Essay : Why Rover’s HHR failed

Rover’s ill-fated 1990s replacement for the popular mid-liner, the R8… and why it didn’t hit the spot.

Alejandro Cáceres explains how, with a few little design touches, it could have been so very different.


A brief design analysis using a lightly modified hatch
compared to a stock saloon

THE Rover R8 was the pinnacle of the Rover Group’s small/medium saloon/hatch. It had all the ingredients to be a class leader: great to drive, classy and well-thought out interior, well equipped, stylish, reliable and competitively priced. It’s no surprise that they flew out of the dealerships to become one of the top selling cars of the UK on the 90s, and within the top ten imports on most available markets. Key to this success was the great joint design work carried out jointly by Austin-Rover and Honda.

Sadly, Rover wasn’t able to come up with a worthy successor, and the HHR hatch/saloon launched on 95/96 was lacking on areas his older sibling got right: not so good to drive (sublime ride quality notwithstanding), compromised interior, not as well equipped, indifferent styling, and obscenely overpriced. All this together made the Rover Group lose the market share it had won with the R8, and started the downward spiral to oblivion that ended with MG Rover in 2005.

The saddest thing of it all is that the problem with the HH-R seems to be that Rover got overconfident with this car, and assumed that it was worthy of pushing it upmarket without being too much of an improvement beyond the R8. They didn’t seem to work half as hard on this car than on the R8, and besides the excellent ride quality, everything else makes you feel that you’re ‘stepping down’ when ‘stepping up’ to the HH-R.

In my opinion, the car could have become a success if one of this two things were done: either launch it at the ‘proper’ price, or give the car more perceived class with relatively little extra work. I’m about to show you how much of a difference does it make to a car to add a few touches of class and distinction in some areas. Here (pictured below) we have my father’s 1998 HHR 416 Si saloon in British Racing Green. A very tidy example and completely original, as it left longbridge more than ten years ago. It actually compares pretty well to a similarly specced saloon R8 (even if not as desirable), so with the right price it would have sold quite well.

The saloon was a great improvement from the oddly proportioned hatch

The saloon was a great improvement from the oddly proportioned hatch

HH-R saloon goodness at is best: the rear end

HH-R saloon goodness at is best: the rear end

But I’m thinking they could go a different way, something like so:

This is fellow AROnline forum member João Paulo Santos Rosa de Carvalho’s HH-R hatch, in similar trim than my father’s saloon (’00 414 Si), but with some small touches that lifts it ‘up where it belongs’ (or, might I say, where it wished to belong). Just looking at the car from the outside shows us that even if some people don’t like the ‘colour coding mania’ look on their cars, this would have benefited the HH-R which suffered with the opposite maladies (too little inspiration from its lack of colour coding): the coloured door handles, foglamp surronds and sills give the car a more aggresive stance and lifts it away from the ‘daily commuter’ image the HH-R hatch suffers.

Add the rear spoiler and smoked taillights (why didn’t Rover do this from day one baffles me) and it just looks incredible…


Small changes all add up:

While controversial, it's obvious that colour-coding did this car wonders

While controversial, it's obvious that colour-coding did this car wonders

I’m no big fan of oversized alloys, but the HH-R could have beneftted from 15in wheels on base trim levels, and 16in on the higher-spec 420s. Here we see why: this one looks very balanced on 16in alloys; they make the HHR hatch lose its bloat, very evident on 14in wheels.

16" alloys, rear spoiler and tinted taillights move this car further upmarket. Colour coding and chrome exhaust tip also help.

16" alloys, rear spoiler and tinted taillights move this car further upmarket. Colour coding and chrome exhaust tip also help.

Let’s move on, and step in. Take a look at the new door cards: the rather boring velour used on the stock car was replaced with a higher quality material, with tasteful stitching matching the front seats. Add fabric speaker covers and it’s a whole different feel, up to scratch to even some of the basic models the premium germans offered at the time. the chrome lock button also integrates nicely.

It's incredible how so little improves the look of these door cards so much. It just needs matching fabric speaker covers...

It's incredible how so little improves the look of these door cards so much. It just needs matching fabric speaker covers...

