Mention the Rover 600 Series and it possibly won’t attract the same amount of enthusiasm compared to other Rovers. Which is a shame, as David Morgan reckons it’s worth celebrating the 25th Anniversary of one of Rover’s most underrated models.
Nice car, the Rover 600 Series. Stylish, understated and well appointed. Add into the recipe reliability and good safety credentials and it feels like it has everything a Rover should have. What more could you want?
Handsome though it was (and still is), for some die-hard enthusiasts the Rover 600 represented a step too far in relation to trading British engineering input in preference to a predominantly Honda-based package. Even the motoring press were quick to point out the extent of Rover’s input in this new upper medium sector offering.
But there’s no denying the 600 Series was fundamentally the right car for Rover at the time, which also contributed to the brand’s re-emerging reputation for quality. And, back then, a reputation for quality was what counted if you had aspirations to charge premium prices in the showroom.
How to replace the Austin Montego
The origins for Project Synchro, the Rover 600 Series, were first sown back in June 1989. With the game-changing R8 200/400 just months away from its autumn 1989 launch, Rover’s Product Planners turned their attention to looking at ways to replace the Austin Montego which had failed to meet sales expectations.
Money was tight as usual and there was no indication that Rover Group’s new owner, British Aerospace, was going to open the purse strings to help fund an all-new replacement. Another dimension was the growing ambition to have something that could sit further upmarket than the Montego to take on the benchmark BMW 3 Series.
Working with Honda was a natural path to tread as their Japanese partner was already considering the next-generation Accord due to be built in their new Swindon assembly plant. This was expected to start building cars in 1993 with the new-generation Accord set to be the very first model.
Following the Honda ‘Way’
Writing in the book When Rover Met Honda, published in 2008, former Rover manager Anne Youngson disclosed that Honda approached Rover with the offer to allow them to build its own version of the next generation Accord. For Honda this would enable them to generate extra sales from the Accord through simultaneous production of a Rover version at Cowley. For Rover this would enable them to have an all-new car at a considerably lower cost than by going it alone.
In addition, it would also benefit from the more disciplined ’Honda Way’ of product development. This essentially involves departments involved in a project such as design, industrial engineers and manufacturing having a closer working dialogue from the outset to collectively complete a milestone and build, test, analyse and modify ‘iterative loops’. As a result, this ensured that from the earliest stages the vehicle would be designed to achieve total quality. The focus on speed and meeting strict timescales would also extend to the supplier network.
The ‘Honda Way’ would also extend to restricting the number of variants, colours and factory-fit options to ensure quality and build consistency were maintained.
British style with a nod to the past
Honda would be responsible for the engineering of the core car, including the engine choice. However, Rover’s Design Engineers would be given the freedom to develop an alternative body design while working alongside Honda’s Engineers in Japan. Richard Woolley would be responsible for the exterior design of the Rover project.
Mindful of the issues facing the ‘XX’ 800 Series in a number of markets such as North America where its weak frontal identity was not congruent with a perception of prestige, he decided to create a stronger, more distinctive character for the 600 Series, with an emphasis on heritage.
Inspired by past Rover luminaries such as the P4 and P5 saloons, Woolley started with a modern rendition of the classic radiator grille with an elegant chrome surround. The 600 Series would be the first new-generation Rover to be purposely designed from the outset around the Rover grille theme. Other heritage inspired design features included a chrome number plate surround for the bootlid and a more muscular looking bonnet profile with a central bulge.
A different identity achieved
By retaining only the front doors, roof panel and lower section of the rear doors from the Honda Accord, Woolley created a design which looked modern and upmarket. Remarkably, despite these constraints, the actual production design retained a strong visual relationship with his initial styling drawings completed by November 1989. A computer system called Stereo Lithography was also used to produce rapid prototypes for the 600 Series project.
Few were left in any doubt that the 600 Series was intended to be a premium upper medium contender to give the new E36 generation BMW 3 Series a run for its money, rather than directly replace the Montego.
Meanwhile, Honda would be responsible for designing the interior. Even so, it had already learnt a lesson or two from their British partner on how to design a more tasteful looking dashboard fascia. This, in turn, created a useful starting point for Rover’s interior designers to deliver a more luxurious feel.
Lighter colourways such as Stone Beige, alternative ‘Chevron’ and ‘Windsor’ seat fabric designs, a generous helping of burr walnut inserts and of course the bright finish ‘Rover’ etched sill tread plates all helped raise the ambience to a noticeably higher level when compared to the Honda Accord. Even the wheel trim designs fitted to the majority of the Rover 600’s variants had a touch of understated elegance about them rather than conveying the usual ‘budget’ image.
