Drive Story : Rover 800 // to the south of France and back
3000 miles in ten days of hard driving across Europe: obviously, the car to take needs to be fast, comfortable and reliable. So why take a Rover 800?
Keith Adams explains why he did it, and why he came to the conclusion that it is now finally time for all of the Rover 800’s detractors to accept that it really is a good car…
Setting the record straight
FOUR little digits: D962. They mean nothing in isolation. And yet, they allow me to recall a 20-minute drive that finally proved that the Rover Vitesse Sport Coupé was not only a fast car, but also an agile and grippy driver’s car. I already knew that the 800 Coupé was good, but until I really opened up the Coupé on that road, I was unaware of just how good the 800 could be. The three days of continental driving leading up to this point had been interesting enough, thanks to a mixture of fast motorways, sweeping routes nationale and stunning scenery, but they paled into insignificance compared to that drive…
All this seems a world away from when we first arrived in Calais; overcast and drizzly, the ten-days of unplanned, un-mapped travelling that lay ahead did not hold too much promise. The plan was simple; armed with passport, some currency, Mastercard and good breakdown cover (this is a Rover 800, after all), we would head South, find some interesting roads and see just how good Rover’s engineers were at turning a dynamic pup into a car of real ability.
Little new was learned on the 600-mile blast down the Autoroute to the Midi-Pyrénées . The Rover had already proved itself as a competent motorway cruiser back in the UK, helped by its straight-line stability, talkative steering, supportive seating and effective climate control. It was some way from motorway greatness, thanks to above-average wind noise and that droning engine note, but all-in-all, these latter points were small niggles, given the car’s ability to cover long distances in one shot, without inducing tiredness in the driver.
However, by the time we had crossed the Massif Central, defined by the home of Michelin – Clermont-Ferrand – the weather began to brighten, and the character of this vast country changed. The largely characterless scenery up to this point was replaced by an altogether more impressive vista. To the left, the scenery remained fairly flat and unremarkable, but to the right, the extinct volcano range, les volcanes d’Auverne, clearly dominated by Le Puy de Dome could not be missed. Ahead, lay the Midi-Pyrénées – a dark and brooding mountain range – and as we pressed on, the anticipation of an exciting drive grew and grew.
The drive south continued, and after eight hours and 600-miles (try that average in the UK on a weekday!) we called it a day. Off the Autoroute, rural France is easily found this far South. In our case, we found it in a restaurant/hotel near Rodez, where a small but comfortable bedroom, a superb evening meal, and that indefinable feeling of being a million miles away from home could be found for under 100 Euros a night. Looking at the Michelin map, we planned tomorrow’s less frantic journey to Alès, where we had arranged to base ourselves for a few days exploring. What the map did not tell us, was what lay in store…
It was from this point on that the Coupé really acquitted itself. What the Michelin map does not reveal about the drive from Rodez to Alès is that you run alongside the Gorges du Tarn, an ancient valley carved deep into the mountains by the Tarn River. The way it presented itself to us is now etched deeply into my memory. Having left the hilly A75 Autoroute we headed for Alès along some fairly routine D-Roads. The Rover continued to impress with its incisive steering and excellent body control on this twisting B-class road, ample power and torque assisting with the regular uphill sections. Having dealt with this section, we passed through a small village, turned a corner, and were then presented with a truly stunning sight that compelled us to stop and get out of the car for a further look.
Ahead lay a downhill section of road, which was straight out of the movies… narrow, tight, and punctuated with hairpins. On the right lay… nothing. Well, there was the other side of the valley – about a kilometre away – the Tarn river at the bottom (also, it seemed, about a kilometre down), and on the river bank was a village. The scale was amazing: the village looked tiny; a real Micro Machines moment. The silence of the moment was punctuated by the distant sound of a car being screwed to within an inch of its life… even from this distance, I could tell what it was: an Impreza. And from the rate it was climbing the other side of the gorge, it was obvious that the driver was enjoying himself. Soon it would be my turn.
Lacet exited, it was time to really go for it: taking first gear, I mashed the throttle… the acceleration was vivid, seriously pushing us into the backs of our seats. First – second – third – overrun – second brake, brake, brake and first again.
