricing of the car was absolutely right, and that if the company’s UK market share dropped as a result, it would please him, as it would release capacity to increase sales in export markets, whilst maintaining UK profits. Rover’s reputation with customers had improved since the late 1980s on the back of the success of the previous 200 and a dramatically improved dealer network – he waned to build on this by ensuring that that a perceived move upmarket resulted. Towers put it in these terms, “If you ask a Ford driver what they drive, by and large they won’t say, ‘I drive a Ford’. They will say they drive an Escort, Fiesta, Scorpio or whatever. Ask a Mercedes driver the same question and he or she will simply say, ‘I drive a Mercedes’. The marque is more important than the model. This is where I want Rover to be: right now we’re on the bridge where our customers will say, ‘I drive a Rover 214’.”
When launched, the 200 was available in 1.4 and 1.6-litre K-Series engined versions, both of which received minor modifications in order to extract a little more power. The 1.4-litre version was boosted from an already impressive 95bhp to 102bhp, which compared with favourably with the 90bhp of the 1.6-litre Ford Escort and Peugeot 306. In engineering terms, the Rover 200 certainly had these rivals more than matched. In addition to the “cooking” models, there was also a 2.0-litre L-Series powered diesel version (surprisingly rapid, if a little unrefined) and the top of the range Vi model.
The Vi was Rover’s take on the GTi genre, but unlike the rest of the opposition, it remained visually unmodified compared with the rest of the range, apart from a subtle lowering of the suspension and larger wheels and tyres. At the heart of the new car lay the VVC version of the 1.8-litre K-Series engine found in the newly launched MGF. The system allowed for the infinite adjustment of the engine’s valve timing, which maximised low-end torque as well as top end power. Imagine it as a lower budget, but highly effective version of Honda’s VTEC system – resulting in a more than adequate 143bhp power output. Ironically, the specific output of the 200Vi was a somewhat less impressive achievement at 79bhp/litre, than the standard 214 at 73bhp/litre. However, the Rover 200Vi made up for its power deficit compared with its GTi rivals, by being appreciably lighter than all of them.
Autocar magazine tested the 200Vi against rivals from Ford and Alfa Romeo and came away impressed, the performance, thanks to its light weight, being particularly lauded, “In reality, it’s the Rover which proves easily the swiftest thanks to an unlikely secret weapon – its weight. Throw in the Vi’s close-ratio gearbox and its low overall gearing and it becomes an inevitability that it is going to sprint the hardest.” The road test also declared the Rover a winner almost without reservation, which was a new phenomenon for the company, as they did not have a particularly distinguished record in the hot hatchback market. “So the 200 wins. Not because it is any more fun than the Alfa or more user friendly than the Ford, but because it more successfully blends all aspects important to a good hot hatch in a classy shape that is beautifully made. All it lacks, as ever, is space.”
Interestingly, the company’s plan was for the performance version of the 200 to be called the 200VVC, like the MGF, but when the boot badges were made up, the likeness with “200 WC” was too close for comfort…
Certainly, the new 200 impressed the testers and the conclusions made by Autocar magazine summed up this impressive, but flawed package. “The new 200 has enough ability and more than enough charm to deserve not to fall victim to ill-advised packaging. It offers a genuinely attractive and markedly more able alternative for buyers bored with the predictable Ford Escort/Vauxhall Astra mainstream and at a price that seems high only on initial acquaintance. And in the face of fine new rivals such as the Renault Megane and FIAT Brava, the Rover is set to compete and compete well. Of its opponents, only the Peugeot 306 with its impeccable chassis, clever packaging and great looks is an unapproachably better car. Even so, the Rover still manages to ask more questions of the 306’s powertrain and build quality than I’d imagine Peugeot would care to answer. I worry, however, about the limited interior space. It shouldn’t undermine such an otherwise fine product but it just might. Wonderful this world may be; fair it ain’t.”
