Developed as a Metro replacement, on a shoestring and using a whole host of carry-over parts, the re-born Rover 200 should have possessed all the appeal of a damp weekend in the Lake District.
However, thanks to clever packaging and classy styling, it was really rather good – a shame, though, that it was horrendously overpriced at launch…
The supermini that outgrew itself
By 1995, Rover Cars was definitely a car company on the up and up. The stylish Rover 600 had demonstrated that Gordon Sked’s Design Team could turn the rather anonymous Honda Accord into a classy, elegant-looking car.
However, depressingly for some observers, the following model, the Rover 400, did not look nearly different enough from its Honda relative to stop some commentators from muttering ominous noises about the fact that independence at Rover was now in the past and that their future now lay in re-chroming Honda products.
These doomsayers did not count on the projects that Rover had been feverishly working on since the late-1980s, the first of which had appeared in February 1995, the MGF. Secondly, there was the project to replace that most British of cars, the Rover Metro.
How to solve a problem like the Metro/100
Even before the R6 Metro (above) appeared on the roads, Rover strategists knew that it was going to live a significantly shorter life than its predecessor. In their eyes, there was no way that the car could not: no matter how effective it was, using its new K-Series engine and reinvigorated Hydragas suspension, the bodyshell and therefore its internal packaging were by 1990, some 15 years old.
All its rivals were now significantly larger and the little Metro could not hope to compete in the class that it once called its own. Rover’s intended plan to replace the Metro was initially drawn up in late 1990 – and it centred on a plan to build a Honda model, only superficially modified as had been the case with the Rover 600 before it.
By the early 1990s, following the success of the jointly engineered Rover 200 (R8) and Honda Concerto, serious discussions took place to set the future direction of the relationship for the forthcoming years. The model plan, running from SK1 (Rover 600 with Honda engines) right through to SK5 (a Rover 800 replacement), included the SK3, a small medium sector car that Honda would engineer solely for Rover.
The ‘SK’ nomenclature indicates this agreement was at the high levels within each business – between George Simpson, the MD of Rover Group, and Nobuhiko Kawamoto, the CEO of Honda Motors.
Project SK3 is go, with Honda’s help
Rover could not, with its existing engineering resources and processes, deliver the required programme time to get the new small car into production by 1995, but Honda were known for their world-best development lead times and were approached for help.
Achieving a faster lead time required benefitting from Honda’s suppliers, particularly for prototype and production body and bumper panels and tooling. With the support of Honda R&D, the tooling arm of Honda committed to faster timings on SK3 than they normally would for Honda’s own programmes on the assumption that they could work simultaneously with Honda R&D concept and surfacing, as this was key to achieving the lead times. The conclusion of the meetings in Honda R&D was that, with all of the above provisos, feasibility was given to achieving Rover’s required date.
The Honda support consisted of tooling and feasibility experts working alongside their Rover colleagues both in Japan and in the Design Studio at Canley. In order to deliver a car around the same time as the HH-R , as needed to avoid loss of market coverage at the bottom end of the R8 range not covered by HH-R, the car would need to be based on an existing platform. This meant that difficult engineering, such as crash structures, would have to be carried over.
The YY/R8 platform was the obvious choice, given the all-round competence of the R8 within its class this was hardly seen as a drawback., but the fact that the ‘donor’ model was from the sector above the new model was to become an insoluble problem.
By May 1991, project SK3 was approved to go into development – and the Metro’s replacement soon began a rapid gestation. Given that the project was given a budgetary limitation of £200 million (compare that of the £275 million of the Metro, back in 1980), Rover soon changed its plans for the upcoming small car.
This was because a very interesting phenomenon was taking place on the marketplace, which had literally taken the company by surprise: that was the unexpected sales success of the R6 Rover Metro. Soon, Rover’s Marketing Department figured that to maximise its opportunities on the marketplace, the R3 should be taken slightly upmarket – away from the Ford Fiestas of this world and nearer to the Golf and Escort market.
During May and June 1991, David Saddington led a team of five young Designers who quickly settled on a common hatchback design where the sheet metal changes between three and five-door were mainly limited to the B- and C-pillar pressings and the length of the rear wings and doors. Rather than follow the Metro’s trend for clean, angular lines David opted for something more youthful and curvaceous with a low, almost coupe-esque stance so as to appeal to a younger buyer.
Even when the project brief for SK3 was changed during the gestation period, whereby it became part of an ambitious two-model coverage strategy alongside the HHR to cover the entire medium market sector, its overall design theme remained unchanged.
As Saddington stated, acknowledging the elegance of the larger Rover 600, ‘We knew that the 600 was a good looker so there was plenty to work with. The challenge was taking its inherent British “Roverness” and stretching the boundaries to encompass a younger market.’