After the small matter of photographing the moment (just how the hell does one capture such a majestic scene?) we jumped back in the Vitesse, took a deep breath and headed downhill. One thing that always concerned me about the car was the size of its brakes: they look tiny behind the 17-inch Roversport wheels, and I had reservations that such puny looking things would allow the car to stop as well as it could accelerate. Mental images of a fading brake pedal and smoking pads meant that initially, I attacked the hill with a degree of circumspection. Accelerating hard towards the first right-handed hairpin (lacet in French-speak), I braked early and progressively, allowing myself to get a feel for the road and slowly build confidence. The first impression of the hairpin was how well the car handled this acute turn; almost zero body roll and a steering wheel rim full of feel. One thing was certain, this was no ordinary Rover 800. As we plunged towared the next lacet, I left the braking a little later – still strong and consistent – and turned-in a little quicker. The story was still overwhemingly good. Lacet exited, it was time to really go for it: taking first gear, I mashed the throttle… the acceleration was vivid, seriously pushing us into the backs of our seats. First – second – third – overrun – second – brake, brake, brake and first again. Over and over the process was repeated. Always allowing something of a margin under braking, the Vitesse really handled that road.
The road continued to plunge down the wall of the gorge, but the brakes’ ceaseless stopping power and the downhill thrust on the straights really did impress. By the time we reached the bottom of the gorge, the adreneline was freely flowing, and yet, we had still been at no more than seven-tenths. And still we were days away from that drive…
After our indoctrination to the world of driving in the mountains, with its massive buzz, the next few days were something of an anti-climax from a driver’s perspective. We toured the Languedoc and Corniche regions, sticking to the speed limits, allowing the Vitesse to relax. 40, 50-mile journeys were shrugged off in the way you or I would dismiss a walk to the corner shop. Notable strong points were the Vitesse’s fuel consumption, which usually averaged 35mpg, and its rareness. In the ten days on the continent, we only spotted seven other Rover 800s (XX and R17 flavours) and no other Coupés whatsoever. This would, perhaps, account for this underrated car receiving quite a few glances from other drivers. I would not go as far as saying that they were admiring glances (as I don’t know); perhaps those that noticed it were wondering what the hell it was.
The enjoyment gleaned from this tour of the southwestern routes nationale were derived from the scenery and location, not the car. We touched on the Mediterranean at Carry-le-Rouet, and drank in the slightly laid-back atmosphere of this resort.
After this relaxing sojourn, we headed west, towards the Côte d’Azur. Boredom and a long straight autoroute led to me trying to find the answer to that age old question: “what’ll she do, mister?” We had been using France’s wonderful toll-motorways for days now, and it seemed that the consistent theme was one of emptiness. It seemed to us that during work time and away from Paris, the French really do not use these pay-as-you-go motorways at all, and as a result, they make the perfect antedote to the frustration of the UK’s overcrowded network. Having also seen only one police car in days, allied with the fact that most southerners who were on that autoroute, seemed to be travelling at between 100-120mph (the french limit is 81mph), I decided to join in the fun…
Without changing down, I floored the throttle… 110, 120, 130… 135. I had pegged the BMW. Obviously, he was not flat out. Surprisingly, the Vitesse was still pulling quite hard, and I began to reel him in. An indicated 145, and acceleration finally began to tail off…
The sun was shining and on this arrow-straight stretch of the A55, we could see at least three kilometres ahead – my indicated 100mph seemed ridiculously slow. There was very little traffic, but what there was, were being driven with the impeccable lane discipline that seems to be a French national trait. Time to go. A Spanish registered BMW 323Ci overtook me as though I was standing still; I was interested to see how my Rover would compare with the German icon. Without changing down, I floored the throttle… 110, 120, 130… 135. I had pegged the BMW. Obviously, he was not flat out. Surprisingly, the Vitesse was still pulling quite hard, and I began to reel him in. An indicated 145, and acceleration finally began to tail off. Even at this speed, the Vitesse still felt solid, safe and secure. There were no high speed wobbles, no instablility, and most reassuringly, the noise levels were not that much higher than they were at 100. Now I began to wonder, whether the 150mph speedometer would be enough. At an indicated 150, we now passed the BMW, and still the acceleration came. OK, by this time, you could see each mph added one by one, but the car had yet to cry enough…
Up ahead, I could see the beginnings of a curve ahead. No problem on a motorway when you’re travelling at 80mph, but a real concern at these speeds. Glancing down, I could now see that the speedometer was no longer of any use, as we had long since passed the last speed indicator on it. Time to back off then, even though the speed had yet to completely level off… As our speed decreased, it became apparent just how much the noise levels had built up. Pegging back to a more secate 130mph, aural intrusion suddenly seemed minimal; it was as though were were going 70mph in a Lexus LS430. Perhaps it had been (a lack of) aerodynamics that had played a part in the Rover’s maximum; certainly, the wind noise was a major factor.
