Essay : Why I don’t love the Rover R8…

Ardent supporter of BMC>MG products, man and boy, Steven Ward decides to call time on the Rover R8…

Is he right to do so?


Was it as good as it’s cracked up to be?

The Rover 200/400 is a fine and worthy choice, no doubt about it. It showed that Longbridge could finally design, market and sell a class-leading car with no inherent issues or obvious flaws.

We all know the qualities that marked out this car as being largely excellent; contemporary, clean styling, both inside and out, that harmoniously included advanced aerodynamics matched with reliable, modern engines, which were as refined as they were powerful and coupled to faultless gearboxes.

So near, so far…

Inside, cosseting ergonomics and seats from the 800 were all there, along with a stress reducing low waistline. Excellent build oozed from every surface, while quality was apparent in all aspects of build and design. Electrical gremlins were banished for good, resulting in life-long sales that were increasingly strong with resultantly good residuals.

So what that Rover progressively took the quality out and failed to improve its flaws? Rover did improve its home grown star of the show, the K-series, mid life and kept pace with fashionable passive safety features in its defence.

So what else marks this Longbridge product out from its predecessors? Well, flying in the face of popular opinion, I’m going to focus on its negatives – actually, make that three negatives.

Not as big as it should be

Let us first get into the car shall we? Or rather step down into it. By blindly using the Honda format of a low car, Longbridge made life slightly difficult for its core customers – the aged. Step down from a Maestro to a R8 and see exactly what I mean. A low-set driving position might appear sporty, but practical it isn’t. So, while the ergonomics worked wholesale in Rover 800, the R8 being shorter, cramped its rear seat passengers – despite that long-in-class wheelbase.

The Rover (R8) 200 proved to be a massive hit for the company right from launch

If you were over 6ft, headroom was cramped (especially with the slide ‘n’ tilt) and the adjustable (for rake) wheel still rubbed your thighs. Rover made a slight concession in this area by reshaping the seat squab. However, this was later offset by the flat steering wheel that was necessitated by the airbag. Also, with that airbag came another round of cost cutting.

From Honda to GM

The delightfully engineered (Honda?) seat height adjustment was replaced with a GM cast-off. This added even more height to the driver’s seat with no increase in foot room for the rear passenger. Here is the rub though: seat height adjustment always added height over the non-adjustable chairs – infuriating for those taller than average.

The advanced rear suspension arrangement cost valuable square inches in the boot too. The low waistline combined with a high axle line (despite class-leading independence) reduced the boot’s depth significantly.

How it rides and handles

We’ve seen how the impressive (on paper) Honda rear suspension really intruded into the middle and sides. This rear end is where the R8 falls apart in my opinion. Yes, Longbridge was following BMC tradition of advanced independent suspension designs, but no, it wasn’t actually any good – which wasn’t tradition. It sounded great though, I must stress that. The late ’80s buzzwords of ‘Multi-link’ and the motor sport holy grail ‘double wishbones’ were the exciting watchwords.

Sadly, just ask anyone who has suffered the ill effects of lift-off (without any warning) oversteer and they’ll painfully tell you why. There was no ‘feel’ or ‘feedback’ from the rear. This oversteer wasn’t helped by the steering or the early onset of understeer, both of which we’ll come to later. Here, then, was a complicated and therefore expensive suspension arrangement which robbed space and gave nothing in return.

Ride at the rear was always bumpy (and increasingly sounded it as sound proofing was progressively deleted). Blame the lack of wheel travel, blame the poor damping, blame Rover’s out-of-vogue ‘soft’ spring rates, blame the various ‘trick’ bushes. Hell, bin or tweak the trendy anti-roll bars. Whatever, it just didn’t stack-up, not when the handling suffered too. As mentioned, the back was all too keen to break away beyond recovery when you weren’t expecting it. It was tricky for the keen and inexperienced to say the least.