Fitting into the Rover family
Saddington and his team of graduate designers produced bold concepts in double quick time – and, because the majority of the company’s design resources at Canley were involved in the development of the MGF and HHR, the SK3 style was very much the product of a small and focused team.
The fact that the SK3 was constrained by the condition that it was built on a slightly shortened version of the R8 platform did not cause any problems for the Design team, because, apart from being stuck with the existing car’s (low) scuttle and front overhang, the platform was remarkably flexible.
‘We knew that the 600 was a good looker so there was plenty to work with. The challenge was taking its inherent British “Roverness” and stretching the boundaries to encompass a younger market.’
– David Saddington
By July 1991, a quartet of quarter-scale clay models had been produced which, barring a few minor details, reflected the finished concept. As Saddington himself concluded about this amazingly fertile period in the car’s conception, ‘It happened very quickly but the ingredients were all there. We had good front and rear tracks, lots of plan shape to visually shorten the front overhang and balance the short bob-tail rear, and a sporty, almost coupe-like profile.’
SK3 enters final design phase
Pleased with the direction of the SK3 design, management approved the car for the next stage of its development programme and instructed the construction of a full-sized clay model of the best design. By October 1991, this process was complete and Saddington used the clay buck sell the design to various interested parties, both internal (the Production Engineers) and external (the customers) to Rover in customer clinics.
SK3 as viewed from Saddington’s favoured perspective: low nose, squat and pert tail end were complemented by the perfectly formed glasshouse. The rear lights certainly looked overly large in 1991, but by the time of the car’s launch in November 1995, the decision to stick with them was vindicated by the fact that just about every other manufacturer was going the same way. (Picture supplied by Kevin Davis)
The reaction from these clinics was positive – and it was all the encouragement that Rover needed that they were on track for a remarkable renewal of the range as a whole, by the end of 1995. Now that the exterior design had proven itself in clinics and with the Engineers, Rover needed to take stock of the situation.
The trouble was that, although the SK3 was undergoing a remarkably complication-free gestation, the company was also required to focus on many other projects. Rover simply didn’t have the resources to work on any number of parallel projects – the MGF, Rover 400, Rover 600 (nearing completion), variations of the R8 – including the Tomcat coupe and Tracer cabriolet – and Pathfinder, which would eventually evolve into the Land Rover Freelander.
By mid-1992, the basic feasibility had been completed, the design had been signed off, the Honda engineers went home, and then the programme stopped. There were two main reasons for this, the first, and official, reason is that there was a lack of engineering resource available – SK1 and SK2 were nearing production, HH-R was taking priority and the PR3 (MGF) programme was more important, too.
However, the second reason was that although the car did well at clinics, there was a significant issue with both positioning and profitability.
A hiatus in the programme
Something had to give, and although the exterior design of the SK3 was frozen and signed-off for production in May 1992, the company made the decision to put the car’s development on hold for six months, pending the advancement of the other designs in development.
In the six month hiatus in the development programme – between May and November 1992 – Rover knuckled down to the other ongoing projects, but the company view was that the SK3 was far from dead, even if it may have appeared that way at the time.
Saddington ensured that every minutiae of the project were recorded for its eventual re-start. Of course, the official line touted by Saddington was that the project had advanced quickly and that the break did had no adverse effects on the team at Canley, but of course, there was a degree of disappointment at the time, especially given that it appeared that they were having to give way to the very Japanese HH-R.
In a recollection of events of the time, David Saddington, ‘In the design studio this left us with the much less exciting task of working on ‘Project X’. A sexy codename for a slightly desperate study! The brief, basically, was to brainstorm ideas for low-investment products that could help fill Longbridge. The loss of the Honda volume in Longbridge (when Honda car production transferred to the new Swindon factory) brought into question the profitability of all the vehicles made there, so what else could we design that would replace this loss of volume?
‘Even though SK3 was paused, I made certain that the beautiful models of it were never put into storage. In one of the Project X discussions, the Finance Lead, Phil Thompson, pointed at SK3 and said to the senior management “you might as well build that one just to keep the lights turned on in Longbridge, if we could just make it for less money…’
The six-month pause in development meant that new rivals appeared (namely the Peugeot 306, in particular) which forced Rover to up its game and make a couple of late-programme changes, which perhaps would not have happened had the SK3 enjoyed an uninterrupted development.
Initial plans for the SK3 were to use the existing R8 dashboard carried over unchanged. This decision, again, was taken because of cost factors, but when the company decided to add a passenger airbag as an option, it was found that it would not fit in the existing moulding without significant modification. The cost of designing a new dashboard was no greater – so, thankfully, a new moulding was adopted.
