We take a sideways look at some of the UK’s most forgotten home-built cars. The Rover Streetwise was years, almost decades ahead of its time. Didn’t know that, did you?
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 bang on. You need only see all the homages on the roads today…
Rover Streetwise: the unknown pioneer
Until about five years ago, 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, publicly 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 romantic weekend in Paris all that time ago, 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’oeuvres, 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.
The streetwise choice in Paris
That week, I saw more Rover Streetwises than I’d seen in England in the previous couple of years. Indeed, the Streetwise must be one of those cars that’s currently high on the danger list – 15-years old, of very low value and attached to a marque that, whether we like it or not, is largely unloved by the general public. In Paris, though, the car had oodles of appeal – a fact proven by the fact that one I example I witnessed was for sale for 4500 Euros. That was about £3750 in Sterling at the time – 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, acres of side cladding, wheelarch 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. These days, they’d just call it an ‘SUV’ and no one would think any the worse of it.
Peter Stevens overswaw the design and conception of the Streetwise, and took inspiration from the Matra as well as a number of then-current SUV-esque cars such as the Audi Allroad and Volvo Cross Country. He was very happy with what he created with his Rover 25-based creations (especially considering the budgets), but later commented, ‘My major regret with the cars was MD Kevin Howe’s stupid decision to save money by having the badges made in Turkey, they cost about 20p less than high-quality UK-sourced badges and now almost all have gone milky and faded! I cringe every time I see them and just wish I had beaten up on Howe and the board for making such a daft decision. The badge is the main selling point of any car, quality badge – quality car, it’s simple.’
Of course, it could be argued that Rover was guilty of having a go earlier. One only needs to look at the ADC Metro Scout (below) to see what I mean. Here we had a Rover Metro that had been jacked up, toughened in stance, and fitted with additional cladding in the interests of ‘lifestyle’. And let’s also not forget MGA’s Montego Lifestyle SUV concept from the same time. Rover really was ahead of its time.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
Interestingly, though, nobody was quick to draw the daggers when, a year after the Rover’s launch, Volkswagen unleashed the Polo Dune and Citroën C3 XTR – two cars 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 sheer number of lightly-dressed ‘SUVs’ on the market now.
Don’t believe me? Check out the current raft of slightly-raised hatchbacks that are purporting to be SUVs. Let’s start from A and see where we get…
- Audi A1 Citycarver
- Audi Q2
- BMW X2
- Dacia Sandero Stepway
- Ford Fiesta Active
- Hyundai Kona
- Kia Stonic
- Kia XCeed
- Mercedes-Benz GLA
- SEAT Arona
- Skoda Kamiq
- Toyota C-HR
- Volkswagen T-Roc
There are lots of them, I’ve probably missed out a few – but you get snow blindness to them these days. But do you know what? People can’t get enough of these cars.
If only MG Rover had just had a little bit more money left in the marketing pot when it brought the Streetwise to market, then the story could have been very different. Had the equally chunky Rover 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? Mais oui, monsieur. I think so, anyway. So much so that there’s one in my collection now.