SAIC’s work on adapting the MY2007 Rover 75 for its own use (with more than a little help from its friends at Ricardo 2010) was most impressive – and now it appears that the same magic is about to be undertaken again with its reworking of the RDX60 concept.
Ever since the first spy shots appeared of the small Roewe, speculation has grown that progress is now well underway – and, back in 2006, it was confirmed that several ex-MGR Engineers had been employed by SAIC/Ricardo 2010 in order to commence work on the stillborn mid-sized car.
Words: Adam Sloman
From little acorns?
Rover was dead. Like it or not, in 2005, one of Britain’s most venerable marques was snuffed out, disappearing from the new car price lists.
What sort of life-span does your normal mid-size family car have these days? Five, perhaps six years? By 2002, the Rover 45 and its MG sibling, the ZS, were celebrating their seventh birthdays and, despite the highly successful sporting transformation the car had undergone to become part of the Zed range, it was beginning to show its age. In comparison to the likes of the Ford Focus, the HH-R (the original development code given to the Rover 400 and Honda Civic) it was becoming apparent it could no longer compete. A replacement was needed, the 2005 facelift did little more than paper over the cracks.
Work originally began when BMW arrived at Longbridge (the R30 project), and was close to production reality, but by 1999 BMW’s senior managers began to question their involvement with Rover and, when the Germans packed up their toys and headed back to Munich, Rover, or MG Rover as the group became known, had no new cars in the works, and little money to produce one.
The 45 got a shot in the arm in 2001, with the launch of the ZS, Rob Oldaker’s team of talented Engineers gave the HH-R some much needed street-cred, and plans were developing to replace the car with something that was capable of meeting and exceeding the expectations of Rover and MG customers. MG was to become the focus of MG Rover, and the XPower SV the ‘halo product’ senior management believed the company needed, but as ever, money was tight. With the launch of the X POWER sub-brand, the company returned to motorsport, with British Touring Car Championship and rallying programmes for the ZS and ZR respectively. The expense of this, combined with projects like the V8 75/ZT and the SV, strained the purse strings to near breaking point.
With the already diminished development funds spread thinly across the loss-making group, MG Rover echoed its Leyland forbearers and looked for a joint venture partner to develop a much-needed replacement for arguably their most important car – the Rover 45/MG ZS. MG Rover management were keen to rekindle their affair with Honda, but with the Japanese now firmly established in the UK, Honda had little use for MG Rover and had been badly burned in the sell-off to BMW.
Fiat was approached, but a deal could not be brokered. So, once again, as in 1979, the management at Longbridge looked to the Far East, to the emerging Chinese car market. A deal was agreed with the China Brilliance company, which saw a small number of Rover 75s built with Brilliance badging, but nothing more came of the deal.
MG Rover’s Engineers had completed significant development work on the R30 when BMW took the car and all that had gone into it back to a basement in Munich. With the proposed R30 now out of their grasp, MG Rover’s teams forged ahead with development, in the hope that a joint venture would be agreed and that the company’s new partner would bring enough financial clout to the table to allow the car to finish its gestation and get to market. A partner was eventually found in the form of Shanghai Automotive (SAIC) and work was able to progress to such an extent that the Rover TCV was shown off at the 2002 Geneva Motor Show while the MG variant was leaked in 2003. With the Chinese partners decidedly unimpressed following a make-or-break meeting in 2005, the party was over, and MG Rover collapsed.
SAIC acquired much of MG Rover’s assets following the companies demise, as well as the rights to the K-Series engines, the 25 and 75. SAIC also secured the services of Ricardo 2010, who had been the back-bone of much MG Rover’s Engineering Department. However, one thing SAIC was unable to secure were the rights to the Rover name. Land Rover had become part of the Ford empire, and the American giant was keen to protect the value of the Land Rover brand, and distance it from the Chinese outfit.
The Rover 75 received a light makeover to become the Roewe 750, SAIC was keen to ensure the newly-created Roewe marque had a new car to call its own, and state its intention to become a truly global player. The key for the Chinese market was a saloon and, come 2007, the first computer-generated images began cropping up in the UK media. The styling proved to be rather off-key as the W2 concept was unveiled. The heritage was obvious, right down to the faux-Rover badge. The W2’s styling was eerily similar to the 2005 images from MG Rover – this was the car that could have perhaps repeated the success of the Metro, and saved the ailing car-maker. Media reaction was largely positive, with much made of ‘Rover’s return’, despite the new name and Chinese ownership.
A little over a year after the W2’s début, the full, production ready Roewe 550 was launched. Powered by a naturally aspirated or turbo-charged, 1800cc evolution of the K-Series engine, rechristened as the ‘Kavachi’ engine (after the volcano in the South Pacific). Shortly after launch, buyers could chose the DVVT (dual variable valve timing 550 over the turbo, introducing Roewe’s own a variable valve control system. Underneath, the 550 shared some commonality with the 75 although the rear suspension is similar in design to the 75/ZT BMW designed Z-axle multi-link set-up.
Interior spec was comprehensive, with a Maestro-esque digital dashboard, satellite navigation, chilled glove-box and USB/SD card support for those with ever-growing MP3 collections. The car was a huge success for SAIC, boosting Roewe’s sales figures and giving them much-needed media attention and credibility in their domestic market. Away from China, sales have begun in Chile and Belarus, with the car receiving the lightest of make-overs, being sold as an MG, rather than a Roewe.
Behind the wheel and out on the road the 550 remain true to its Rover roots, with comfort and refinement being the focus. The turbocharged variant offers around 160bhp with a 0-60 time of about ten seconds, the car was clearly no ball of fire but the 550 was not intended for high-speed power runs.
2010 will see the launch of the 550 hatch (think MG6 with less aggressive styling and a more compliant ride) as well as the possible launch of the sports version, the 550R (R standing for race) SAIC are also keen to join the increasing number of hybrid manufacturers, with a battery assisted 550 also in development.
2010 will no doubt be a big year for the 550, with its sibling MG6 set to take to the world stage with European manufacturing planned, it remains to be seen if the car, and indeed the Roewe brand, will see the light of day outside of the People’s Republic. With SAIC seemingly coming to grips with the value of the MG marque, it seems more likely the Roewe will remain a domestic brand, and that we’re unlikely to see the 550 in its current form on UK roads – either way, though, it remains a fascinating part of the story.
- Three years in development, including 18 months virtual design.
- Initially launches with 1.8T and 1.8DVVT ‘Kavachi’ engine, followed by a 1.6-litre version
- Wheelbase: 2705mm
- Hatchback and MPV to follow
- User interface is the D5 digital concept. Databased-Control System, Digitized-Interface, Multi-Media, Constant-Upgrading, Tech-friendly
- Roewe and MG versions both penned by SAIC UK (formerly Ricardo 2010) and SAIC’s Technical Centre at Anting, Shanghai.
- Length: 4624mm
- Width: 1827mm
- Height: 1480mm