…not a smooth experience

A wise man once wrote ‘what is good for handling is also good for ride’. Here was a system that was nowhere near as good as what went before. Rover knew this and reverted to the Maestro rear end when R8 was properly facelifted into the R3-generation 200. Deep down, this was always the way forward, especially when Rover convinced Honda that Maestro-style struts were preferable to their domestic market double wishbones. Incidentally, has anyone ever compared and contrasted this set-up?

Just to recap, the R8 was a car which totally shattered every BMC>MG issue in one fell swoop: quality, ergonomics, styling, reliability, desirability, residuals, advanced technology (which worked straight out of the box) and workforce co-operation. It was the car that got it all together. We were up where we belonged and it was paying dividends.

Ironically, though, this came at the cost of the traditional BMC strengths we’d come to know and love. Chassis, packaging, and steering all suffered. This was despite a bodyshell some 20 per cent stiffer in torsion than the Maestro and with some award-winning systems bolted to it. We’ve covered the first two; now let us concentrate on this final insult – the feel of fear.

How it steers

ARG in the mid ’80s invented a PAS set-up called Positive Centre Feel (PCF). The aim of this system was to give the driver decent steering feel and feedback on the straights and absolute assistance on the twirl. It was said to achieve this by basically switching off on the straight ahead positioning of the steering wheel – great for motorway work was the theory.

It debuted on M-Series XX and went on to win a design accolade. Further assurance of the ‘rightness’ of this design was confirmed when Ferrari adopted it for their greatest ever line-up. Sadly, in this application, it lacked any sensuality. Like the rear, here was a set-up devoid of that all important ‘feel’.

Quite often you felt like you were steering on sheet ice such was the remoteness of the system. Positive on the (dead) straight, but devoid of feedback on the corners, the whole set-up conspired to trick you. In fairness, the steering weight and quickness was sound and its consistency thoroughly decent.

First impressions flatter to deceive

On initial impressions, R8 felt sharp (the turn-in bordered on electric!) and it seemed well pinned down. But ask questions your Maestro would answer without hesitation and R8 needed to ‘phone a friend. Understeer was the plat du jour but push harder and that rear end would washout just as soon as the dampers had wheezed their last – or the ARB relaxed.

Push less to tame the understeer and that rear end would also be mighty tempted to step out dramatically depending on speed. However, it could have been worse – you could have been mean and not bought into PAS. The manual steering was incredibly heavy (strangely, it got heavier as the tyres wore) and was slow too at four turns lock-to-lock.

For your saving of around £340 you were saddled with this, loaded, lame and lethargic steering that offered no more feedback over the powered rack. This was quite unlike the Maestro, especially since a curious ‘knock’ afflicted the every R8 steering rack on tight, bumpy bends.

Still, it got better

A chassis-shame really, from a specification sheet that shone brightly, then and now (astonishingly some 20 years later) and from a company that pioneered FWD winners working with Honda whom had just won F1 and was committed to engineering purity.

Rover in the end got it right both ways. The MG ZR/Rover 25 (nee R3) used an R8 platform with Maestro suspension front and rear, while the ZS/45 (nee HH-R) used a platform closely related to the original Concerto with wishbones front and the multi-link rear-end pretending to be wishbones. However, like BMC, by the time it was right, we’d all moved-on. Unlike the product…

As a footnote, Honda now use struts front and a torsion beam rear for their Civic. Of course, it was Volkswagen which pioneered this system that the Maestro shamelessly copied. The Golf now has a fully independent rear.

About the Author:

If you cut Steven's veins, he'd bleed what he calls The Firm. A lifelong fan of MG Rover and their predecessors, he has carved a successful career selling cars, with his favourites inevitably hailing from Longbridge. His greatest dream was to have his own MG dealership, but - alas - it hasn't so far been... but there's still time.Founding member of the popular, and slightly baffling, forum Macdroitwich, Steven's often found online imparting various pearls of wisdom to fans across the globe.

22 Comments on "Essay : Why I don’t love the Rover R8…"

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  1. Darren says:

    Sound accurate article.
    I have owned maestro’s and a R8’s for over 20 years and agree with all points, and yes- one of my R8’s had manual steering!

