Unsung Heroes : Rover Streetwise 2003-2005

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…

Unpainted plastic bumpers are the perfect survival tool in Parisian streets
Unpainted plastic bumpers are the perfect survival tool in Parisian streets

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.

Modifications to the heater controls, gear lever surround and cupholders couldn't disguise the Streetwise's dated origins
Modifications to the heater controls, gear lever surround and cupholders couldn’t disguise the Streetwise’s dated origins

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.

France's own Streetwise? Did Matra come up with the Streetwise concept 20 two decades sooner?
France’s own Streetwise? Did Matra come up with the Streetwise concept 20 two decades sooner?

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.

ADC Metro Scout
ADC Metro Scout

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.

Original Streetwise marketing material - as provided with my Rover test car back in 2003...
Original Streetwise marketing material – as provided with my Rover test car back in 2003…

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.

Craig Cheetham

A serial impulsive car purchaser, Craig has had his name on over 200 V5s over the past 20 years. 10 per cent of those have been either 800s or Austin Allegros, with between 10 and 20 cars usually owned at any one time. Started out as a local newspaper journalist then worked for car mags including Auto Express, Classic Car Weekly and Land Rover Owner. Worked inside the car industry for a decade as an employee of General Motors, now works for a news distribution agency. Home based, which is dangerously convenient for further irrational heap purchases. Lover of all makes of car since childhood, with a particular leaning towards Austin-Rover... Father of three boys, so hoping to spread the car love. Other passions include rugby union, travelling and eating out.

44 Comments

  1. I always liked the Streetwise and was actually quite excited when an MG Rover Group press demo example powered by the L Series diesel engine and decked out with all the accessories arrived for me to evaluate in January 2004.

    As I drove around in it, Exeter’s ‘yoof’ were taking a curious interest in it with its 17-inch Addendum alloy wheels, silver finish pseudo running board ‘tubes’ in the side mouldings, a ribbed roof spoiler, lamp guards and front nudge bar. It was certainly a head-turner although for me was the delight of how practical it was. I also liked the L series diesel for its eager torque delivery and good economy; something I still enjoy today in a late build MG ZR.

    Inside were the two individual rear seats with a centre tray separating them, a la Freelander Softback, some neat black onyx and silver detailing for the dashboard fascia and a new floor console and half leather sports seats. It was certainly a creative step or two on from the Rover 25 and MG ZR.

    Like you, I think the Streetwise was a missed opportunity and a lack of proactive and consistent marketing did it no favours. However, visit Spain and there was a great television advert to promote it, complete with a chase scene!

    One thing that always made me smile was when I was asked if it had four-wheel drive. When I replied “No”, people suddenly thought it to be a pointless concept. I argued the point that it was a good concept due to it not having the high running costs, heavy steering, large turning circle and poor rear visibility of a conventional off-road vehicle. Moreover, over ninety per cent of off-road vehicles did not need four-wheel drive because they never actually ventured off the tarmac. However, the Streetwise still had the rufty-tufty looks and a slightly higher driving position with good all-round visibility of a small off-road vehicle.

    I do occasionally have a hankering to own one as an every day example, preferably a 2005 2.0 TD SE finished in Ignition Blue and sporting five doors because the rear door quarter light pillar emphasises its height more. However, the garage is already full and I already have other projects demanding my attention.

  2. You don’t necessarily need 4 wheel drive to go off road anyway – chunky tyres, high clearance and independent suspension will go a long way if you do need to.

    • I remember playing around off road in a two wheel drive Freelander 2, expecting it to be completely hopeless, but was pleasantly surprised at how capable it actually was. Obviously it wasn’t as capable as a 4 wheel drive version, but if you planned your route well enough it’d still do a good job at trying to keep up with the 4 wheel driver.

    • Thank you, Adrian. The two wheel drive Toyota Hiace of the 1970s was often seen in the Maluti Mountains in Lesotho, taking the dirt road Moteng Pass and others with ease, and the 8,000 plus altitude did not bother it. So much nippier than the Series Land Rovers of the day.

  3. Apparently the Streetwise also sold reasonably well in Russia, with owners liking it for its performance over rough road surfaces.

  4. I’m surprised to admit that I don’t think they look as embarrassing now as I thought when they first appeared. Maybe they were ahead of their time after all.

  5. I did think the Streetwise looked strange when they first appeared.

    Nice to see the Rancho mentioned, especially as they were a good 15-20 years ahead of their time in some ways, not including roofproofing though!

