Car of the Month : December 2005

We end the saddest of years in Rover’s history with perhaps a snapshot of the state of the marque as it stands today – a high-mileage, diesel powered R8…

Before you start emailing to complain about the distinctly dodgy choice of car, KEITH ADAMS explains why Andrew Carr’s high-mileage example deserves to be the final Austin-Rover car of the month of 2005.

Rover’s last call…

OKAY, so it’s only been six months since we last featured an example of an R8 as our Car of the Month – and in a world chock full of swanky Seventy Fives and awesome Eight Hundreds, this decision might lead you to wonder why. During this Annus Horribilis for MG Rover, it was clear that the company’s model weaknesses lay in the mid-ranges, not in the luxury and sporting ends of the market, and it seems only fair to discuss how the company landed in this terrible situation.

If we cast our minds back a mere fifteen years, Rover literally had the world at its feet – and it was all down to the excellence of the 200/400 series cars. Quite simply, the company worked perfectly Honda on a new mid-liner – ensuring partner was allowed to play to its own strengths. Honda took the lead in the areas it knew best, such as body engineering, and electrical design, but Rover took the whip hand in chassis engineering and interior packaging. The rest was a joint effort, with Honda taking a dominant role.

The result was sheer dynamite when it hit the marketplace in 1989 – the 200 managed to fuse Honda’s swiss-watch engineering values, with Rover’s warm and endearing nature. Critical success and huge sales followed the awards, and Rover was king of the mid-market hill.

Because the British company didn’t have the huge development resources it once had at its disposal, there was a certain amount of canny buying-in needed to build up a competitive range. The engine situation was complex – Honda provided the 1.6-litre version and Rover, the 1.4- and 2-litre petrol versions. Gearboxes were a mix of Honda (the PG1) and PSA (the R65), too – proving that the Rover Group purchasers were on the ball when it came down to cherry-picking the best components out there in the absence of the company’s own…

This policy is no better illustrated than with the diesel engines.

Some years from getting the L-Series onto the market, and not confident that the Maestro/Montego’s ‘Prima’ engines would be refined enough for its classy new mid-liner, Rover looked to gearbox supplier PSA, and negotiated a deal to buy its legendary XUD engines in both turbo and normally aspirated forms. From a 2005 standpoint, we can look at this engine, and wonder why it should be chosen over the very capable ‘Prima’, but the truth is that although the XUD lagged behind its Peterborough-built counterpart in terms of fuel efficiency, it was a whole lot less noisy.

And in a car, which was being sold on its advanced engineering, refinement and classiness, the clattery Prima just didn’t cut it. The good old XUD, on the other hand, was still considered the most refined diesel in its class – and well regarded for its performance and economy when found under the bonnet of the Citroen BX and Peugeot 405.

The end result was a capable and classy oil burner – and one that delivered the goods in the showroom. After all, where else could you buy a classy wood and leather family car powered by DERV in the early-Nineties? Yes, Rover pretty much had that sector of the market to itself, just as it had with the phenominally clever K-Series cars, and their technically less impressive (if more reliable in the long run) Honda powered cousins.

And looking at Andrew Carr’s 163,000 mile example of the breed, it would seem that the inate quality that underpinned the R8 when it was new remains intact today. Looking in fine form today, and fitted with all the extras available when new, this 50mpg R8 still stands up today – with sharp and incisive handling, more than adequate performance, and a muted and strong diesel engine under the bonnet. So the next time you see one on the road, remember how good it was back then, not how it appears now.

It is a sad fact that honest-to-goodness R8s like this will start to disappear off the roads rapidly during the next few years, and as it labours in the depth of its ‘banger’ phase, it is often easy to overlook it in the annals of Rover history. And for that, Andrew must be applauded for keeping with it instead of throwing it away, as so many are in today’s used car climate. In the end, the R8 should be remembered for setting a cart-load of standards rival manufacturers struggled to catch up with.

So much so, that Rover itself didn’t really manage when it came to replacing the R8.

And much of MG Rover’s latter-day problems lay in its inability to strike a co-operative deal with Honda to create a ‘new’ R8 in the same way in the early Nineties… instead we ended up with the under-cooked HH-R, and the overpriced and cramped R3 – and from there, sales melted away.

Such a shame…

Grille was a late addition to the 200/400, and yet, in our eyes, it looks less tacked on than the designed-in effort applied to the Mk2 version of the 800.

In the Nineties, applying a turbo to your diesel engined car was still worth crowing about…

Keith Adams

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