Rover found that sales of the 200 began briskly, but as John Towers rather prophetically predicted, its price did prove to be a barrier to sales; most buyers failed to understand the message that Rover tried to deliver with the 200. As far as buyers were concerned, the 200 was an Escort class competitor and a cramped one, to boot. Plus, the benefits of the Rover 200’s advanced K-Series engine with its high specific output were largely lost to the man in the street: engine size mattered – and a 1.6-litre car was always going to be a better bet than a 1.4, even if it were less powerful. Rover soon cottoned on to this way of thinking – and badged all their cars by their “series” number, instead of the more precise series/capacity way they had done in the past (i.e., “Rover 214Si” became simply “Rover 200”). It probably helped that the system also distanced Rover that bit further from BMW.
As reported by the SMMT, the sales of the Rover 200 remained a level throughout its early life – and there can be no denying the fact that the high purchase price of the car was hampering private as well as fleet sales. The other problem for Rover was that within its class, the Rover 200 was not the only “premium” branded hatchback: the Volkswagen Golf maintained an unassailable lead in that department.
Rover 200: UK sales
The 200’s lack of significant sales success soon led to a re-think by Rover – and their masters, BMW. Although the car was performing adequately, the idea that it was quite good enough to command the price premium that Rover were asking was seen as stretching the company’s credibility a little too far. As a result of this, in 1998, Rover started work on a light facelift of the 200, in order to bring it into line with the upcoming Rover 75.
Naming the car was easy – Rover’s BMW developed new small car was still a few years away, but already the plan was to name it the Rover 35 and 55, so logically, the 200 and 400 – which bracketed the new car should therefore be called the 25 and 45. Straightforward, certainly, and tied in well with the R40 (Rover 75), which was currently being readied for production. To bring the 25 in line with the 75, the facelift also extended to a new headlamp arrangement, which mirrored the bigger car – a quad arrangement that somehow managed to look both smarter and more individual than the outgoing arrangement.
The significant event at this point was a price realignment, which would take the Rover 25 back into the supermini sector, where it was initially designed to compete. Rover strategists now believed in the run-up to the launch of the 25, that now the Metro had finally been discontinued, following an inglorious death at the hands of NCAP, a more realistic pricing policy needed to be adopted by Rover. The fact that the division was now losing money at an alarming rate also added to the need to increase desirability and therefore, sales of the range. When the Rover 25 was shown to the press on the 6th October 1999, there was already an underlying sense of panic at Longbridge because the sales of the existing 200 and 400 models were sliding at an alarming rate. It did not, however, stop the company being quietly confident that the new 25 would stop the rot and at the very least, maintain sales of the car until the new models were launched (then scheduled for a 2002 model year launch).
Engineering changes were limited to re-tuning the suspension in order to deliver more “feel” and a sportier drive – younger people demanded this from their cars and it was the youth market that the re-focussed car was aimed at. In fact, Rover claimed that the entire range now possessed better handling precision and ride control than the outgoing Rover 200Vi – Rover made this claim because, basically, the Rover 25 adopted the chassis set-up of this car almost unchanged. Apart from the tightening up of the chassis settings, remarkably little else was altered – and one can draw one of two conclusions from this fact: a) the Rover 200 was so good that it needed little titivation in order to remain competitive or b) BMW did not release a huge amount of capital with which to facelift the 200, knowing that their own new car was but three years away.
Either way, with the price cuts that came with the car, the Rover 25 lived to fight another day – and it has to be said that as a Vauxhall Corsa/Ford Fiesta competitor, it made more sense than an Astra/Focus rival.
However, events overtook the car – and following BMW’s sale of the company to Phoenix, reputation of the company, and more importantly – sales, took yet another slide. Rover’s 25 was now on life support, and it has to be said, most observers thought that the Rover 25 and 45 would go on to die a quiet death. They did not figure on the talents of John Towers’ team, comprising most notably of, Rob Oldaker and Peter Stevens. Just over a year after the launch of the Rover 25 – and only months after the BMW sale of Rover, the new company, MG Rover announced a triumvirate of badge engineered Rovers, all wearing the famous MG Octagon.