With regards to the package of the car, there was a fundamental problem with shortening the rear overhang of the car – it was impossible to fit a full-size spare wheel, fuel tank of the necessary capacity and exhaust system, whilst retaining a suitable boot, capacity all at the same time! The platform’s complex rear suspension lateral arms pivoted on a lateral section of bodywork that caused the spare wheel to be lifted into the boot space. It was not a problem that could be fixed without fundamental re-engineering and so the challenge was set to the Rover Packaging Team to provide an answer.
Project SK3 becomes R3
Within 10 days Dave Beadle, Package and Feasibility Engineer, and the team had repackaged the rear end of the car around a modified Maestro/Montego ‘H-frame’ rear suspension (above) which was much more common in the lower medium sector being fitted to cars such as the Volkswagen Golf. This allowed the fuel tank to be fitted in front of the H-frame and the upturned spare wheel (with tool stowage inside it) and rear exhaust silencer behind. It also had the benefit of being over £120 cheaper than the R8.
This was just what was needed to give a Longbridge the volume product it was desperate for but there was only 12 weeks before the programme needed to start to meet the hastily produced new ‘Portfolio’ timing plan. (‘Portfolio’ was the name adopted for the 3 new Longbridge-produced vehicles planned to emerge in 1995. This was a mammoth task for the plant which was had rarely had more than one new car every few years to plan for).
So, everything was quickly dusted off with the changes to the rear of the car and the new facia fully incorporated into the plans and the new programme R3 started.
With the HH-R being tuned primarily for comfort, the R3 was honed to deliver a more sporting ride and even included passive rear steering, something the Rover Chassis team had been investigating since the introduction of the Maestro and Montego in the 80s. This was achieved by angling the mounting bushes and controlling their lateral movement by moulded-in snubbers to give agility and high-speed stability.
Honda, like most other car companies, had progressively increased the size of their cars each time they were facelifted and eventually reached a point where the whole range had moved upmarket and they didn’t have a small car at the bottom of the range in Europe. They decided that they needed one quickly, as an interim measure to give themselves time to create one of their own, and having heard about R3, asked to see it.
Mike Burnett, the SK3/R3 Project Director recalled, ‘A meeting was quickly arranged and the head of Honda Europe, along with his sales director and other colleagues, came to view the car in the Canley Design showroom. Having worked with Honda from as far back as the Acclaim project, I knew, along with the rest of the world, that Japanese businessmen don’t make hasty decisions and rarely show emotion but soon as they walked into the showroom, there were beaming smiles and their sales director turned to me and said: “Don’t change anything, when can we have it?”’
Mike further recalled the conversation. ‘It was a vital stage of the programme. “As the conversation proceeded, we obviously made the point regarding the level of carryover from Rover 200 and their smiles were even broader. Having said that, Honda had implied they’d like the car without any changes, it wasn’t an acceptable proposition from a Rover viewpoint because of the potential for Honda sales to be substitutional and, therefore, undermine Rover’s programme financial justification. Thereafter, Rover Design, Product Planning and Finance Teams set about creating a series of fairly minor design change proposals to create a sufficient level of style differential to minimise or avoid the potential for this to be an issue.” This was referred to internally as ‘R3-H’.
A few short weeks later, BAe announced the intended sale of Rover to BMW, so the small Honda never happened…
Adding chrome into the mix
The Marketing Department at Rover were now going into overdrive and throughout 1993 it formulated an updated 1995 plan. The R3 would be used to replace the lower versions in the old Rover 200 range, but the pricing would be pushed further upmarket, away from the mass market.
One cosmetic adjustment made towards the end of the R3 programme to reflect this push upmarket was instigated by BMW: the liberal use of chrome for the grille. There were two reasons for this: the styling treatment was considered redolent of Munich’s own, but also the chrome was considered to add a little more class to the youthful new design.
Until 1994, the R3 was to be named the Rover 100, but with the push upmarket came a new name – 200 – signifying the fact that the R3 was now viewed as a Golf-class competitor. There were two reasons for this re-positioning – Rover was very confident in the design and engineering quality of the R3 and decided that it would easily stand against the Volkswagen Golf and Peugeot 306, despite its less than generous accommodation.
Market research had shown that younger audience Rover were aiming at were not so concerned with rear seat room, as much as boot space – and so it was that the R3 was given a commodious boot in preference to a large rear seat.
Overconfidence at Gaydon?
Rover was confident of the success that the new 200 would achieve – and it showed in the pricing of the new car: not only above the supermini rivals the car was conceived to fight, but also higher than its Golf-class rivals, too.
John Towers reflected this mood by stating that the pricing of the car was right, and that if the company’s UK market share dropped as a result, it would please him, as it would release capacity to increase sales in export markets, while maintaining UK profits. Rover’s reputation with customers had improved since the late 1980s on the back of the success of the previous 200 and a dramatically improved dealer network – he wanted to build on this by ensuring that that a perceived move upmarket resulted.
