Fancy a Rover 25 or its MG ZR sister? Here’s what to look out for…
Words: Mike Humble
|three- and five-door hatchback, three-door van (MG and Rover).
Offered as Rover 25, Streetwise, MG ZR
|Petrol: 1.1-1.4 (16v), 1.4 (16v), 1.6 and 1.8
Diesel: 2.0 (turbo)
|Five-speed manual and CVT
Launched in 1996, the R3 shape Rover 200 had been a classic exercise in how to get your marketing totally wrong. Rover had made the fatal error in being cocky and truly believed the buying public would be happy to pay for an Escort sized car with Fiesta type dimensions, if the perceived quality was there – and how wrong they were.
This was indeed such a shame as the R3 was in fact not a bad car at all, peppy engines, nice trim and keen road manners were all part of the Rover 200 experience, and its cute and curvy body shape looked good and was all Rover’s doing with no body engineering help coming from Honda or BMW. Designed on a tight budget of a shade over £250,000,000, the Rover 200 should have done far better, but as history shows, it didn’t exactly sell in massive numbers. Far from being a flop but equally far from being top of the pops either.
Fast forward to 1999 and Rover finally were getting the corporate image with the launch of the 75 and soon after the 25 and 45. All cars now shared a true family resemblance of a neat chrome grille, quad headlamps and the essential British tradition of svelte interiors with a dash of walnut where required. The Rover 25, following the deletion of the 100 series two years earlier was now Rover’s entry level car and offered a wide range of carried over power units (albeit improved) of K-Series petrol and L-Series Diesels ranging from 1100-1800cc in petrol and 2000cc diesel – the latter in two states of tune.
Transmissions were also carried over from the 200 but also were treated to production and installation improvements. The automatic CVT while initially very troublesome was improved and offered in steptronic form. Manual gearboxes were carried over using the Rover built R65U and PG1 and in the final year’s production, the Ford/Getrag IB5 on all 1.1-1.6-litre petrol cars.
Although the press and critics saw the 25 as nothing more than a restyled R3 Rover 200, it was a little more than that. Its bumper and grille were all new, as was the metalwork behind. Totally re worked inner wings and front cross members added extra safety, as did the thicker and stronger box sections of the inner and outer sills. The pedestrian safety of the new 25 was much improved over the outgoing 200. Rear end styling was less noticeable, with a reshaped bumper and different number plate surround with added chrome being the only obvious differences to see.
Much attention was given to NVH (noise vibration and harshness) with torque axis hydraulic engine mountings on all engines and a much improved mounting for the gearbox, gone was the busy eager feeling of the outgoing 200 to be transformed into an eerie world of hush not experienced on a car of this size. In summary, the Rover 25 at launch was a cracking little car which went some way to restore and identify Rover’s image of makers of cars a class above the rest. Even today, over five years after the car last rolled off the production line at Longbridge, the 25 can still make an excellent used purchase. So let’s take a look at the range, its virtues, its vices and values:
What to look for
Body and trim:
From the outset the Rover 25 was offered in two distinct body styles: a three-door hatchback and five-door. Most level of trim was offered in both shapes, and although the three door looks the more chic and sporting, rear access can be a squeeze for the larger passenger. Rear opening quarter glass is standard all three door cars. The 25 was aimed squarely at the small hatch sector, competing with the likes of the Peugeot 206 – Ford Fiesta & Vauxhall Corsa. Keen pricing meant that the 25 was the bigger car than its rivals both in legroom and luggage space. With the exception of the base models, the 25 sported a split folding rear seat with three inertia reel seatbelts and thanks to its compact rear suspension system, the boot is fairly deep and spacious with more than enough room for suitcases and shopping.
Earlier models from 1999–2002 were vastly better built though it also needs to be considered that the earliest 25s are now coming up to 11 years old. Corrosion is known around the edges of the wings and rear wheel arches can be very tatty if left to rot. Other areas of corrosion are around the tailgate roof hinges – front sub frame – boot lock surround and around the front kick plate trims inside the door jamb. Used Rover 25’s are plentiful, so be sure to walk away from anything that looks shabby in the body department, unless you are looking for a project car or it’s very cheap.
Paintwork is fairly well applied and any botch job should be easy to spot. Contrary to belief, the fit and finish of the panels was also pretty good, take time to spot uneven panel gaps and poor fitting external door and body rubbing trims, the latter being very hard to refit properly. Tap them with your knuckle and listen for a rattle – a sure sign they have been removed, and ask why.