On the 30th January 2001, the three revised cars were wheeled out to the press – and the revitalised Rover 25, known internally as the MG X30 certainly looked as though it meant business. Rob Oldaker, MG Rover’s Director of product development put it in these terms, “These are uncompromising drivers’ cars that have taut handling and steering and sit low and ride firmly”. This message was certainly at odds with that of BMW, who had Rover’s cars exhibiting pillow soft ride quality and wallowy handling. Why such a turn around in ideals? MG Rover knew that their cars needed an injection of image and the MG name certainly was not a liability: what would have killed it for Rover though, would have been a simple badge engineering exercise – buyers were now too sophisticated for such a practice. Hence the need for more “classic” Rovers, but focussed MG versions – and the company were now in a position to offer both: the Rover 25 could be left pretty much as it was – it was an effective supermini, whereas the MG X30 would offer a driving experience more akin to its GTi rivals.
Chassis changes were abundant and the differences between the MG and Rover versions of the 25 were now quite marked. The styling of the MG X30 was also re-worked most effectively by Peter Stevens, being treated to new more aggressive bumpers, lower ride height, larger diameter wheels and bold colour schemes. Did it work? Well, certainly, the MG version looked a more convincing hot hatchback than either the 200Vi or BRM models that preceded it.
Keen pricing and a realistic marketing programme followed the announcement of the original X30 – and in the summer of 2001, the productionised version, the MG ZR was announced with a starting price of just £9,995 for the 102bhp 1.4-litre version.
It certainly showed that MG Rover were keen to extract as much as they could from the ageing car…
This inventive thinking continued to manifest itself even later in the car’s life. More than a little aware of the ageing buyer profile for the Rover-badged car, a more youth orientated version made an appearance in July 2003, when MG Rover announced the Streetwise. Starting from under £10,000, this new version drew its inspiration from the contemporary trend for urban warrior “soft-roaders”: cars such as the Audi Allroad, Volvo XC70 and Renault Scénic RX4 – destined for a life on the city streets, but which look like they have the attitude to cut it off the beaten track. Indeed, back in 1991 Rover had themselves commissioned ADC to build a car of this type, the Metro-based Scout, but the project was cancelled following the BMW takeover.
The Streetwise followed the established formula, with large swathes of impact-absorbing grey plastic body-cladding, a jacked-up ride height and a set of purposeful roof bars which hinted at a variety of energetic leisure pursuits (surely an oxymoron?). However, for all its tough-guy looks, the Streetwise remained resolutely front-wheel-drive only, so it perhaps had more in common with those pioneers of the breed, the Matra-Simca Rancho and Renault Rodeo, while clearly lacking their more utilitarian bodywork. Inside, the Streetwise featured blue-faced dials and revised switchgear, while buyers could opt for either two individual rear seats separated by a centre console, or a more conventional rear bench seat.
The Streetwise also allowed designers to experiment with a new look, safe in the knowledge they were only playing with a “niche” model. Rover’s new badging was shown on this car, aligning it nicely with the CityRover, launched at the same time.
In conclusion, the Rover 200 was certainly a good car when it launched – and is significant in the fact that it was the first British designed Rover mainstream car to appear since the Austin Montego. As a replacement for the Metro, the 200 would surely have been a class leader, but unfortunately, in the class above, it was somewhat outgunned by the opposition. The excellent engines, enviable body style and competitive chassis were highlights, but where it failed to shine, however, and this was by no fault of its own – and that was because Rover management saddled the promising car with an excessive price. To carry off such a marketing ploy successfully, any company has to either offer a top-drawer product, or be in a position that their client base will pay through the nose for the privilege of owning such a car. Mercedes-Benz managed such a feat with their A-Class model, because they managed to offer both a radical product and a three pointed star on the bonnet; Audi did the same with their A3 model, but again, on the back of a slick design and a bonnet badge with rock-solid marque values. Rover was moving in the right direction, but it was still too soon for them to push upmarket quite as ambitiously as they did – and that cost the company sales.
The Rover 25 was perhaps the car the 200 should always have been and the MG ZR was the hot hatchback that the 200Vi wanted to be.
Thanks to Declan Berridge for his additions to the piece