Rover 600: Set menu
Announced on 7 April 1993, the Rover 600 Series was initially offered in just six variants. Priced from £13,995, the entry-level variant was the 620i powered by a 115bhp 1997cc Honda engine. At this level you got the niceties of electric front windows, central door locking, speed sensitive power steering, a perimetric alarm and a Blaupunkt electronic stereo radio/cassette player with four speakers.
One thing you didn’t get as standard on the 620i was colour-coded bumpers, but instead bumpers finished in an unpainted neutral black. As former Rover Cars PR Manager Kevin Jones explained: ‘The idea behind the unpainted bumpers was only meant to be a way to encourage buyers to purchase the higher spec Si version. To an extent the policy worked.’
The higher spec 620Si cost £1000 more and came with a more potent 131bhp version of the same engine, twin exhaust pipes, infra-red remote central door locking, larger 15-inch steel wheels and colour-coded painted bumpers. At this level you could also specify automatic transmission as an extra cost option and an SE pack comprising of anti-lock brakes, an electric sunroof, roof-mounted interior light and steel wheels specified with luxury style wheel trims.
Climbing the range
The 620SLi cost from £17,200 and added electric rear windows and door mirrors, rear door sill tread strips, burr walnut inserts in the doors and a higher-spec Blaupunkt stereo. However, it was the 620GSi which delivered the more indulgent luxuries such as powered height adjustment for the driver’s seat, leather seats, burr walnut inserts in the centre console and 15-inch ‘Prestige’ style alloy wheels.
Sitting above the 2.0-litre engine was a 2259cc twin-cam Honda engine producing 158bhp reserved for the 623iS and range-topping 623GSi. The 623iS could be identified by its bootlid spoiler and seats trimmed in Windsor fabric and leather, while the 623 GSi came with all the aforementioned luxuries found on the 620 version but with automatic transmission as standard and lower profile 195/60 tyres.
For some buyers the 600 Series represented a marked departure from Rover’s usual policy of offering equipment and trim-related personalising opportunities. The only factory fit options available were air conditioning (£1,050) and metallic or pearlescent paint (£345). Even the choice of exterior paint colours was limited to just five – Black, British Racing Green, Caribbean Blue, Nightfire Red and White Diamond.
Beyond this, if you required the trim level badging to be deleted from the bootlid or wanted to add further items such as a top-line RDS radio, 10 disc CD changer, front fog lamps, alloy wheels on lesser models or even painted bumpers on the 620i, then it was down to the dealer to provide this.
Impressing the motoring press
The press launch took place at Hartwell House in Aylesbury, with initial road-tests being favourable. Auto Express in its road test published on 9 April 1993 wrote: ‘One of the most impressive things about the new Rover 600 is that even the base two-litre models are a joy to drive. The Rover is the most direct expression of the 14-year link with Honda, with the 600 series engine, gearboxes, suspension and many interior panels being identical to the Honda Accord. Yet the Rover is distinctly different.’
The same road-tester was less struck by the interior, though, and wrote: ‘There is something typically Japanese about the moulded fascia panel with its hooded instrument binnacle. The car’s Britishness comes from polished burr walnut panels, a feature of all six models in the range.’
Even when the same publication did a comparative test a week later between the 620SLi against the Honda Accord 2.0iLS, both cars impressed with their refinement and low road and engine noise. On looks it judged the 600 Series to be the winner every time, although when compared to the Accord it concluded that ‘Rover cannot justify charging over £2000 more for what is essentially the same car.’
Justifying the premium: the ultimate grilling
Interestingly, the same issue of the magazine also carried a separate interview with Gordon Sked, Director of Rover Cars Product Design, who highlighted that during pre-launch viewing clinics held across Europe, pundits had judged the prototype car fitted with the grille to be worth £2000 more than the alternative prototype car which was not fitted with a grille.
CAR Magazine’s road-test of the 600 Series against the BMW 318i, Citroën Xantia and Ford Mondeo featured in the May 1993 issue concluded that, ‘It scores handsomely for comfort, refinement, quietness and build quality. Above all, it imbues the driver with a sense of its-good-to-be-here well-being that its rivals cannot match. It has style, it has image, it has class.’ Praise indeed!
However, motoring journalist Richard Bremner from the same publication was less impressed by the results of Rover’s input, and concluded that: ‘Adding a grille, a number plate plinth, sill tread strips and slices of walnut does not a Rover make, even if the result is a nice car.’