The bend looming up ahead was shrugged off at 130… the high speed poise of this car was noted, and the positive points tally continued to pile up.
After this high speed run, we dropped off the Autoroute and followed the coastal road from St.Tropez to Monaco. The reality was nowhere near as good as my own expectations, although this was probably down to timing. Having decided to run along the Côte d’Azur during the Easter weekend, I should have been less surprised and disappointed than I was by the volume of traffic there. Perhaps this would have been a good thing, had the scenery been exceptional, but the weather had turned for the worse, and the run through Nice and Cannes proved quite charmless. In fact, it held little more interest than a run along Blackpool Promenade in October. However, it was obvious from the quality of the locally registered cars, that the area attracted the rich… and this was before we arrived at Monaco.
It was late afternoon by the time we neared the Principality, and it had been a lifelong ambition of mine to drive around the racing track; and I promised myself I would do at least three laps when I got there. The road into Monaco might have been impressive had we been travelling at more than 15mph, but it seemed that many, many other people had the same idea as us. Still, the slow pace allowed us to enjoy the scenery as we traversed the road that had been carved into the rocky coastline, allowing ourselves to enjoy an unhindered view of the Mediterranean to the right and Monaco’s harbour ahead of us. Most of the traffic melted away once we hit the “shopping” district of Monte Carlo, so the task of finding the racetrack would at least be less stressful than it could have been.
Having made two laps of the Principality, and deciding that extremely expensive cars aside, it held less interest than the centre of London, we settled on following the signs for the Casino. Once this tactic had been decided upon, we soon found ourselves on territory made familiar by Grand Prix coverage on the television and countless laps on the Playstation 2. Well, I had not come to Monaco for any other reason than to drive around the track, so ignoring Casino Square, we pointed the Rover’s long nose down the steep hill to Mirabeau. This blind right hander is at the bottom of a steep and bumpy slope, which manages to bring any F1 car to life. At the more modest speed of 30mph, the road may as well have been resurfaced, so well did the stiffly sprung Rover handle it. Round the corner at Mirabeau and – whoops – parked Audi A4 on the racing line. Into the Grand Hotel hairpin, followed by the two right handers before the tunnel.
Monaco itself may have not impressed us too much, but the slow tour around the track evoked stong memories. Before the entrance to the tunnel (Senna crashed here in 1988, when instructed to back off his race pace – he never made the mistake again), through the tunnel and onto the downhill drag to the harbour front (Karl Wendlinger nearly lost his life in 1994 after losing control here and hitting the tyre barrier side on) past the swimming pool and into the gasworks complex (it was here in 1992 that Nigel Mansell gave his all trying to pass Senna – including almost going over the Brazilian – after a late unplanned pitstop), up the start/finish straight – whoops! Watch the speed humps – and onto another lap. Everywhere one looks, memories come flooding back. And thanks to Bernie Ecclestone, the Monaco road surface, where it is used for the Grand Prix, is simply the nicest I have ever encountered…
Driving uphill and arriving at Casino Square, I try chancing my arm parking right in front of the hallowed Casino. Stopped by one of its many concierges, I explained in French that I wanted to photograph the car alongside a line of exotica which contained a Aston Martin Vanquish, Bentley Arnage and Ferrari 456GT. Sadly, he wasn’t having any of it, so we parked over the road. Indeed, if you are into supercars, you simply must go to Monaco, as we spotted (and heard) our first Ferrari Enzo (Schumacher out for a pint of milk?). For that alone, the trip was worth it.
After Monaco, we pressed on up the coast and settled in San Remo. We would be back…
The next day was a remarkable one; for one, we managed to top the Gorge du Tarn experience several times, and encompassed that drive. Travelling back into France and cutting a Northerly path from Menton into the Alps, it soon became apparent that these mountains easily topped anything I have experience before. Once the traffic cleared (and that did not take long), we climbed almost uninterrupted for an hour. The further inland we travelled, the steeper and narrower the roads became. It was time to test the Vitesse again.
