Much of the automotive press ridiculed it when it first came out, but history has shown us that the Rover Streetwise was a concept that was, in many ways, a long way ahead of its time…
Until recently, I hadn’t really given the Rover Streetwise much thought. I remember it being launched back in 2003, and I recall driving one of the earliest examples in the country when it first came out, and finding it – at worst – inoffensive. Quick, but noisy thanks to its L-Series diesel engine, and with a soft but pleasantly compliant ride. It didn’t handle as sharply as the 25, which was a car I secretly liked (as a mainstream automotive journalist at the time, publically liking Rover 25s was frowned upon by the masses, and in my opinion therein lies part of Rover’s downfall…), but it was a fairly likeable package overall, and MG Rover’s attempts to beef up the styling and add in some funky and chunky accessories at least gave the ageing base car a bit more showroom appeal.
It was on a recent romantic weekend in Paris, though, that I finally realised that, actually, I liked the Streetwise a great deal. Obviously, this wasn’t a dinner topic to discuss with my wife, who for some reason seemed far more interested in the cultural delights of the city and the wine that was on offer, but as we tucked into our hors d’ouvres, little does she know that I was actually thinking it…
You see, I’d been in Paris all week on business, with she who must be admired joining me on the Friday evening via Eurostar. During the previous few days, I’d walked (as I do in any city) for miles and miles, taking in the sights, the atmosphere and, of course, the local transport.
That week, I saw more Rover Streetwises than I’ve seen in England in the past couple of years. Indeed, the Streetwise must be one of those cars that’s currently high on the danger list – 10-12 years old, of very low value and attached to a brand that, whether we like it or not, is largely unloved by the general public. In Paris, though, the car has oodles of appeal – a fact proven by the fact that one I example I witnessed was for sale for 4,500 Euros. That’s about £3,750 in Sterling – and it’s a long time since even the smartest of Streetwises would have cost you that much here.
With its raised ride height, compact dimensions, well-appointed cabin and (most importantly) unpainted bumpers, the Streetwise is the perfect car for the Parisian sprawl. Whilst every other car on the French capital’s streets sports a scar, a gash or a knock or two, all of the Streetwises I saw were looking, well, pretty Streetwise – not least because the chunky plastic cladding had helped protect them thoroughly all round. But then, this was the country that gave us the Matra Rancho – and, if any car was the Streetwise’s spiritual predecessor, that was it.
As a city car, then, the Streetwise was a much bigger hit than it was given credit for when new. At the time of its launch, many cynics berated it for being an ‘off-roader’ that went anywhere but off-road. Rover, itself, referred to the car as an ‘Urban On-Roader’, which probably didn’t do it any major favours.
Interestingly, though, nobody was quick to draw the daggers when, a year after the Rover’s launch, VW unleashed the Polo Dune – a car with similar dimensions and an almost identical raison d’etre, which featured in lots of marketing shots with skis mounted on the roof despite having appalling grip in snowy conditions. Marketing, it seems, was what it was all about.
Wind the clock forward over a decade, and there’s no shortage of models out there with chunky bumpers, raised ride height and beefy, macho, pseudo off-roader marketing campaigns behind them. Indeed, the very same journalists that threw rocks at Rover for creating a car that the market ‘didn’t need’ are now thrusting laurel wreaths at the almighty Skoda Yeti – a car that has won more individual awards than any other despite having a silly name and being almost identical in concept to the original Streetwise. There are many others, too – the Kia Soul, Nissan Juke and Vauxhall Mokka, for example, all have something of the Streetwise about them, and this is the fastest growing sector of the car market today.
If MG Rover had just had a little bit more money left in the marketing pot when they brought it to market, the Streetwise story could have been very different. Had the equally chunky TCV concept, unveiled in 2002, have ever become more than just a styling study, likewise. For despite the Streetwise’s shortcomings against its contemporaries (notably its cramped cabin, dated fascia and unrefined diesel engines), time has shown us that the market was, indeed, crying out for a car of this ilk. And for once, rather than turning up late to the party, MG Rover was unfortunately there before the other guests arrived.
So was the Streetwise really a car well ahead of its time, and as such, should it be remembered as a classic? Mas oui, monsieur. I think so, anyway. So much so that I’m almost tempted to buy one.
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