Tested: Rover Streetwise

Streetwise was conceived to entice younger buyers back behind the wheel of Rover products, and cash in on the boom in leisure-orientated vehicles.


Over the last couple of decades, customers had been increasingly looking for cars that not only looked good, but also proved practical and tough in the city. This new breed of car, which took sales away from the more traditional hot hatchback sector of the market was epitomised by the Land Rover Freelander, Toyota RAV4 and Suzuki Vitara. According to MG Rover, this was a sector of the market that the company had been keen to re-enter (the Freelander had belonged to Ford since 2000). However, given the fact that BMW’s licensing agreement of the Rover marque name precluded MG Rover from producing an all-wheel-drive car, and even if it could, there was the small matter of a limited development budget, the company could only look at a revamp of one of its current models.

In its quest to meet changing demand patterns, and maintain its market share, MG Rover devised a version of the 25, which would hopefully appeal to young urbanites looking for a tough-looking, practical and inexpensive car. In order to appeal to these buyers, the new car was styled by Peter Stevens’ team to incorporate many of the cues that off-roaders have in their armoury. So, a raised ride height and big wheels was complemented by tough looking bumper mouldings and roof bars. If this all seemed a little contrived, bear in mind that most Sports Activity Vehicles (or SAVs) never venture off-road, and the toughest treatment that they might encounter is the bump and grind of the local ASDA car park. MG Rover’s market research backed this up; the lack of four wheel drive would not inhibit sales at all…

At the time of its launch in July 2003, the Streetwise was alone in its sector, because its starting price was well below £10,000 and it could offer no more than two-wheel-drive. Stylistically, it was similar to the Audi Allroad and Renault Scénic RX4, but the similarities ended there.

MG Rover’s marketing gurus came up with the “Streetwise” tag, and ensured that the car was known as its, “Urban On-Roader”. This contrived name might have seemed a little naive (as it translates as, “Town Car”), but it was all done in the pursuit of appealing to youngsters, turned off by Rover’s rather staid image.

Having said that, within this brief, the styling worked rather well; the wheels and stance added some height, but did not make the Streetwise look at all jacked-up. The new bumper mouldings were also a success, as they looked sharp and contemporary, adding form to the unfashionably blob-like 25’s body. Most interestingly for Rover’s fans, the Streetwise (and CityRover for that matter) also heralded the launch of the company’s new logo. Some critics accused it of being a “dumbed down” version of the Rover longship, but it undoubtedly looked more stylish, and perhaps was a foretaste of giving the rest of the product range something of a more youth orientated lift.

Either way, there was no getting away from the fact that Streetwise amounted to little more than a light facelft of a seven-year-old product. Rover had already done it before – back in 1990, they commissioned Automotive Development Consultants (ADC) of Luton to produce a “toughened-up” version of the R6 Metro/100. The car they produced, the Scout, featured a raised ride height and “off-road” styling tweaks… it was a nice concept, and bore a resemblance to the Matra-Simca Rancho, but was not pursued as a production model. How times have changed…

To drive, the Streetwise was almost pure Rover 25 – the increased height did not make much difference, and newer cars, such as the Peugeot 307 and Ford Fusion were taller. The 1.4-litre version, however, was still a lively car to drive, and at the launch price of £9295, it had considerable appeal. In fact, the younger buyers, at which the Streetwise was aimed at approved of the new style. Whether they would be enticed back into Rover dealers was another matter…

I found Streetwise tended to divide opinion; some thought it was a cynical exercise in keeping an old car alive for a few more years, others, including myself, felt it was an inventive piece of niche filling and deserved some success. The jury is still out as to who is correct, but given the fact that Volkswagen have produced its own Streetwise (the Polo “Fun”), it would seem that MG Rover were not alone in ackowledging that the concept had legs…


Tested


NEC 2004 debutante, the Streetwise Olympic: this interesting little car has won a few closet admirers out there, and managed to maintain Rover 25 sales as it headed for its range facelift.

He was best known as DLT, aka ‘The Hairy Monster’

Those who recall Dave Lee Travis’s days at Wonderful Radio 1 may also remember his penchant for oddball cars. The one that sticks in my mind was his Austin Allaggro, which earned its unique moniker after being fitted with motorway crash barriers as the ultimate all round crash protection. DLT reckoned it was the ideal car for driving round London – and does it remind you of anything in Rover’s current range?

That’s right, the Rover Streetwise, Rover’s new ‘urban on roader’.

Cynics will dismiss the car as another example of MG R badge engineering. This time the badge in question is plastered all over the acres of black plastic which almost suffocates the car while the engineering is, as far as I can make out, restricted to higher ride height and some mods to the gearchange and suspension.


Streetwise was a very clever piece of niche marketing, and the appearance of these three cars after it was launched demonstrates that other manufacturers were just as impressed.