  6. I thought about this article because originally I felt the Streetwide was a joke. then I noticed the VW and Citroen C3 equivalents. Trouble is i still thought they were a joke.

    The concept has been modfieid somewhat. The Yeti is nothing like the Streetwise (in 4×4 guise it’s more like the Freelander 1) but there is now a rnage of cars that are doing the same thing, but taller: the Juke and the Ford Ecosport come to mind. And they make me laugh still.

    The closest to the Streetwise is the Dacia Stepway, while the sensible evolution is the Citroen C4 Cactus.

    PS out and about today and I saw the most amazing primrose yellow 75 on a T-plate. That looked odd when it came out but it looked magnificent today in the gloomy November light

  7. Absolutely foresaw the advent of the ‘crossover’ SUV popularity boom of the last decade.

    When every car suddenly becomes an SUV. Hatchback? SUV (Qashqai) Coupe? SUV (Paceman / Juke) Saloon car? SUV (Outlander) Estate car? SUV (Forester) etc. etc.

  8. How very interesting: this car looks better today, than it did when it was launched!!!

    I wonder if this, though, is just a function of how hideous most modern cars are?

  9. Think this concept would have worked well on the maestro?

    I well remember the Matra- Simca Rancho, we had a Simca 1100 van in our fleet at the time- one day father came home and announced he’d just seen a deLuxe version of our van with plastic bits stuck all over it!

  10. One of the problems with Streetwise was the poor body mouldings which didn’t fit properly – evidence of a model rushed into production with inadequate/cheap tooling. (says the owner of a 2006 Suzuki SX4 with alloy wheels, body/wheelarch cladding, roof rails and fake bright metal lower bumper guards – wonder where they got that idea from…)

  11. @ Chris C, the Suzuki SX4 has always been an interesting car, a Nissan Qashqai competitor for less money and a rarer sight. Indeed Suzuki in the last ten years have changed their image from being one of producing cheap hatchbacks and small off roaders to making interesting products like the Swift and the SX4.

  12. I think its aged better than the 25 which still has a bit of an old person persona stuck to it.

    Should it have been badged as a Rover? I say not, the car was crying out to be called the Austin Apache. The advert writes itself “The new Apache, from Austin tackles whatever the Wild West (Midlands) has to throw at it” with a picture of it tackling the potholes in the Lickey Hills Car Park!

    As for its rivals you’ve forgotten the rather natty C3 XTR from Citroen. This is the car my mother bought instead of the Streetwise, why, because Rowes Rover wouldn’t do a deal!

    https://scontent-a-lhr.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-xaf1/v/t1.0-9/s720x720/1898215_10154871250970384_8487048012185580961_n.jpg?oh=d77702b49cd1cd6513d026f2fafb806a&oe=551D77BC

  13. Have owned a 2005 Streetwise for well, over a year now.
    Has been brilliant, only cost me a few hundred quid to buy, has been 100% reliable, and been used as a workhorse
    Driving my sisters new Clio today and it’s not that much better, and considerably worse (seats, gear change) in some area’s.

  14. I’ve said it before (many times) but SAIC should have launched this here (as the MG3/ZR SW as they did in China) rather than the pointless TF which nobody really wanted. It would have had a wider potential customer demographic, and would possibly have kept more Rover-loyal drivers ticking over until they could have got a new range on the go. The TF was only ever going to appeal to a minority, and I think this has cost MG/SAIC a lot of ground in Europe.

  15. They created a bit of showroom interest and looked okay in top trim with leather and alloys et al

    Drove and rode quite well too if a little leanie in the bends – dreadful quality add on trim though and a nightmare to get bodyside mouldings that matched the other plastics for colour / texture.

    • The issue with getting bodyside mouldings that matched might have been down to MG Rover Group changing the hue for those unpainted mouldings, including the bumpers, in about May 2004. It was at this time the Streetwise adopted the new dashboard as had been introduced in the facelifted Rover 25 and MG ZR, together with the key-fob operated remote tailgate release in place of the manual press button on the tailgate panel itself. Those mouldings were also revised and finished in a much darker shade of grey that looked almost black and therefore were less prone to fading and looking tatty over time compared to the original mid grey hue.