Towers put it in these terms, ‘If you ask a Ford driver what they drive, by and large they won’t say, ‘I drive a Ford’. They will say they drive an Escort, Fiesta, Scorpio or whatever. Ask a Mercedes-Benz driver the same question and he or she will simply say, “I drive a Mercedes”. The marque is more important than the model. This is where I want Rover to be: right now we’re on the bridge where our customers will say, “I drive a Rover 214’.”
Rover 200 heads for the race track – then doesn’t
Rover Cars’ Marketing Department wasted little time in devising plans to enter the R3 into its own one-make race series. This would not only inject some spirit into the R3 range generally, but also build on what had already been achieved with its predecessor, the R8, through the Dunlop Rover GTi Championship and more recent Dunlop Rover Turbo Cup.
Tony Pond Racing (TPR) continued to be the favoured choice for helping to develop the race series cars and provide support to the teams. TPR’s team of five Engineers based in a small workshop within Rover Group’s Gaydon site had already developed a ‘go-faster’ handling kit comprising of chassis and suspension enhancements, to support the intended ambitions of Marketing.
An actual R3 race car was fitted with this handling kit, together with a body graphics treatment created by Rover’s Engineering Department and a 197bhp Janspeed-developed version of the K-Series engine. Despite receiving favourable feedback when appraised, Marketing decided to cancel the planned one-make race series and switch attention to one-make race series programmes for the MGF, to be run by Rover Japan and Rover France.
Making a splash at Earls Court
Unveiled on Tuesday, 17 October 1995 at the London Motor Show, there were two examples of the new 200 Series on display on Stand E2 – a luxury-clad 216 SLi five-door finished in Nightfire Red pearlescent and a 200 Vi three-door finished in Kingfisher Blue metallic.
In terms of marketing the 200, increased prices meant higher profits and Rover was all about generating profits during the 1990s. ‘We’re not looking for volume sales with the new 200, so we’re not price chasing the opposition,’ said Rover at the car’s launch.
As with the HHR-generation 400 Series, the R3 would be offered with a choice of three 16-valve versions of the K-Series ranging from 1.4-litres to the new 1.6 and 1.8-litre. Sitting below them would an 8-valve 1.4-litre version producing 75bhp. There would also be a choice of two versions of the home-grown 2.0-litre L-Series diesel engine – the 86bhp TCie-M with mechanical injection and the 103bhp TCie with electronic fuel injection.
For for an Englishman in New York
However, Rover Cars’ marketing forecasters had clearly underestimated the level of demand for the VVC version of the new 1.8-litre K-Series engine in the MGF – as a consequence, production versions of the 200 Vi did not arrive in showrooms until January 1997. That was a shame as this variant that had been chosen to appear in the aptly-themed ‘Englishman in New York’ television advert to launch sales of the R3.
Produced by Rover’s appointed advertising agency APL, which handled its above- and below-the-line account, this 50-second advert (below) had cost approximately £1.3 million to make. Its storyline focused on an Englishman who did not feel aggravated or stressed when experiencing various strains of urban life during his drive through the streets of New York City.
The first R3 production version built was a 214 Si three-door finished in British Racing Green metallic which, maintaining the tradition relating to first and last built cars, was handed over to the British Motor Heritage Trust. Volume production commenced from mid-November 1995 in time to meet the December on-sale date.
Plenty of choice
At launch the model line-up comprised of the 214i featuring the 8-valve version of the 1.4-litre K-Series engine. It was priced from £9995 in three-door form, with the five-door version costing £500 more. The slightly more power 103bhp 16-valve version in Si spec, which was expected to be the volume seller, was priced at £11,195 in three-door form.
For £1000 more you could have the Si trim specified with the new 111bhp 1.6-litre engine, with this engine also being the sole engine offered in the high spec 216 SLi variant. Rover Cars had recognised the growing appeal for a diesel engine option across different trim levels and in different body styles. The 2.0-litre L-Series was therefore offered in base and mid-spec trim levels and in both three- and five-door form.
The R3 would also be offered in ten exterior colour options shared with Longbridge-built models such as the ‘young-at-heart’ Mini and Rover 100 Series (nee Metro) and the new MGF sports car, to further reinforce its youthful appeal. These comprised of Amaranth metallic, British Racing Green metallic, Charcoal metallic, Electric Blue, Flame Red, Kingfisher Blue metallic, Nightfire Red pearlescent, Platinum Silver metallic, Tahiti Blue pearlescent and White Diamond.
The press launch took place in Southern Italy a month after the unveiling and it used a fleet of consecutively registered press demo cars wearing the N7** SVC registration series. The R3 attracted some favourable comments from road-testers who liked its mix of modern styling, well-appointed interiors and responsive handling.