Beware of broken or seized roof aerials, even though they are cheap to replace, they are a nightmare to fit involving the whole roof lining to be dropped to gain access to the securing nut underneath – not a job for the faint hearted. A loose fitting mast base will also cause interior damp and possibly a major water leak.
Moving on to the interior, the usual checks should be made to the general health of the car i.e.: if it’s a mess than you can be fairly certain the mechanicals may be suspect too. All switchgear should function as normal, but pay attention to the following:
Heater fan – does it work on all positions? Quite often a cheap fix requiring the replacement of the resistor in the heater box – easy to fix for around £20 – £30 if you do it yourself. The 25 does boast an excellent heater and is one of the few cars than can keep your feet warm and your face cool at the same time, the system also boasts a recirculation feature too.
Rear Wash wipe – If the pump works but no water comes through, often as not its a blocked rear jet than can be fixed using stiff wire, but in stubborn cases may need a complete wiper motor. Also be wary of loose spindle nuts on the front wiper arms, these 13mm nuts work loose and if left un noticed, can damage the splines on the wiper linkages.
Stiff or creaking clutch pedal – Problems can arise with the clutch cable, once again, an easy remedy but needs checking thoroughly. It may be a release bearing issue. A high pedal may also be evident, but this isn’t too much to worry about so long as there is a couple of inches free play, though the height of the clutch pedal can be adjusted and later cars were modified.
Crumbling steering wheel – Later models had a cheaper to produce wheel that can peel around the rim. Easy to replace but involves removal of the airbag. Switch on the ignition and check the red SRS warning lamp goes out after a few seconds. If it doesn’t or fails to light altogether, there may be a problem.
Dash warning lights – Do they all function? and be sure to notice the yellow engine management light, it should extinguish as soon as the engine is running. If it continues to glow or worse, pulse every second there is a management or ignition problem. All Rover 25s use the OBD2 type socket and diy code readers are an excellent investment if you are a budding home mechanic.
Creaking Seats – Some models suffer from creaking front seats, often its annoying more than serious, but grab the chair and tug it around making sure there is no excessive movement in the seat runners. Some models offered leather trim, but be aware – the quality of the hide is not top grade.
Door Cards – These are notorious for fitting badly once removed. Look for poor fitting or missing pieces inside the interior door handles. These are sure signs that someone has been inside the doors.
The Rover 25 seems to be a mixed bag when it comes to build quality and interior fit and finish. On first inspection, the swoopy, curvy dashboard looks well made, and to a degree it is on pre ’03 cars. The lower part of the facia along with the glove box feel cheap and nasty to the touch with the glove box having no non slip material inside allowing tapes or CD’s to clatter around on poor roads or spirited cornering. Rattling fuse box covers can be annoying on rough roads, but this is easily cured by applying self adhesive foam to the back of the cover.
Engine and gearbox:
Rover used its famous K-Series engine in 1.1-, 1.4-, 1.6- and 1.8-litre form using both 8 and 16 valve heads on the two smaller engines. The 1.1 and 1.4 are in fact both sweet revving engines that are eager and lively enough. Issues of head gaskets are legendary and the bigger engines of the 1600 and 1800 are worse than the smaller units in terms of durability. Quality maintenance is paramount for a long and trouble free lifetime. Attention must be paid to the cooling system, the quality and strength of the anti-freeze / coolant and the state of the radiator, the latter corrodes easily and even the smallest of leaks can kill the engine.
Start the engine from cold if possible and listen for excessive rattling noises caused by piston slap. These engines need warming up gently and a car that has had its guts thrashed out from a cold start can and will die a slow and painful death. Remove the oil cap when idling and look for plumes of steam and feel for heavy breathing on the back of your hand. Any evidence of gunk or cream coloured goo indicates the mix of oil and water – a sure sign of a blown head gasket. While the engine is still warming up, remove the expansion tank cap and smell inside the bottle, if you can detect a faint whiff of petrol, see tiny bubbles or speckles of oil – there’s trouble in store!
Oil changes are required at 12,000-mile intervals and these petrol engines don’t take too kindly to skipped servicing. Look for evidence of missing servicing such as a rusty fuel filter and an oil cap that needs two hands to remove. On the plus side, all routine servicing is very easy on all petrol and diesel Rover 25`s. Ask for evidence of timing belt replacement and also bear in mind that the diesel has two timing belts – often forgotten.
Later post 2003 petrol engines are spotted by having an unpainted alloy valve cover where earlier engine valve covers are painted satin black. Be aware of this, as it is a good way of spotting if the car has had an engine swap at some time. While under the bonnet, pay attention to the condition of the front sub frame. Brake pipes and inner chassis members, these can rust readily if the car is not cared for or has been poorly crash repaired.
