First Drive : Rover 75 V8
Since the moment the MG ZT 260 V8 was launched, Rover fans have been clamouring for their own version of this car…
Geneva 2004 finally saw their wishes fulfilled, with the launch of this car. However, it has an altogether less sporting brief than the MG version – does that mean that the Rover is a suitable Vitesse replacement, or is it more of a Vanden Plas EFi?
TO say that we have been eagerly anticipating driving this car is something of an understatement. The day that MG Rover announced its plans to shoehorn a lumping great V8 engine into the Rover 75, and then develop a rear wheel drive platform – visions of a latter day Rover SD1 Vitesse have been hard to escape from. It is fair to say that in the past few years, the Rover SD1 had become something of a legend in its own backyard, and most of that is thanks to the endearing image of that performance model. Everyone seems to love the old SD1 Vitesse – so much so that it seems to cast a very long shadow over the rest of the range.
So when the V8 version of the 75 appeared in September 2003, many Rover enthusiasts felt short changed. After all, where’s MG’s heritage of building great sporting saloons? Admittedly, the ZT models have proved successful, and very capable sporting saloons, but their Rover-badged brothers significantly outsold them… so the question remained: where is the Rover V8?
We only had to wait a few months for the answer – Geneva 2004 saw the launch of the Rover V8, and immediately Vitesse fans rejoiced – here was a car that could bought today, which made all the right noises, and wore the right badge. Except that MG Rover insisted that the Rover V8 was, in fact, a car that recreates the spirit of the P5B – the ministerial Rover. Given that the press releases spoke in terms of it being a relaxing cruiser, it became clear that it is no Vitesse replacement. And rightly so in the company’s minds – the ZT V8 is that car.
That’s a shame though, because many people are still itching to get their hands on a new Rover Vitesse.
As soon as you walk up to the V8, you know that this is no normal 75 – although the transformation is very subtle, the styling cues are all there to draw you in. The wheels are the first give away – stare at these for long enough, and your eyes then can’t help but fall on the subtle V8 badges on the front wings. Walk around the car, and the if the four exhaust pipes don’t catch your attention, the full-depth grille will.
It’s not a car to grab you by the balls and shout, “look at me”, but there is most certainly a hint of hidden menace.
The interior is pretty much standard 75, though – there are no clues to this cars status in the Rover range unless you look really hard. The only real giveaway has to be the footwell, though – it’s not exactly cramped, but it’s not exactly generous, either. Beyond that – there is nothing. And that is good, right? The 75’s interior might be a little controversial for its sense of twee (none of which is ironic), so you have to be of a certain mindset to appreciate it, but for those that do, it is a nice place to be in. Those that don’t get the 75 might hate the oval dials, or its liberal use of chrome and wood, but one thing you can applaud Rover for when it designed this car, is that it did not try and produce an all-things-for-all-men kind of car.
So the looks are subtle and the interior is unchanged… what about the driving experience?
On the road…
Let’s get one thing straight right away – there may have been talk in the press release about the engine being re-mounted in order to reduce noise, but when you fire up this car, the sound of that V8 leaping into life in the way that only a V8 can, resonates loud and clear throughout the cabin. Luckily, it sounds absolutely wonderful, even if that initial start-up is fleeting.
Unlike the ultra-efficient German opposition, this car’s engine has not been silenced to the point where it isn’t allowed to intrude into the cabin. The bark’s there when it is first started, but the V8 soon settles into a quiet and reassuring idle.
Underway, the story is one of contrasts – when cruising or wafting, there is very little noise indeed – and that has to be down to the high gearing and unstressed engine. At an indicated 70mph, just over 2000rpm registers on the tacho, and when wafting at the legal limit, you feel happy and content to be in such pleasant surroundings. It seems as though wafting is what MGR has in mind for this car, as well… when you initially pull away, there’s a distinct feeling of disappointment at the level of performance – it feels lazy and lethargic. However, it doesn’t take long to twig that this is an act, and the throttle pedal takes centre stage in the charade.