Hot 200’s naming embarrassment
Sitting at the top of the line-up was a sporting flagship 200 Vi model featuring the new 1.8-litre K-Series engine with variable valve control (VVC) as offered in the MGF. The high performance Vi model was originally shortlisted to be badged as the VVC although someone in Marketing soon realised that, due to the adopted close-script used for all trim level badging, from a distance it could potentially be mistakenly read as ‘WC’. It was quickly changed to ‘Vi’ rather than use one of Rover’s other established high performance monikers.
At the heart of the new car lay the VVC version of the 1.8-litre K-Series engine found in the newly-launched MGF. The system allowed for the infinite adjustment of the engine’s valve timing, which maximised low-end torque as well as top-end power. Imagine it as a lower budget, but highly effective version of Honda’s VTEC system – resulting in a more than adequate 143bhp power output.
Ironically, the specific output of the 200Vi was a somewhat less impressive achievement at 79bhp/litre, than the standard 214 at 73bhp/litre. However, the Rover 200Vi made up for its power deficit compared with its GTi rivals, by being appreciably lighter than all of them.
Autocar magazine tested the 200Vi against rivals from Alfa Romeo and Ford and came away impressed, the performance, thanks to its light weight, being particularly lauded, ‘In reality, it’s the Rover which proves easily the swiftest thanks to an unlikely secret weapon – its weight. Throw in the Vi’s close-ratio gearbox and its low overall gearing and it becomes an inevitability that it is going to sprint the hardest.’
The road test also declared the Rover a winner almost without reservation, which was a new phenomenon for the company, as they did not have a particularly distinguished record in the hot hatchback market. ‘So the 200 wins. Not because it is any more fun than the Alfa or more user friendly than the Ford, but because it more successfully blends all aspects important to a good hot hatch in a classy shape that is beautifully made. All it lacks, as ever, is space.’
What the road testers said
Certainly, the new 200 impressed the testers and the conclusions made by Autocar magazine summed up this impressive, but flawed package. ‘The new 200 has enough ability and more than enough charm to deserve not to fall victim to ill-advised packaging. It offers a genuinely attractive and markedly more able alternative for buyers bored with the predictable Ford Escort/Vauxhall Astra mainstream and at a price that seems high only on initial acquaintance.
‘And in the face of fine new rivals such as the Renault Megane and Fiat Brava, the Rover is set to compete and compete well. Of its opponents, only the Peugeot 306 with its impeccable chassis, clever packaging and great looks is an unapproachably better car. Even so, the Rover still manages to ask more questions of the 306’s powertrain and build quality than I’d imagine Peugeot would care to answer.
‘I worry, however, about the limited interior space. It shouldn’t undermine such an otherwise fine product but it just might. Wonderful this world may be; fair it ain’t.’
How did the Rover 200 fare on the market?
Rover found that sales of the 200 began briskly, but as John Towers rather prophetically predicted, its price did prove to be a barrier to sales; most buyers failed to understand the message that Rover tried to deliver with the 200. As far as buyers were concerned, the 200 was an Escort-class competitor and a cramped one, to boot.
Plus, the benefits of the Rover 200’s advanced K-Series engine with its high specific output were largely lost to the man in the street: engine size mattered – and a 1.6-litre car was always going to be a better bet than a 1.4, even if it were less powerful. Rover soon cottoned on to this way of thinking – and badged all their cars by their ‘series’ number, instead of the more precise series/capacity way they had done in the past (i.e., ‘Rover 214Si’ became simply ‘Rover 200’). It probably helped that the system also distanced Rover that bit further from BMW.
As reported by the SMMT, the sales of the Rover 200 remained a level throughout its early life – and there can be no denying the fact that the high purchase price of the car was hampering private as well as fleet sales. The other problem for Rover was that, within its class, the Rover 200 was not the only ‘premium’ branded hatchback: the Volkswagen Golf maintained an unassailable lead in that department.
Rover 200: UK sales
The Rover 200 range develops
By June 1997 the regular model line-up had been expanded to include the availability of a sporting iS derivative to sit below the Vi. Sharing the same colour-keyed roof spoiler, 15-inch alloy wheels and front fog lamps features as found on the 200 Vi, the new iS would be offered with the existing 1.4-litre 16-valve and 2.0-litre SDi engines. In 218 iS form it would also signal the availability of the 118bhp non-VVC K-Series engine in an R3 model.
The 1997 Frankfurt Motor Show saw an interesting twist in diversifying the sporting appeal of the R3 in the form of the Rover 200 BRM LE (British Racing Motors). The arrival of Tom Purves from BMW (GB) as Rover Group’s new Sales and Marketing Director in June 1996 saw a greater drive to promote Rover’s traditional elements from its history. This also extended to delivering a meaningful heritage-based performance model to aid export marketing opportunities for the range in general.