Taking a seat and closing the door, we notice the leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear knob, a welcome change over the OEM plasticky ones. The full walnut veneer dash kit also lifts the ambience, as the classy chrome surrounds on the instrument panel, heater controls, and gear knob surround.

A couple chrome rims here and there, the whole dash veneer kit, a prover Rover badge on the wheel, chrome-wrapped everything... We're on to a winner here

A couple chrome rims here and there, the whole dash veneer kit, a prover Rover badge on the wheel, chrome-wrapped everything... We're on to a winner here

Rover should have replaced its stock digital dash clock for a combined chronograph/clock/thermometer unit, a nice gimmick that could be pitched to the 'lifestyle' buying public.

Rover should have replaced its stock digital dash clock for a combined chronograph/clock/thermometer unit, a nice gimmick that could be pitched to the 'lifestyle' buying public.

The illuminated rear view mirror from the MGF and the front door mirror tweeters may not be completely necessary, but they add two extra 'bullet points' to the equipment list.

The illuminated rear view mirror from the MGF and the front door mirror tweeters may not be completely necessary, but they add two extra 'bullet points' to the equipment list.

Summing up, this subtle ‘nip and tuck’ could have made the rather flawed HH-R way more palatable to the buying public at minimum cost. Together with a more comprehensive list of equipment, this would have allowed Rover to successfully sell these cars at a profit with the price premium they intended.

What do you think? would this have been the right thing to do? or would it been better to leave the cars alone, and price them sensibly?


Posted in: Essays
Keith Adams

About the Author:

Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and watched it steadily grow into AROnline. Is the Editor of Classic Car Weekly, and has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, Classic Car Weekly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, and the the Motoring Independent... Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.

4 Comments on "Essay : Why Rover’s HHR failed"

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  1. Peter Wong says:

    But I think this article has missed out some important flaws that the HHR should address when they launch the car.

    First, they should add 2 cup holders in the center console.

    Second, they should add more sound deadening to the vehicle, if they really want to promote the car as a premium small car.

    Third, they should add more lights in the cabin, the rear cabin has no light, also they should add lights in behind the gas and brake pedal and front passenger foot area. I have sat on a Mk 4 golf they have all this features.

    Fourth, they need to install one more vanity mirror in the passenger sun visor.

  2. Benny Ben Adams says:

    The biggest mistake people make is that they keep comparing it back to the R8. The R8 was ahead of the pack at launch and by 1995 the pack were catching up. Rover rushed this car into production early (the saloon appeared the following year, just like the Montego had) when the R8 had 2/3 years left in it. The 98.5MY updates made the hatches look a lot better. Rover also gaffed by finishing the R8 hatches with an SEi run out model (leather alloys) and then using a flat painted base model 414i in the launch advert!

    Rover did keep tweaking away at the car and got it a little better each time. I happen to think my late Mk1 45 TD saloon is one of the nicest looking saloons of the last decade.

    Heres a thought, lets say Rover kept the R8 going until 1998/9 then launched the HH-R as a saloon only model 45 with the R3 being called 25. Would this have been better?

  3. Steve Bailey says:

    I have to say that the subtle exterior and interior upgrades as detailed above do make a significant difference to the HHR, they would look especially good with a set of TF alloys.

  4. didierz65 Didier Ziane says:

    Maybe R8 should have soldier on until the 45 facelift, in 1.4 8 and 16V along with 1.6 auto’box, GTI and PSA diesels, the new facia on the “Glamour versions” (Coupe, cabby and also the Tourer could have benefited from this )worked well, and could have soldier on longer it was still very well loved. HHR, therefore could have been launched as a saloon only when it was ready, chasing lower versions of D segment, leaving the top to 600. R3 could have been the super super-mini it was in 1.1 &1.4 plus diesel and a “hot version” thus saving Metro’s shameful death. Then when HHR became 45, the hatchback would have completed the offering as R8 was discontinued. HHR deserved more detailing from the offset, it’s so obvious and proven…The lack of “Glamour versions” is also a sign that nothing was as honky dorry as it should have been, Honda getting too demanding and at that point, with R3 such a success, it would have been time for Rover to tell Honda to get to Falkirk… Can I get a penny for my thoughts ?

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