    But viewed as a whole: the negatives are minor, and I still rate R8 as a 9/10 package.

  2. KenS Ken Strachan says:

    Height: I raised my 216 by 15mm; replacing the noisy, expensive, and easily-worn-out 175/65’s with 185/70’s. It was then significantly easier to get in and out.

    Lift-off oversteer: not a problem in 170,000 miles in two R8’s (although the front once slid sideways violently over a mid-corner pothole). I didn’t even get L.O.O. when driving away from my mate’s Porsche (in a diesel – short pause for hysterical laughter), nor when trying to keep a Subaru out of the boot.

    But I did love the on-limit oversteer when I test-drove a new R3.

    It seems the one thing I like less than you do about the R8 is the body rigidity. If you park one front wheel on a kerb and the rest on the ground, it’s very hard to open the tailgate.

    Summary: an 11/10 package. Probably explains why I keep refusing to sell my 218SLDT for scrap.

  3. francis brett francis brett says:

    I miss my dear friend,a 416GTi,the best car i have ever owned bar none.I have yet to meet anyone whom had a R8 that would say a bad word about them.
    I am actively seeking an immaculate model,there is one on ebay but it is an auto.
    Mine was an H reg finished in red/grey a girlfriend wrecked it and it took tremendous restaint not to kick her to death when i saw it,it really was a love affair that car.

    • Jemma says:

      You’ve just met one. I for a short while had a white 414si saloon. It was frankly terrifying. The back end had less grip than my old Humber on black ice – on a bone dry road; the temperature gauge wobbled between lukewarm and charbroiled like a jumping bean with Parkinson’s; I’ve only ever driven one thing worse and that was a P6 2.2 with a suspension that hadn’t been touched since it was built.
      The interior was quite nice, but it was a horrible experience to drive, God alone knows what would have happened if I’d had to make any sort of emergency manoeuvre – I’d have been wrapped around a tree. We even considered a bag of cement in the boot to make it a little less lethal.

  4. Andreas Anderson says:

    I read with interest the comments on the R8 suspension.
    I have owned 5 rover 200’s including both a 216 Gti TC, 220 Gti an estate, a 218 Vvc coupe and currently a 214 Sei.
    Last year I took the Coupe to the Nurburgring primarily for my boys to drive, whilst I took my Fiat Coupe. Unfortunately the Fiat blew it’s turbo and all of us ended up driving the Rover.
    I cannot stress how well the car aquitted itself around the track, running MG 16″ alloys on Pirelli and Michellin rubber it was totally safe and predictable, on the limit the handling showed no vices whatsoever, neutrally drifting between corner apexes and coping well with dips and crests and the notorious Carousel. Everyone who drove the car came away impressed. The only criticism was levelled at the slightly dead feeling steering although this was compensated by it’s excellent lock.
    With all the 200’s I have owned, the handling is one of the major plus points and a reason that I still own an R8.

  5. Martin Peach says:

    Well I just came across this article, and having worked in the design studio just as this programme was getting green lights I would like to make the following observations.
    This was the one and only car series made by the vestige of BL since the Austin 1100/1300 that actually sold in large numbers without massive incentives.
    People bought the car and loved it because it was as well put together as anything the UK volume car industry had made since the ’60s.
    Finally the management woke up and realised that that style, specification and quality always works best. Engineering details sell to engineers, but all the rest sells to car customers, provided that the style is underpinned by quality substance, (which in R8 it was, as it came from Honda)
    Sadly as Honda developed itself as a UK company it paid less interest to the needs of ARG. The car that followed R8 was a dismal failure because it was aimed at the wrong sector, had a low level of ARG design input and had little of the style that sold R8. It was the beginning of the end, as ARG could not capitalise on the success of R8 successfully, despite valiant efforts and the funky new little 200 based on parts collections from across models, including the Maestro suspension in the rear.
    In hindsight (and easy thing) ARG was felled by Honda as much as it had been saved by it. Sorry, that is the way I see it now….