It’s long and stiff, you see. Prod it the same way you’d prod a rival offering’s throttle pedal, and it takes off slowly, smoothly and rather lazily. Mash the pedal into the firewall, however, and it takes off with real alacrity, pushing you into the back of your seat with nonchalant ease. This rapidity is no illusion either (as it can be on some cars) – it pulls strongly throughout the rev range – in a consistant surge – before taking the next gear and repeating the process. Only in top does acceleration tail off, but as this is geared at an interstellar 31mph/1000rpm, this is understandable.
So, it would seem that the V8 offers the best of both worlds: quiet cruising when you’re not in a hurry, but invigorating acceleration when you feel like pressing on. One can’t help but feel it’s all rather old school, but this attitude really is a friend you don’t mind being re-united with.
The chassis is also really something rather special. OK, it is no sports saloon, but it is also firm enough in the springing to offer up excellent body control, whilst retaining the lesser Rover 75s’ cossetting ride. It sits somewhere between a standard 75 and ZT in terms of firmness, which is an acceptable price to pay for its resistance to roll (something the original 75 was rather weak at).
Take a series of corners, at medium speed and it is easy to “flow” the car through the bends, whilst feeling in total control. The steering is meaty and possessing enough feel to just about tell you what the wheels are doing (and massively better than the standard 75), and the turn-in is crisp but also non-aggressive. It’s no Jaguar, but it’s not as far off as some would have you believe. And it does make for a fairly rewarding driver’s car, if you accept that it is not a car to flick into corners, rather one you feed into them… In many ways, it handles just as you would expect an old school Rover to. The only real bugbear is the traction control system, which seems a little on the aggressive side – better to leave it off, if you can stand the dashboard tell-tale accusingly glaring at you…
Another profoundly impressive aspect of the chassis set-up is its body control on motorways – sharp irregularities are shrugged off. It does not seem to smother lumps and bumps in the way that a standard 75 does – you feel and hear expansion joints, for example, but there is never any hint of a jolt or a bounce, simply a well-damped movement. It’s as though every lump and bump has had its sharpness smoothed away, but reassuringly, you still know they’re there.
So it talks to your hands, feet, ears and bottom in much clearer statements than the standard 75 does. Not quite in the same way as a ZT V8, but enough to give the driver a pretty clear idea about what’s happening out there.
Meet the ancestor…
But how does the 75 stack up against its grandfather – the Rover SD1? In all honesty, it’s a walkover – the new car is a lot faster, handles better, sounds better and about fourteen billion times more solidly built. Surprisingly, it also seems much more charismatic in the engine department – something that came as a shock. However… an SD1 is a visual masterpiece, and although the design is pushing 35 years old, it still looks fresh, taut and original, something that the 75 will never manage, thanks to its retro design brief.
Amazingly, though, there are plenty of family traits – especially in the ride/handling department, which almost have you believing that there is an engineering link between the two, even though there clearly isn’t.
It’s promising though – if MG Rover is to shrug off the slightly twee image of its current range, then it could do worse than build a future executive car around this excellent platform, and clothe it in a body as fresh and exciting as the SD1 or P6 models were in their day.
Given a choice of which one to drive home in, we’d take the 75… but would look wistfully at the Solihull sexpot as we left it behind…
The Rover V8 is a towering achievement for the company, be in no doubt of that. For one, it had the guts to produce it at a time when there were no clear ideas what was going to happen to MG Rover in a very uncertain future. This car and the XPower SV are clear evidence of imaginative management acting a little irrationally in a time of crisis – and the world is a much better place for them.
It’s not a perfect car, by any means, but it is a car of charisma, and one that is very easy to fall in love with. Yes, it may be a gas guzzler, but it is fast and engaging, and it make a sound like no other in its class. In short, it’s a very, very desirable car.
Our only wish would be to see this car available in manual form, with MG ZT V8 suspension settings – then we’d have our 21st century Rover Vitesse. As it is, we have a very good imitation of a Vanden Plas EFi – only without the leaky glovebox…
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Clsssics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.