How much do we judge a car by the badge it wears? The more enlightened amongst us will probably say “not at all”, and figure that each car should be judged on its merits. But is this completely true? I wrote about the BMW 1-Series yesterday, stating that it had the face of someone being strangled and proportions that simply don’t work. But at the same time, I made the assumption that as it was a BMW, and therefore a money-no-object exercise, it would hold true to the marque’s rock-solid brand values (uncorrupted steering, peerless chassis set-up and smart straight-line performance).
According to AUTOCAR magazine, this has proven to be true… seasoned old-hand Peter Robinson came away impressed by its beguiling mixture of dynamic prowess and effortless all-round ability. So, BMW have hit a winning formula. Its brand values are therefore straightforward: dynamic excellence, which results in a “driver’s car”.
In the same issue of AUTOCAR, Richard Bremner and Steve Cropley both stated how much they warmed to the facelifted MG ZS180, and how it had an honest quality about it that made it endearing. This got me thinking about brand values. As stated, it seems that the most successful manufacturers have clearly defined brand values, just like BMW: Mercedes-Benz=legendary build quality and longevity (eroded by recent cars), Ford=value for money cars built for a purpose, with a peppering of driver appeal, Toyota=reliability, and so on. You get the idea.
But where does that leave MG Rover? MG is still healthy enough – focused driver’s cars aimed at enthusiasts. The ‘Zeds’ have been a critical success, and because MG’s history is also inextricably tied to hotted-up saloons (MG Metro, anyone?) the company’s brand values remain strong.
Rover, on the other hand, is rather less clear-cut. In the 1950s, it was easy: Rover=solid, dependable, quality executive cars. In the 1960s, thanks to the P6, this perception changed rapidly: Rover=forward-thinking, advanced executive cars. By the 1970s, the company had been well-and-truly integrated into the BL machine (which effectively killed Triumph), and Rover became synonymous with the ills that affected Austin-Morris. The 1980s were a watershed decade for Rover. The emergence of the Ro-nda, with its corresponding push into the middle market, meant that Rover’s image was in a state of flux.
By 1990, Rover stood on the edge of greatness. Bolstered by the success of the R8 200/400, the 800 (which, lest we forget, was the best-selling executive car in the UK for a number of years) and the newly-launched revitalised Metro, Rover had re-invented itself as smart and classy – a cut above the middle market. Everyone liked Rovers, and admired the company’s cutting edge engineering and crisp styling; even the motoring press readily admitted that after years of trying, Rover had just about made it. These were great years for the company, even though these “rich years” were built on the weakened foundations laid by ARG and Honda, and their associated 5-year product life-cycles…
However, at the point that Rover was so nearly there, the company was already being starved of funds, and forced to become over-reliant on Honda. Still, the feel-good effect of the early 1990s was such that it enticed BMW to buy the company, and the rest, as they say, is history.
If nothing else, BMW did leave Rover one shining legacy: the 75, which was (and remains) a magnificent car. But the rest of Rover’s range is a throwback to the Honda-era, which means that it has a top-heavy range, which despite being worthy enough, people perceive as growing older by the day. Because of this, Rover does not really have a core brand value right now, because the 25/45 are too inexpensive to be considered remotely “premium”. The 75, which is a premium product, fights a market full of premium products from competitors such as Volvo, Saab, BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Alfa Romeo, and therefore struggles. So what Rover needs to do is to find a position, a niche, a USP. The CityRover farce has also damaged its credibility more than anyone at Longbridge might care to admit.
The trouble is that with an ageing range and no money, it is going to be a long, uphill struggle. Encouraging tests like Richard Bremner’s are a start, but the message needs to be more widespread. Rover needs to re-find its feet. The 45 is a good car – not classleading, but good. Get that message out, get bums on seats and it could well be that we will be saying: Rover=engineering excellence. If the message isn’t heard by a wider audience soon, kiss Rover goodbye and concentrate on MG.
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics 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 unfeasible adventures all across Europe.