By the end of 1998, the 400,000th R3 had left the Longbridge assembly line. Enhancements such as the availability of the 60bhp 1.1-litre eight-valve engine appealed to those mourning the passing of the recently discontinued Rover 100 Series.
Special edition models such as the 211i SE and 214i SE continued to reinforce value-for-money in the home market. This was aided by a new television advertising campaign by APL which portrayed a more contemporary image for the Rover brand based on a ‘Cool Britannia’ theme featuring carnival scenes and Pearly Queens.
The special editions roll in
In contrast, in export markets such as Germany the importers were emphasising wellbeing and luxury through special feature content. This was notable through derivatives such as the ‘Young’, ‘British Open’ and ‘Silverstone’ unveiled in April 1999 which featured bold seat fabrics or embossed special leather seat facings, a full-length canvas sunroof or wood-rimmed steering wheel and different alloy wheel designs to those found on regular models.
In the UK, the emphasis was on adjusting the line-up in preparation for the introduction of a heavily updated model in the autumn of 1999. A two-pronged strategy started in April 1999 with the introduction of special edition models.
These comprised of the SEi offering a low-cost route to owning a highly-specified Rover 200, the sporting iS package (now offered in 1.6-litre form in place of the 1.8-litre engine) and the comfort and luxury focused iL. This was followed two months later by regular trim levels being repackaged and renamed, to smooth the transition to the replacement model and its respective trim level identities, due be unveiled at the 1999 London Motor Show.
In production for less than four years the R3 Rover 200 Series was considered a success story, with 470,449 examples having been built. Even in its final year in 200 Series form, the R3 had maintained strong sales form despite a collapse in sales in Japan that year due to the introduction of consumption tax.
There was also parent company BMW’s public discontent over poor productivity at the Longbridge assembly plant to deal with. Sadly, this latter factor would continue to overshadow the launch of the new model unveiled at Earls Court Exhibition Centre on 19 October 1999.
Out with the 200 and in with the 25
The 200’s lack of Metro-sized sales success soon led to a re-think by Rover – and its masters, BMW. Although the car was performing adequately, the idea that it was quite good enough to command the price premium that Rover were asking was seen as stretching the company’s credibility a little too far. As a result of this, in 1998, Rover started work on a light facelift of the 200, in order to bring it into line with the upcoming Rover 75.
Naming the car was easy – Rover’s BMW-developed new small car was still a few years away, but already the plan was to name it the Rover 35 and 55, so logically, the 200 and 400 – which bracketed the new car should therefore be called the 25 and 45.
Known internally as Project ‘Jewel’, the new model echoed the distinctive four headlamp style and deeper, more rounded grille design introduced on the 75 as part of ‘the new face of Rover’ design philosophy.
Along with featuring new front wings, bonnet and bumper mouldings, the Rover 25 also benefited from a redeveloped chassis, enhanced interiors and a greater personalising potential through a wider choice of alloy wheel designs and trim levels. So significant were the changes that it was claimed around 40 per cent of the components used were new.
With the design and engineering enhancements also came a change in the market sector it was being pitched in, namely as a premium supermini contender aimed at younger buyers wanting a distinctive and sporting hatchback. This was clearly evident by the sports chassis which had adopted the uprated springs and damper characteristics of the previous 200 Vi variant.
For those buyers looking for something even more sporty there would be a GTi derivative identified by its 16-inch multi-spoke wheels, colour-coded bumper inserts and black-finish to the radiator grille vanes. Powered by the 143bhp 1.8-litre VVC engine, the GTi featured the shorter final drive and sports suspension lowered by 20mm that had been introduced on the 200 BRM LE.
A new name, a revised model line-up – and approach
The significant event at this point was a price realignment, which would take the Rover 25 back into the supermini sector, where it was initially designed to compete. Rover strategists believed in the run-up to the launch of the 25, that now the Metro had finally been discontinued, following an inglorious death at the hands of NCAP, a more realistic pricing policy needed to be adopted by Rover.
The fact that the division was now losing money at an alarming rate also added to the need to increase desirability and, therefore, sales of the range. When the Rover 25 was shown to the press on the 6 October 1999, there was already an underlying sense of panic at Longbridge because the sales of the existing 200 and 400 models were sliding at an alarming rate.
However, that did not stop the company being quietly confident that the new 25 would stop the rot and, at the very least, maintain sales of the car until the new models were launched (then scheduled for a 2002 model year launch).
What else had changed?
Apart from the tightening up of the chassis settings, remarkably little else was altered – and one can draw one of two conclusions from this fact: a) the Rover 200 was so good that it needed little titivation in order to remain competitive or b) BMW did not release a huge amount of capital with which to facelift the 200, knowing that their own new car was but three years away.