      It was a sound move and it improved the Streetwise’s appearance no end, although quite why the trim was never finished like this in the first place is rather perplexing. Especially as Land Rover had already committed the same sin with the Freelander at its launch in 1997 and did not change the shade of those unpainted grained mouldings to a darker shade until the autumn of 2002.

      • Car makers often do early running changes to benefit the product. Vauxhall launched the Firenza SL with grey plastic radiator grille mouldings before realizing that black plastic went better with most paint colours. They also set round fresh air vents in square frames on the dashboard moulding – this lasted about a year before they deleted the square frames. Spontaneously combusting ammeters were replaced with less troublesome voltmeters around 1973, but they could never keep the clocks going. Oh, sorry – am I on the wrong website?

  16. Massively outsold the VW and Citroen equivalents, possibly to people who wanted a 25, but thought the SW would have better residuals.
    I remember loads of these parked outside Longbridge – perhaps they did screamingly good lease deals a la Pontiac Aztek ($50 a month, according to my mate in Detroit).
    Citroen Cactus seems to be following Rover’s lead.

  17. Not a bad deal for young drivers. In the SE you get the “leather and alloys” and not bad performance in a cheap car with fairly low insurance grouping.

  18. Does anyone remember entering the ‘November to Remember’ competition in November 2003 to try and win a Streetwise? You had to go down to your local MG Rover Group dealer, fill out an A5-size form and hand it over. It would then be put into a central pool, with one entry being pulled ‘out of the hat’ every day in November. The actual prize was an entry level 1.4 base model 3-door complete with those ugly (and thankfully rare) steel wheels. However, for an additional outlay by the winner, they could go for either an upgraded model or specify some options.

    I sadly never did win, despite entering six times, although I do know of someone whose wife did and by all accounts she loved her prize.

  19. Although I never cared for the Streetwise when launched, this article has made me warm to it. Those chunky & rugged looks are more appealing in hindsight. I only ever saw a handful on our roads though. The standard 25 was preferred by me though I never owned one of those either.

  20. It’s pretty much an identical concept to the Dacia Sandero stepway. It’s a standard car with jacked up suspension and some extra grey plastic bits. Maybe the streetwise was just ahead of its time.

  21. You mention the Polo Dune imitated the Streetwise. Let’s not forget the VW Golf Syncro Country which debuted as the Montana at Geneva in 1988 and was built for European markets until 1991. Although, I stand corrected if the comparison is for country coping cladding on 2WD models.

  22. I was lent one by the Rover Dealer in Leamington spa while they failed to resolve the many issues with my ZT260 (the best sounding but by far the least reliable car I have ever owned, spending some 25% of time at dealer not being fixed during my 40 months and a mere 25,000 miles of careful ownership from new).

    It was a 1.4 petrol and I liked it, found it comfortable and whilst not as fun as the 1.4 ZR, it was a nicer to live with than the harsh riding ZR.

    However not impressed when one of the plastic bump strips starting to come adrift having been fixed by nothing but double sided sticky tape. Dealer response; don’t worry they all do that, we have some stronger tape to fix the issue!

  23. I liked the Streetwise when it was launched and I liked the MG ZR both based on the Rover 25. Can anybody tell me how much the Streetwise was to buy back in the day?

    • When new, from September 2003, the entry level model started at around £9,995 for the entry level 85Ps 1.4-litre complete with unattractive steel wheels, rising to over £13,000 for a five-door SE version specified with the 2-litre L Series diesel.

  24. A story well worth the telling as another few years have gone by.

    A survivor or two still lurks on the odd driveway in my town, not a long way from Longbridge, once home to quite a few MG Rover widget suppliers (hence many ‘freeing and family’ sales until 2005) and the site of the former dealership of one of the infamous ‘Phoenix Four’.

    I have only driven one of the current crop the Streetwise could claim to have inspired and found the Fiesta Active every bit as good for performance, handling and ride as the standard hatchback, while ageing joints appreciated the easier entry/exit a higher hip point provides.

    Well done Streetwise, ahead of your time. I can think of worse candidates for Mr Cheetham’s driveway. An ideal ‘starter classic’ or, for the budget-challenged, ideal starter car, full stop.

  25. Sure Rover was well ahead of its times in those days. TCV gives us an idea how a car could manage to make happy crossover fans as well as SUV ones, and possibly, traditional buyers. As planned, 4wd version and a Fiat Group engine (such as Multijet diesel or, better, an equivalent “VM” italian in-line 4 or V6) could have reached our days selling strong.

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