But not everyone was impressed…
And just to highlight the point the magazine printed a ‘Free DIY Roverisation Kit’ with cut-out features to help the reader make their own Rover 600. Despite this, worldwide sales were encouraging, starting at 19,500 examples sold in 1993 and hitting over 60,000 sales by the end of 1995. A further accolade for the 600 Series was winning the Design Council’s 1994 award for its exterior design.
Supporting the launch was a television advertisement filmed in Tuscany whose message was to emphasise the higher-branding and class of the Brit abroad in an equally classy location. The narrative featured two gentlemen playing a game of chess while a Rover 600 was driven past them in near silence – perhaps too quietly to be believed. Still, it helped to reinforce the adage ‘Cars this well built are few and far between.’
Celebrities such as Cliff Richard were also giving the 600 Series a ‘thumbs up’. In an interview with Auto Express magazine dated 23 April 1993, he said: ‘I rate the 600 very highly. It competes with any foreign car I’ve driven.’ But perhaps the most lucrative endorsement came from Princess Diana who was photographed in October 1993 driving a 620GSi finished in Nightfire Red as her latest choice of car.
Publications such as Auto Express and the long-since defunct Carweek were soon predicting that further bodystyles would follow such as an estate version based on the Accord Aerodeck or even a two-door Coupe.
However, as former Rover Cars PR Manager Kevin Jones explained: ‘There was little likelihood of any variations to the core model. In some ways, it was cost-effective fleet sales to keep costs low and extract a profit in challenging conditions where the mainstream competitors were dealing with bigger deals and higher volumes. Instead, we attempted to offer more aspiration, with durability and perceived qualities and brand value.’
However, this approach to keep an even tighter control on costs would not stop Rover’s Engineers from undertaking their own major engineering programme to enable the 2-litre Rover petrol and diesel engines to be offered. Rover had always intended to fit their own engines to supplement the Honda units and provide broader sales opportunities to help increase volume at Cowley.
Adding T-Series power – not an easy task
As Anne Youngson disclosed in the book When Rover Met Honda, Honda’s engine rotate the opposite way to a Rover engine, so the engine bay had to be reversed in relation to the block and most of the ancillaries.
So extensive was this that a completely new development and test programme had to be undertaken. The engineering programme for the Rover engines also attracted its own special working code of SK2. This followed the SK1 Honda engine programme’s naming strategy of using the first letters of the surnames of the Rover and Honda managing directors, George Simpson and Hiroshi Kobayashi.
The SK2 programme would see the introduction of Rover’s home-grown 200bhp turbocharged 2.0-litre T-Series unit in the very high performance 620ti, followed by the 2-litre L-Series diesel in other variants in early 1995.
Launched in July 1994, the 620ti cost £19,995 and was fairly discrete in giving off the performance message. Limiting the visual enhancements to a new 16-inch six-spoke alloy wheel design and new sports front seats trimmed in Silverstone fabric with leather side cushions, did not find favour with everyone – especially those wanting a more explicitly styled package. However, underneath the skin it was engineered to impress the driving enthusiast, with larger diameter anti-roll bars, uprated springs and dampers and a TORque SENsing differential.
Road testers had mixed views of the 620ti. While it delivered real grunt to the 600 Series line-up, when compared to its bigger brother, the 800 Vitesse Sport, the 620ti seemed to lack the same driving appeal. In road-test comparisons with the class-leading BMW 325i, which cost over £2,000 more in standard guise, the 620ti was considered to be good, but not that good. Carweek summed it up as ‘Dull ride, unpredictable steering don’t do justice to [the] high power.’ Other road tests though were generally more gracious.
The launch of the 620ti variant also coincided with the discontinuation of the 620GSi and 623iS variants, and the introduction of the 623SLi which with its competitive price allowed company car drivers to take full advantage of the revisions to the company car tax structure. Meanwhile, the introduction of Pewter Grey metallic took the range of exterior colours to six.
More importantly, all variants were now fitted with a driver’s airbag as standard, while a passenger’s airbag was fitted as standard to the 620ti and 623GSi and available as an extra cost option on all other variants. Thankfully, those awful neutral black bumpers fitted as standard to the 620i were now firmly consigned to history.
Scent and cosmetic enhancements
By 1995, sales of the 600 Series had played a major part in increasing Rover car sales in important export markets such as Germany and Italy. Italian buyers in particular loved its British style and aspirational image. To further increase awareness of the Rover brand in that market, Rover enlisted the assistance of Milan-based perfume chemist Promoparf S.p.A. to create a special scent for its Italian customers, to be offered in a scent bottle resembling the shape of the Rover 600’s radiator grille. Called Essenziale, this product was unveiled in December 1997 on the eve of the Bologna Motor Show.