Unlike before, this was to be a hard and fast uphill run, but like the Tarn experience, it would encompass many short straights, punctuated by first gear lacets. Exiting a lacet, I decided this would be time – I used first instead of second gear for the turn – and just after the apex of the corner, holding 4,000rpm, I planted the accelerator. Immediately apparent was Vitesse’s grip: unlike any other 800 to pass through my hands, this one possesses a TorSen differential, which although I do not profess to fully understand technically, the implication of it on this corner was plain to see. With the turbo pulling, engine singing, exiting the bend with half a turn of lock, the car did not do what would have been expected (i.e., plough on). No, it seemed as though it would understeer, as the front began to wash out, and then just as suddenly, it felt as though the outer front wheel developed a massive amount of extra grip, dug itself in and pulled the car around the corner without a trace of slide.
…it seemed as though it would understeer, as the front began to wash out, and then just as suddenly, it felt as though the outer front wheel developed a massive amount of extra grip, dug itself in and pulled the car around the corner without a trace of slide…
Impressive. Now pointing in a straight line, the top of first gear is almost immediately hit, and progress was temporarily halted by the barp-barp-barp as the T16 hits its rev limter. Change up to second, thrust in the back again, barp-barp-barp, and third. As before, a big stop for the next lacet, only this time I would attack the corner more fully understanding the effects of the trick differential. Down to first, hold the revs, at the apex, and wham… full throttle, no slide, total grip, exit the corner like we had been flung out of a catapult. Only this time I was ready… straight into second, then third. This car is quick. Next lacet, and the process is repeated, only that I’m trying to analyze the car a little more closely. Fast, grippy exit, followed by short straight, and it becomes apparent that as clever as this Rover is, it still cannot break the laws of physics: this hill is steeper, and the lacet was not quite as tight, so on full song, there is a degree of torque steer not felt before. It still feels planted, but one is aware that this is a car near the limit of its development, no doubt hampered by limited suspension travel (something that cannot be disguised no matter how good the damping is).
Still, it is only a small chink in the Vitesse’s armour, and one you would find only if you were pushing very hard indeed. Again, we pushed up the Alps, and it seemed as though they would never end – each straight, no matter how short would be eaten up by the Rover, its T16 power unit obviously revelling in its supply of nice, cold, fresh air. None of the corners encountered could be described as quick, as the road seemed to be made entirely from lacets joined by short straights (picture the beginning of “The Italian Job” and you’re not too far off), but traction out of slow corners, as well its brakes, continued to impress. However, no car could take this punishment all day, and it was decided that it was time to slow down and back off… After a short stop at the Col de Torini (known to fans of the Monte Carlo rally), we pressed on, continuing at a more sedate pace. Not slow, but not quick either. Comfortable. Something this Rover seems to do extremely well, thanks a solid delivery of bucketfuls of mid-range torque.
Heading back towards civilisation, we joined the D962 in order to make our way to Grenoble. Again, taking it reasonably easy, we enjoy the scenery as the road carves its way through the Alps. Nowhere is the Vitesse happier, than on this smooth sweeping road, which offers up a combination of sinuous dual- and twisty single-carriageways through some of the most picturesque villages this side of a chocolate box. It was here that the Vitesse proved itself, and gave us one of the drives…
The Monte Carlo registered Audi S6 Avant came up fast. Probably too fast; it seemed that the driver did not want to be too cautious going through the villages, obviously in a hurry to get wherever he was going. When the road opened out to a small straight after the village, I pulled over to the right in order to give him plenty of room to pass, mindful of the fact that we still had a couple of hundred miles to go to Grenoble. However, he misunderstood my road positioning, and pulled over to pass without checking ahead. A motorbike was heading towards us, so he braked, and pulled in behind me again… at the next straight, he was past, accompanied with plenty of fist-waving and a none too friendly toot of the horn. Never mind, he had a clear road ahead of him now.
I let him pull away, content to go my own pace, thinking that I would not see him again. However, it soon became apparent that his pace was not actually much faster than mine, so in the name of experimentation, I wondered how long it would take me to catch him. Driving at seven-tenths again, I moseyed up to him. Interesting. The roads were getting twistier; solid rockface on the right, and a river to the left at the bottom of a ravine. It was mostly third and fourth gear stuff, but seemed to be getting tighter as the miles passed by. Now firmly ensconced behind the S6, it became obvious that the Monégasque behind the wheel was aware of my presence, and decided to speed up. Interesting.