Have a look at the battery tray, it’s made of lightweight resin plastic and known for the securing bolts to corrode make removal a nightmare. Also make sure the battery itself is tight and secure in the clamp – these have a captive nut in the tray that can crack if over tightened resulting in a loose battery that can’t be secured properly, dangerous and an MoT failure.
Diesel engine cars are fairly robust units, but you need to be checking the smoke on start up – it should clear after a few seconds. These engines can blow a head gasket if the antifreeze mixture is not kept tip top also. Cold starting should be instant regardless of the temperature. Engines should pull strongly without any hesitation or holding back and you should also keep a keen eye open for oil leaks from the bottom end of the engine and around the oil filter housing. Not the quietest power unit by any stretch of the imagination but a willing and torquey performer in 86 or 103bhp tune.
Manual transmissions seldom give problems unless abused or subject to sky high mileage. The Rover R65U is a Peugeot designed but Rover built 5 speed unit and is fitted to 1.1-, 1.4-, and 1.6-litre cars. The Rover PG1 is a Honda derived but also Rover-built unit fitted to 1.8-litre and diesel cars. The gear linkage on both of these boxes can go sloppy with time but it fairly straightforward to cure. The quality if the gear change can be transformed by changing the oil in the box, once again, a simple procedure.
The CVT steptronic gearbox is a light year ahead of the troublesome ZF Sachs unit as fitted in the previous Rover 200. By offering a pre set phase of ratios whilst remaining a true CVT unit makes the car more acceptable to drive, with much less urgency when pulling away. Keep an ear open for excessive chattering when in drive stood still and check the colour of the transmission fluid – it should be pinky red and not dark brown or black – the latter colours indicating problems. Unless you simply have to have an auto box, the CVT is best avoided owing to continuing reliability worries and the specialist nature of this type of gearbox.
What Are They Like To Own?
Problems with the K-Series engines are legendary, but if the unit is in good fettle, they can go on to give many thousands of trouble free miles. Petrol consumption is generally quite good, though automatics are thirsty in comparison to its manual brothers. Insurance ratings are reasonable too with only the 25 GTi nudging the higher brackets. Diesel models are reasonably robust, but performance should be instant and stay away from models with high mileage and no service history.
Consumable parts like brake components and exhausts are slightly dearer than average, but shopping around or using motor factors can gain you some favourable deals. Items like tyres, brake pads and shoes for example, wear no quicker than its rivals but a close look should be given to the exhaust system, if only used on short journeys, the exhaust can and will, rot easily and quickly, especially the rear silencer assembly. The catalytic converters are known for failing as are the oxygen sensors (some petrol engines have two cats). All models feature power steering and all but the basic models have electric windows, and in all fairness, the model range is large enough to cater for all your wants and desires. Easy enough to hustle through the streets yet capable enough to handle the longer journey, the Rover 25 is a refined little car.
What Are They Like To Run?
Once again, with the exception of the complicated CVT steptronic auto, the Rover 25 presents no nasty surprises for the competent DIY owner driver. All routine check items are clearly marked and accessible; its generously sized washer bottle makes life easier for the owner. Fuses are clearly marked and there are two fuse boxes, one below the steering wheel and one under the bonnet. All bulbs are easy to access, but be wary of the high level stop light, these can sometimes fail without warning. Oil changes are recommended every 12,000 miles and require a good quality 10/40w oil. Timing belts are best changed at 50,000 miles
Based on a competent DIY mechanic, the following repair / maintenance are:
Routine Servicing – Easy
Timing Belt petrol – Fair
Timing belts diesel – Some skill required
Drive belts – Fair
Brake Pads – Easy
Brake Shoes – Easy
Headlamp Bulb – Easy
Battery – Easy
In summary, the Rover 25 represents a cracking used buy if in good mechanical order. They drive well, perform well and above all, they are cheap. Take your time to find a good one as there are hundreds out there begging for a new home. Stay away from white or solid blue cars and buy the best model you can afford and don’t forget to negotiate hard, there are some stunning bargains for the smart hunters!
Don’t accept noisy oily engines or anything with excessive rust – more hassle than its worth. But for those who like a challenge and know what they are doing, a dirt cheap below par 25 is a viable option. Make sure you have the immobiliser code with the handbook pack and both sets of keys. Buy right and buy smart and you are on your way to one of the most underrated superminis you can buy!