The first update for the 600 Series did not occur until February 1996, with the main engineering change focused on replacing the entry level 115bhp 2-litre engine with a smaller 1849cc Honda engine developing the same power. Meanwhile the GSi trim level would be available with the 131bhp 2.0-litre engine once again and, for the first time, with the 101PS 2-litre L-Series diesel. The exterior colour range was also significantly expanded to include four solid, eight metallic and three pearlescent paint finishes, many of which were shared with the updated 800 Series.
By April 1997, around 200,000 Rover 600s had rolled off the production line at Cowley and it was anticipated that it would remain in production for a further two years before its replacement, the Rover 75, went on sale. This meant continuing to pay Honda a royalty for every example built, not to mention the cost of buying in Honda engines which were specified in the bulk of models sold. Then again, Rover did earn some revenue from supplying Honda with the L-Series diesel engine for the Accord, even if it was offered in just one variant.
Any further updates to the 600 Series would therefore need to be low cost and not result in creating any new major components. The enhancements were ultimately limited to lowering the suspension by 10mm and exercising the familiar mid-life practise of colour-coding items such as the door handles, door mirrors, side protection strips and sills with the main exterior colour. At the same time two new exterior colours were introduced – Charleston Green and Kinversand – which replaced some of the existing colours. The latter colour, despite looking dramatic as a burnt orange, did not find many takers and so was discontinued within a year.
Towards the end…
The final enhancements for the 600 Series were the availability of supplementary iS and iL variants launched in March 1998. These focused on delivering some of the sporting or luxury feature content found on the higher ti and GSi. The iS variant provided sporting touches such as half-leather sports seats, 16-inch alloy wheels and front foglamps. Meanwhile, luxury was the core remit of the iL variant in the form of full leather seats, 15-inch alloy wheels and additional wood trim. Both versions could be specified with either the 1.8-litre Honda petrol or 2.0-litre Rover L-Series turbo-diesel engines.
Collectively, these new additions took the range of 600 Series variants for the home market, excluding option packs and transmission choice, to thirteen. Add in the choice of four solid, seven metallic and three pearlescent paint finishes, and this could not be more far removed from the original policy to limit build complexity and complication.
With the replacement model, the Rover 75, being unveiled in October 1998, the 600’s days were now numbered. At the end of the first week in January 1999 the final example of just 92 cars built that week rolled off the assembly line at Cowley. No announcement was made that production had ended as it needed to maintain a showroom presence until at least June of that year when the Rover 75 officially went on sale. Rover Cars’ data suggests that a total of 273,221 examples of the Rover 600 had been built, with the final unsold examples being registered in 2000.
Was it a success?
Look at the Rover 600 Series from just the perspective of sales and it hardly made a dent in sales of BMW’s hugely successful E36 generation 3 Series or Audi’s A4 – even when considering just their four-door saloon variants.
Yet, given the 600 Series spent most of its production life following the Honda approach to restrict the number of variants built in order to minimise complexity, it actually proved to be a reasonable seller for Rover Cars. But it was never going to be a heavyweight sales contender against premium offerings which already had established brand kudos, or volume-orientated makes with their recognised fleet discount price opportunities.
The relatively low cost and speed of delivery of the Rover 600 project from completed styling drawings to showroom models, was a breathtakingly fast time for what was an entirely new model, with simultaneous engineering having played a key role in this achievement.
And the Rover 600’s legacy?
For Rover Cars, which was keen to build on the quality reputation and emerging aspirational image of the Rover brand kick-started by the R8 200/400 Series, the 600 Series added further ambition to these objectives. Even with Rover Cars’ bullish approach to commanding premium prices over the cheaper and slightly better equipped Honda Accord, the 600 Series happily exploited buyers’ growing desire in the 1990s for an upmarket image and greater presence in the premium upper medium market.
Despite being one of Rover Cars’ best-engineered cars with few vices, time has sadly not been kind to the 600 Series in terms of surviving numbers. Finding a well-cared for 600 Series is no longer a ten minute drive to your local garage or driving around inner city residential areas where examples would be sat on the roadside with a ‘for sale’ sign on the windscreen. In many ways, good condition Rover 600s aren’t that far off from becoming an endangered species.
Which is a good reason to not only go out and find one and enjoy it, but at the same time to join me in raising a glass to salute 25 years of the Rover 600 Series.