I decided that I needed to know what the difference was between a four wheel drive German supersaloon and my humble Rover 800 actually was. After all, his car packed 340bhp, offered the advantages of traction control and electronic brake force distribution. In other words, it was a junior supercar in a practical estate car body. However, it was saddled with a 1720kg kerb weight, which made my 1450kg Rover seem sylph-like in comparison. The road was tightening some more, and now comprised of a series of unending second and third gear corners. Game on.
The Audi driver was now really going for it; using both sides of the road, and using full throttle whenever he could. He really tried to make a break for it. And yet… he wasn’t getting away.
The Audi driver was now really going for it; using both sides of the road, and using full throttle whenever he could. He really tried to make a break for it. And yet… he wasn’t getting away. In fact, although he could pull out maybe half a car length on the exit of any corner, the Rover would slowly come back once the turbo was fully on song. Under braking, there seemed to be little in it, and through the corners themselves, the Rover was right there with him. It was getting to be hard work though; all concentration on the road ahead – perhaps driving at nine-tenths now. The Audi ahead was being positively thrown into the bends now, and looked (from my vantage point) to have great body control. The Vitesse did not struggle for grip, either, and its body control was also of a very high standard. The talkative steering helped no end, and once again, I thanked myself for not taking the trip in a V6 800 (with that horrid feel-less steering that comes with it).
The road was largely smooth, but what imperfections there were, did not throw the Vitesse offline at all. The most impressive aspect of it’s performance, though, was its traction on the exit of any corner, and this ability was absolutely down to that TorSen diff; going through the tight turns, you could feel its effects as the car tracked almost aggressively around. If anything, there was some looseness to be felt when throttling off mid-bend, but it was consistant and progressive enough to encourage us not to try transgressing the limit. It was an impressive performance.
The Audi pressed on with us in his wake; corner after corner, he could not get away. One could sense that given a straight of more than, say, 400 metres, he would be away, but the road presented no such opportunity to him. The Rover was in the zone, as was I, and it felt wonderful… not for a long time have I become so fully engrossed behind the wheel, but on this day, on this road, and in this car, I was completely focused. However, after about fifteen minutes of this game, I backed off. It was time to let the Audi get on his way, without getting too silly, and although we were having fun, the road was getting tighter, and visbility was getting more compromised. It would be nice to think that Audi-man, perhaps, came away with more of an understanding that not all Rovers were of the “slow and steady” variety.
After this, the rest of the trip was taken at a more sedate pace. And a further 1,200 miles were covered on the Autoroutes of France and Belgium, and the Autobahnen of Germany. After the Alpine adventure, the Vitesse’s gearbox became noticeably more noisy, and it was decided that full throttle would now be limited to fifth gear. A planned trip to the Nürburgring was called off; instead we spent the day relaxing in Aachen, drinking coffee, eating schnitzel and buying scale car models. The relaxing return leg passed by too quickly, and luckly, 80-100mph on the motorway is little more than a canter in this car, thanks to its reasonably tall gearing. By the time we arrived back home, the gearbox had not deteriorated further, although it would subsequently be removed for a full rebuild. (Consider that for a moment: 48,000 miles and it needs a gearbox rebuild. Would an Audi, BMW or Saab fail in this way? Never!)
Conclusions to be drawn from this journey? Why didn’t Rover push this car harder on the marketplace? It is obvious that the Vitesse Sport Coupé is a car of wide ranging ability: fast in a straight line, it handles very well indeed, is beautiful inside, and looks good (although not from the front, where the use of XX-style headlamps smacks of laziness). OK, it was powered by an engine that could trace its ancestry back to the Morris Oxford, but thanks to ceaseless development, it more than delivered the goods. It is also very commodious; four adults easily fit in, and the boot is as large as any other 800. The main criticism would seem to be average build quality (some of the fittings are not as solid as those in German rivals) and a gearbox that although feels good in operation, was never designed to handle 200PS.
By 1997, Rover were almost giving these cars away; I remember discounts made on these, that would see new owners driving one away for well under £20,000. That was a lot of car for the money, and one wonders why the roads are not littered with them today; especially considering just how accomplished they were on the road – if only Rover had got the message out successfully. Still, the Vitesse Coupé can be our little secret and you won’t even need to take it to the D962, and exercise it to the limit, to see just how good it is – although if you end up having one of those drives in it, you’re going to have the time of your life.