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…


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

So, AROnline has voted the R8 as its collective car for 2009. It 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. Reliable, modern engines that were as refined as they were powerful coupled to faultless gearboxes.

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. Three negatives actually.

PACKAGING
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 XX, the R8 being shorter, cramped its rear seat passengers – despite that long-in-class wheelbase.

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. The delightfully engineering (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 boots depth significantly.

CHASSIS
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 over-steer 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-rolls bars. Whatever, it just didn’t stack-up, not when the handling suffered too. As mentioned, the back was all to keen to break away beyond recovery when you weren’t expecting it. It was tricky to the keen and inexperienced to say the least.

A wise man once wrote ‘what is good for handling is also good for ride’. Here was a system that was no where 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. Deep down, this was always the way forward, especially when Rover convinced Honda that Maestro-style struts were the way forward over 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>ARG 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. But ironically, the cost of this was 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.

STEERING
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.

On initial impressions, R8 felt sharp (the turn-in was boarding 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 queezed 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. It could have been worse however.

You could have been mean and not bought into PAS. Manual steering was incredibly heavy (strangely, it got heaver as the tyres wore), it was slow too at 4 turns lock-to-lock. For your saving of approx £340 you were saddled with this, loaded, lame and lethargic steering that offered no more feedback over the powered rack. This was quite unlike Maestro, especially since a curious ‘knock’ afflicted the every R8 steering rack on tight, bumpy bends.

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. MG ZR/25 (nee R3) used a R8 platform with Maestro suspension front and rear, while 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. Like BMC however, 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 VW which pioneered this system that the Maestro shamelessly copied. The Golf now has a fully independent rear.

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Editor at AROnline and @hjclassics. Likes cars, taking pictures, travelling and knee-high boots...


4 Responses

  1. Darren - September 6, 2011

    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 - September 7, 2011

    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 - April 15, 2013

    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.

  4. Andreas Anderson - August 12, 2013

    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.

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