    • Paul says:

      Absolutely. The R8 was everything the Maestro dog wasn’t. Well made, well engineered, stylish and critically aspirational. As you point out the only car since ADO 16 to leave Longbridge – or any other former BL plant – with a spring in its step and a willing buyer waiting with cheque book open.

      • Will M says:

        The market was ready for the R8 – the 1990 Escort was a disaster, while after the aero mk2 the mk3 1991 Astra looked like a rounded off Maestro. Both sold reasonably well, probably due to their familiar badging.

        Howvever R8 appeared, it was stylish, well built and aspirational.

        • maestrowoff says:

          I think the major bonus for Rover at that time was that they didn’t have to chase sales with R8, it sold itself so that they could make a nice profit on each sale, rather than having to slash margins to keep volumes up

          A slight correction to Paul’s comment, is that the products of Land Rover have always managed this trick, and indeed the F-Pace for Jaguar is I’m sure similarly profitable

    • David 3500 says:

      @ Martin Peach:

      It is great to read your perspective as a former Rover Group design engineer of the R8 200/400 Series. Thank you for sharing this with us.

    • Ken Strachan says:

      You may notice that Honda’s sales in Europe have reduced by about 50% since their “divorce” from Rover.

    • Jemma says:

      The Maestro was actually in my opinion quite interestingly styled, it was the 5 minute run-on when the engine was shut down that was unimpressive. The replacement for the r8 200 was a bulbous mess that looked like a slanty eyed exercise ball on wheels – it was just plain gruesome (like a morbidly obese Citroën C3 mk 1, only uglier, think a Texan cousin). The facelift worked a bit better & the 400\45 was surprisingly attractive, but by then it really didn’t much matter.
      It’s a bit harsh to put the boot into ARG etc for discounts – every single manufacturer did/does it & I don’t think we ever paid full price on a car we bought new from anyone – so that covers Ford, Renault, Mercedes, Citroën & Vauxhall. I very much doubt company cars were bought at full price either..
      As Lovejoy said “the value of something is what you can sell it for right here, right now”.
      ARG/MGR truly were the Colchester United of car manufacturers, you could have had a goal 40ft wide and they’d unerringly hit the post almost every time (and when they didn’t it either got sold at a loss, fell to bits, or got ritually disembowelled by that cretin Clarkson).

  6. drae says:

    I was never a huge fan of these either. They certainly were smart looking and were reasonably reliable (although I guess I was luckier with my Maestro and Montego which went on for about 180,000). Now they actually seem flimsier than M&M

    And why no MG versions?

  7. Christopher Storey says:

    I fear that the brutal truth is that Honda is joining the growing ranks of car manufacturers whose days are numbered . There is in my view a seismic shift ( in the Western world at any rate ) in the way the motor car is viewed. Once, cars were something to aspire to , then they became more commonplace , but there were still many cars which were objects of desire . Now, they are utilitarian objects, largely indistinguishable one from another, and something which people lust after about as much as they lust after a washing machine! Honda’s main problem is that the only car in their range which has practical mass appeal is the Jazz , and that in truth is very very ordinary , with one feature, the ride, which is frankly appalling . Strangely, Toyota, with a range which is equally lacking in appeal , keeps on going, but how much longer that success will last is questionable . I believe that the reality is that everything has its day, and Honda’s day is well in the past

    • Andy W says:

      What you’re saying is that cars have become commoditized.

      Honda does a great job of selling “commodity cars” in Canada and the US. The Accord, CRV, and Civic are supremely functional and reliable cars, and they are all massively popular over there.

      I am a big Honda fan, and a satisfied CRV owner. But I can easily imagine Honda pulling out of Europe soon. What’s the point of carrying on? All those funny little local laws and tax regimes for every country in Europe, low sales volumes compared to North America, journalists unfailingly describing the car range as “worthy but dull”… I don’t know why they persevere with the European market.