Either way, with the price cuts that came with the car, the Rover 25 lived to fight another day – and it has to be said that as a Ford Fiesta/Vauxhall Corsa competitor, it made more sense than an Astra/Focus rival.
The 25 range officially went on sale from 1 December supported by a multi-million European launch campaign handled by WCRS. The advertising campaign centred on the new ‘Extraordinary Drive’ slogan that had been introduced for the 75’s advertising launch.
In the print adverts the Rover 25 boasted about offering ‘more power, more control and more response.’ Collectively this was a far cry from the ‘Relax, it’s a Rover’ strapline the R3 had been uncomfortably saddled with since late 1996 given that its driving dynamics were noted for being aimed at an eager driver.
Politics start to get in the way
Aiding the print adverts was a new television advert produced by M&C Saatchi based around a Roulette wheel and featuring ‘Life in Mono’ as its soundtrack by the group Mono, taken from their ‘Formica Blues’ album.
Sadly, it was too little, too late for Rover Group’s owner BMW, which in March 2000 decided to rid itself of its interests in the ‘English Patient.’ As a consequence, Land Rover was sold to Ford while the Rover Cars operation eventually found a confirmed buyer in Phoenix Venture Holdings (PVH), which officially acquired the company and its product range in May 2000.
Leading the PVH bid was former Rover Group Chief Executive John Towers, who had left the Rover Group in May 1996, having worked for them for eight years.
Under new management
In those six weeks of uncertainty before the deal was formalised the Rover 25 had actually taken the top spot in the month of April as the best-selling car in the UK. However, PVH knew this success was a brief reprieve for a model they would have to work hard with in order to prolong its sales life.
There was also the issue of the Rover brand being commercially damaged, not helped by the press referring to the company as merely ‘Rover’ when describing events relating to the Rover Group, Rover Cars, Land Rover and even the pre-1986 period of the former state-owned car manufacturer.
Interestingly, the Chairman of PVH, John Towers, had previously said in an interview featured in the BBC documentary ‘When BMW met Rover‘, broadcast in 1996, that he considered the R8 Rover 200 Series to be the most successful model to come out of the Rover Group. No doubt he was referring to the ability to utilise a common body structure as the basis to spawn no less than six different body styles.
Clearly, the ambition was there within the renamed MG Rover Group to utilise the Rover 25 in a similarly flexible way, albeit through a more low-cost approach where differentiated product themes could be delivered through making changes to primary and secondary trim, rather than undertaking major re-engineering to the body itself.
MG Rover makes clever changes
Just over a year after the launch of the Rover 25 – in November 2000 – MG Rover Group announced that it would be using the MG brand for a range of sporting saloon variants. These would supplement the Rover models and also aid in expanding the presence of MG as a global brand beyond the MGF sports car.
On 30 January 2001, the three revised cars were wheeled out to the press – and the revitalised Rover 25, known internally as the MG X30 certainly looked as though it meant business. Rob Oldaker, MG Rover’s Director of Product Development put it in these terms, ‘These are uncompromising drivers’ cars that have taut handling and steering and sit low and ride firmly.’
This message was certainly at odds with that of BMW, which had Rover’s cars exhibiting pillow soft ride quality. Why such a turn around in ideals? MG Rover knew that their cars needed an injection of image and the MG name certainly was not a liability: what would have killed it for Rover though, would have been a simple badge-engineering exercise.
Hence the need for more ‘classic’ Rovers, but focused MG versions – and the company was now in a position to offer both: the Rover 25 could be left pretty much as it was – it was an effective supermini, whereas the MG X30 would offer a driving experience more akin to its GTi rivals.
The Rover 25-based variant, codenamed X30, would utilise some of the engine choices already offered in the Rover 25, but feature more assertive sports styling. This was derived from bolder colour and trim changes, the availability of a bigger size alloy wheel design and body styling enhancement components such as sill extensions, a larger roof spoiler and a front bumper bib spoiler. The dynamic enhancements included a lowered and stiffened suspension, faster gearing to the steering and a more involving exhaust note.
A week before the 2001 Geneva Motor Show threw open its doors MG Rover Group announced that X30 would officially be known as the MG ZR and would go on sale from July 2001, priced from £9995 for the entry level 1.4-litre ZR 105.
Chassis changes were abundant and the differences between the MG and Rover versions of the 25 were now quite marked. The styling of the MG X30 was also re-worked most effectively by Peter Stevens, being treated to new more aggressive bumpers, lower ride height, larger diameter wheels and bold colour schemes. Did it work? Well, certainly, the MG version looked like a more convincing hot hatchback than either the 200Vi or BRM models that preceded it.