I have tried to muster some enthusiasm for the car but after a week’s test drive it was pretty difficult. It was bad enough to see the smirks that greeted the car on its surprise debut when the first of the CityRovers were rolled out to the European press in Longridge last year … the French and Germans could hardly hide their hoots of derision when they first saw the car (strange though, that both Citroen and VW have chosen to ape the Streetwise concept …)

So is the newcomer a hero or villain? It all depends on how you view the attempt to turn the Rover 25 into a Sports Activity Vehicle or SAV as Rover describe it.

Full marks for some lateral thinking in ever producing the car … but to say it has had a lukewarm reception would be to grossly exaggerate the case. It was bad enough to have to sit along the foreign press at its introduction … and it was left to influential British writers, notably Steve Cropley from Autocar who could see where Rover was coming from, for some kinder observations on the car. On hearing the news that MG R is in talks with Proton and working successfully with Tata one wag wondered if Tonka had entered the fray too – the Streetwise evokes that kind of off beat humour.

The newcomer has not got off to the best of starts – ‘What Car’ recently awarded it two out of five stars and after a week driving the four seater S diesel version I wasn’t completely won round either. Okay, I know that Rover have excelled at exploiting niches in the past but I kept wondering if the Streetwise is the answer what on earth was the question?

I can count the number I have seen on the road in the tens and twenties. In base form with plain steel wheel it looks particularly Postman Pat-ish – at least my version came with the alloys, additional spotlights and sunroof to ‘lighten’ the exterior. But it’s the interior which needs some attention – and fast. It’s all a bit of a mish mash with its silver detailing, new style switches, trendy metal effect finish around the gearlever and surprise, surprise, no ashtray (although a cigar lighter is optional). At least the fiddly Kenwood radios are thing of the past and the Streetwise boasts a sound system which suffers little distortion at higher volumes. But if Rover is really serious about designing a seriously good looking dash, it had better start looking at its rivals with the Panda, Fiesta, Getx and Matrix all exemplars of what can be done.

Right. That’s the interior dealt with, what about the exterior? I gave it six out of ten for effort … I wish I had shares in the black plastic industry because the car sports lots of it – everywhere! At least you won’t confuse a Streetwise with any other car on the road (not too difficult given its looks) and evidently young people like its style … I’m 47 so obviously past it.

If the exterior style is ‘in yer face’ than mechanical refinement is literally ‘in yer ears’. Start the engine and you immediately get the message that overall refinement was never high on the agenda. It’s very noisy on initial tickover and things only settle down when it gets in its stride on the motorway or good A roads where it’s a capable cruiser at anything between 70 and 90. Rev through to around 4,500 revs in second and third gears and acceleration is good but not startling while the useful amount of torque keeps fuel economy in the high forties. The extra height has made little difference to the actual gearchange although the ride felt somewhat less controlled on my regular motorway route to work on the recently resurfaced M57 in SW Lancashire.

I wonder how many people – including the crucial younger folk – will ‘get’ the Streetwise? Potential buyers include a lucrative group of younger drivers who want the looks of a funky small car but can do without the exorbitant insurance premiums MaxPower lookalikes can attract. And the range’s attractive safety and security features should mean young women drivers take a look at it, too.

So, is Rover’s latest effort Streetwise – or street foolish? Only time will tell. Fingers crossed that there are no plans for an MG Streetwise…


Tested by Roger Blaxall

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1 Comment on "Tested: Rover Streetwise"

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  1. David 3500 says:

    I have always been a big fan of the Streetwise for its ability to define a new sub-sector in the Supermini market. On the outside there were hints of the TCV concept car while on the inside, the two individual rear seats with a storage tray between them was undoubtedly inspired by the Land Rover Freelander 3-door.

    For those buyers that ventured as far as the Accessories catalogue, there were plenty of add-on bits to make your Streetwise look even more, well… er, streetwise.

    I remember when I roadtested one from the MG Rover Group press fleet equipped with all the accessories and featuring the L Series turbo-diesel engine. It was actually good fun to drive and took corners at speed with real enthusiasm. Then I asked myself a rather strange, but obvious question: why do people who live in surburbia actually buy off-roaders?

    Unlike the Streetwise, they are big and cumbersome to park, drink huge amounts of fuel, cost a fortune to buy and have so much unnecessary technology that will sadly never get used in the middle of London or in the supermarket car park.

    Basically many owners like an SUV because of its commanding driving position with good all-round visibility and a sense of adventure that is derived from its rufty-tufty exterior styling. Features that the Streetwise also has, but without the other obvious drawbacks of an SUV.

    Also, bearing in mind that the 2011 Model Year Freelander offers front-wheel drive on an entry model, for those not needing to go off-road at regular intervals, one wonders whether the Streetwise was ahead of the game?

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