      • Oz says:

        Well according to Fiat. the only way to survive in the motor industry is to have Volume of 6 Million units per year.
        So, Off the top of my head. Toyota, GM, VW, Nissan/ Renault and Ford probably all hit that number .
        Fiat Chrysler are on about 4 million units.AFAIK
        So independent car manufacturers days’are most likely numbered.
        So, you got Peugeot/Citroen/ Gm Europe.
        Hyundai /Kia as the next big players.
        And Honda, Mazda, Subaru and Suzuki.
        Then whatever you have in China Geely/Volvo etc etc
        Then BMW and Mercedes and Jaguar.
        So which way will they go??
        As for Honda.
        A bit weird with that Business jet.
        I guess what keeps them going is their other businesses oF Motorcycles, Quad bikes lawnmowers etc.
        Honda is the World’s largest manufacturer of Internal Combustion Engines.(ICE)
        I forgot; Outboard marine engines.Add that to the pile.
        I can see Mercedes Benz join into the Renault Nissan Alliance.
        They share the Twingo/Smart.
        And A class / Megane
        Infiniti use Merc Diesels And an A Class based model.

        VW took over Porsche. Now Peugeot GM Europe.
        Consoldition.
        Personally I would love to see Mazda and Fiat Merge.
        A new Punto on the Mazda 2 platformm
        And a New Tipo/ Bravo on the Mazda 3
        Honda with BMW perhaps. Still leaves them short of 6 million units though.
        Maybe Honda Peugeot.
        Or Honda , Mazda Suzuki and Subaru will all join.
        After Hanjin containers went bust in Korea.
        The Japanese Container companies K Line./ Mitsu OSK lines /NYK have all joined in Alliance.
        I can see the car business going the same.
        But then, Whatabout the Chinese and Korean Hyundai. They’re the stalking horses
        South Korea has gone belly up.
        It’s got massive debts. And the government is fronting for them.
        Hanjin.
        STX
        And the Shipyards are bleeding money.
        In the first 3 Months of 2017 European Shipyards won more orders than Korea.
        In terms of dollar amounts.
        That hasn’t happened since the 1980’s.
        Europe is on a roll..

  8. John Baker says:

    Ez Sward,

    How is Glenn Seamaster?

    Excellent article. Agree with everything you say.

    However, things like lift off oversteer and understeer, etc, were just not something to be considered within the engineering brief.

    Think target market.

    A dynamically competitive platform is not what the buyers of this car would require.

    Spend the money more on other things.

    For sure an error longer term, but since when did UK executive managers give a toss about the long term?

    In Thatchers Britain, everything is based around the short to short-medium term.

    Everyone now please bow down and thanks be to the God and wealth creator that is the City of London!

    Always remember, you cant buy class!!

    😀

  9. David 3500 says:

    @ drae:

    The reason why there were no MG versions of the R8 200/400 Series was because Rover Group had introduced a new, more explicit performance moniker for use across all its small and medium sized Rovers, namely ‘GTi’. The strategy worked well for the next three years until the identity was replaced and a less consistent strategy was applied across existing and new replacement models (e.g. GSi, Vi).

    The new strategy for MG was different in that it was reserved for sports cars only.

    It gave Rover’s performance offerings, not to mention the Rover marque itself, a more prominent role in the showroom and in one make race series. It was only under MG Rover Group that a decision was made to ‘rob Rover of its identity’ by applying the MG badge in its place on sportier versions of the saloon, hatchback and estate line-ups.

  10. T.martin says:

    I for one am a big fan, ever since they hit our roads in 1989. In those days they sold like hot cakes and were the best thing since sliced bread. It was seen as a premium, good quality, well made, British car with Japanese design and reliability. I currently have the 5 door gti twin cam and the 216 cabriolet with cream leather and power hood. Getting a bit dated compared to the new stuff on the road in 2017 but can still hold their own in performance and keeping up with modern traffic. My 15 year old son laughs at them and is embarrassed to be seen in them, but that is part of the attraction in owning these fine cars is the fact that You dare to be different. And they look so out of place to modern euro boxes.

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