Keen pricing and a realistic marketing programme followed the announcement of the original X30 – and, in the summer of 2001, the prductionised version, the MG ZR was announced with a starting price of just £9995 for the 103bhp 1.4-litre version.
The arrival of the MG ZR, particularly the flagship ZR 160, saw the discontinuation of the high performance Rover 25 GTi after just eighteen months. According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) data, 1984 examples had been built for sale in a number of markets and it would ultimately become the last sporting performance model to wear a Rover badge.
Streetwise – a stroke of genius
This inventive thinking continued to manifest itself even later in the car’s life. More than a little aware of the aging buyer profile for the Rover-badged car, a more youth orientated version made an appearance in July 2003, when MG Rover announced the Streetwise.
Starting from less than £10,000, this new version drew its inspiration from the contemporary trend for urban warrior ‘soft-roaders’: cars such as the Audi Allroad, Volvo XC70 and Renault Scénic RX4 – destined for a life on the city streets, but which look like they have the attitude to cut it off the beaten track. Indeed, back in 1991 Rover had commissioned ADC to build a car of this type, the Metro-based Scout, but the project was cancelled following the BMW takeover.
The Streetwise followed the established formula, with large swathes of impact-absorbing grey plastic body-cladding, a jacked-up ride height and a set of purposeful roof bars which hinted at a variety of energetic leisure pursuits.
Off-road looks, on-road drive
However, for all its tough-guy looks, the Streetwise remained resolutely front-wheel drive only, so it perhaps had more in common with those pioneers of the breed, the Matra-Simca Rancho and Renault Rodeo, while clearly lacking their more utilitarian bodywork. Inside, the Streetwise featured blue-faced dials and revised switchgear, while buyers could opt for either two individual rear seats separated by a centre console, or a more conventional rear bench seat.
The Streetwise also allowed designers to experiment with a new look, safe in the knowledge they were only playing with a ‘niche’ model. Rover’s new badging was shown on this car, aligning it nicely with the CityRover, launched at the same time.
The final facelift
The final major update to the R3-based model was announced in April 2004 when both the Rover 25 and MG ZR now featured an all-new tailgate outer skin design, with the number plate relocated to the rear bumper. The front bumper and headlamps were also redesigned while the original R3 dashboard was replaced by a new fascia design and centre console. This offered new soft-touch switchgear, a satin finish to the column stalks and new circular air vents.
The Streetwise also received the new interior fascia design and shared the same remote tailgate release feature, although it retained its original tailgate outer skin with lift handle and number plate illumination. By November of that year the programme of revisions seen on the Rover 25 and MG ZR had reached the car-derived van versions.
While it was obvious these revised models could trace their origins back to the 1995 R3, MG Rover Group’s designers had undoubtedly completed a thorough and convincing update to prolong the model’s shelf life. It seemed to work for a while as, by the end of 2004, the MG ZR had become the company’s best-selling model, even outselling the Rover 75.
The sad end comes in April 2005
This success was short-lived as MG Rover Group went into administration on 7 April 2005 and production did not resume once it became clear that there were no buyers looking to acquire the company as a going concern. The final pre-administration MG ZR to be completed was a 105 Trophy SE three-door finished in Ignition Blue pearlescent, which was built on 6 April 2005. A total of 82,049 MG ZRs had been built.
Production data from the SMMT suggests that Longbridge had also built 228,694 Rover 25s, 14,227 Streetwises and a combined output of 930 examples of the Rover Commerce and MG ZR Express.
Production of the Streetwise did recommence, albeit in 2008 in China under Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation which had bought the rights to the Rover 25 from MG Rover Group in the autumn of 2004. The model was renamed as the MG 3 SW and it remained in production for approximately two years for sale in China only. It was replaced by an all-new model featuring a new body structure and platform in 2011.
A fine legacy, yet to be appreciated
The Rover 200 was a good car when launched – and is significant in the fact that it was the first British-designed Rover mainstream car to appear since the Austin Montego. As a replacement for the Metro, the 200 would surely have been a class leader, but in the class above, it was outgunned by the opposition.
The excellent engines, enviable bodystyle and competitive chassis were highlights, but where it failed to shine – and this was by no fault of its own – was because Rover management saddled the promising car with an excessive price.
To carry off such a marketing ploy successfully, any company has to either offer a top-drawer product, or be in a position that their client base will pay through the nose for the privilege of owning such a car. Rover was moving in the right direction, but it was still too soon for the company to push upmarket quite as ambitiously as it did – and that cost the company sales at a time when it badly needed to turn the corner.
Thanks to John Batchelor, David Morgan and Declan Berridge for their significant additions to the piece.
If you’re into the Rover 200 (R3) and its development, you can learn more by getting hold of a copy of The Real R3 Story – follow the link below to buy a copy.