The Rover 25 and 45 were developed from the R3 200 and HHR 400 Series as stopgap models before the anticipated arrival of the R30 in 2002. David Morgan recalls how, under both BMW and MG Rover Group, they evolved to offer greater appeal than their 1995 forebears.
Rover 25 and 45: created with the best of intentions
With all the recent fanfare relating to anniversaries for the ‘R8’ 200/400 and, to a lesser extent the ‘SD3’ 200 Series, it was perhaps a little surprising that the 20th birthday of both the Rover 25 and 45 had been overlooked. As the final incarnations of the Rover brand’s mid-size offerings, the 25 and 45 had no less of a challenge to win over buyers than their predecessors had. This time, though, the survival of their parent, MG Rover Group, rested heavily on their success.
Make no mistake, the R3 200 Series and HHR 400 Series were competent cars. Launched in October 1995, the 200 Series exuded a youthful interpretation of Rover’s design language and it felt eager to drive. The 400 Series had gone on sale in the previous March and was nicely appointed and, in saloon guise, looked upmarket. What wasn’t so successful was the questionable positioning of the two models in sectors above their natural fit and also, in the process, the charging of premium prices – in reality, buyers did not yet perceive Rover to be a fully-fledged premium brand.
Rover Group production data shows that 470,449 examples of the R3 200 Series had been built in just four years, whereas the HHR 400 Series had totalled 469,781 examples. But it wasn’t enough. With the new Rover 75 having re-affirmed the brand’s upmarket poise through its quality of appointments and standard of build, buyers would expect this approach to extend to the smaller models.
Yet BMW’s funding plans for replacing the Rover 400/45 would not see the arrival of a replacement model, the R30, until 2002 at the earliest. By then, rivals such as the Ford Focus and fourth-generation Volkswagen Golf would become firmly established as the standard bearers. In essence, Rover needed more than just a badge playing the ‘thoroughly British’ theme to maintain a strong sales presence against newer competition.
Evolving the 200 and 400
Plans to update the Rover 200 and 400 Series had commenced in the latter half of 1997. Conceived under the codenames of ‘Jewel’ and ‘Oyster’ respectively, the revised 200 and 400 models would embrace the emerging new design theme of the forthcoming Rover 75. Together with assuming the new identities of 25 and 45, this would not only enable them to be viewed as a supporting act to the 75, but also provide a more coherent ‘family’ look beyond the chrome radiator grille.
A key theme to the ‘face’ was the introduction of a more distinctive twin-rounded headlamp style and a deeper, more rounded grille design to give greater presence. This had been achieved by re-designing the front end of both models to sport new wings, front bumper mouldings and a bonnet featuring a more pronounced power ‘bulge’ with a central spine. For the Rover 25, the changes delivered under project ‘Jewel’ gave it a more assertive frontal style over its predecessor, while the introduction of chrome trim for the tailgate lift handle and new oval-shaped door mirrors added a dash of elegance to an already stylish looking package.
The transition from 400 Series into 45 had been particularly well executed. Back in the early 1990s, Rover’s Designers under the direction of Gordon Sked had worked hard to try and give the HHR 400 Series a more distinctive style. This was while working within the restrictions of a licensing agreement with Honda, which had led the project, and limited funds being available to make significant changes to the core design. Now under Project Oyster, the Design Team was presented with an opportunity to create a more inspiring interpretation of Rover’s design language for its medium-sized offering.
Budget constraints limit changes
The revised model with its more imposing bonnet line and subtle use of chrome in the bumpers certainly looked more upmarket and confident. But addressing the issue of the hatchback’s ungainly rear profile was one aspect that was not ultimately addressed. As one former Rover Designer said in May 2013, there had been a desire within the Design Team to re-work the rear of the 400’s hatchback bodystyle. This would have centred round extending the rear pillars to the outer point of the rear wings, to enable a sleeker side profile to be realised.
However, the idea, which would have required new pressings for the tailgate and rear wings, did not progress any further as BMW was not keen to support such extensive changes on what was intended to be a transitional model. Instead, the enhancements were limited to a revised rear bumper and the familiar practise of fitting a spoiler as standard on the highest trim levels only.
The same reasoning also likely explains why no changes were made to the doors’ outer skins which might have allowed a more attractive door handle design to be used. Thankfully, the legacy of the abandoned 425 V6 concept (below) that had been revealed at the 1997 Frankfurt Motor Show had not been forgotten. Featuring a chrome ‘pull’ handle alongside painted mouldings as well as new oval-shaped door mirrors, these items would now be carried forward as production items for the Rover 45.
Both the 25 and 45 would have updated exterior colour palettes, with hues such as Sienna Gold pearlescent and Wedgewood Blue metallic having a high fashion emphasis. Arran White and Solar Red on the other hand exuded a distinctly classic appeal. The Rover 25 came in a choice of eleven colours, five of which were new, whereas the Rover 45’s 12-colour range featured six new hues.
Making them drive better
Beyond the cosmetic updates were changes to the suspension and steering for both models to make them more engaging to drive. For the Rover 25 all models received uprated springs and radically changed damper characteristics, as well as other roll-control measures. A choice of new tyre specifications also ensured that the benefits of the revised settings were optimised. Completing these enhancements was a new steering rack with faster gearing and new valving to improve responsiveness and feel.
To reinforce the Rover 25’s more sporting character, all derivatives would sit on wider wheels and tyres which included a choice of four new 15-inch alloy wheel designs known as Honeycomb, Coronet, Octet and Fission. The ranging-topping GTi variant would have a bigger 16-inch alloy wheel design called Active. The majority of these wheel designs would also feature on the Rover 45, while in the accessories brochure there was an even wider choice, many of which had carried over from the previous 200 and 400 Series.
The Rover 45’s predecessor was already noted for its impressive ride comfort, so this was a feature Rover’s Chassis Engineers were keen not to dilute. Instead, they focused their attention on uprating the suspension to enable it to deliver more responsive handling.
For both models there were also changes in the engine line-up to enable them to be Euro 3 compliant before the official 2001 deadline. This meant that the 8-valve 1.1 and 1.4-litre units would not be carried over. In their place for the Rover 25 would be a detuned 84hp version of the 16-valve 1.4-litre K-Series engine to supplement the existing 103hp type. In addition, a new 16-valve version of the 1.1-litre unit would follow in 2001 as part of a phased introduction programme.
In the Rover 45 there would be two new engines choices: a 1.8-litre K-Series and new 150hp 2-litre version of the KV6 engine. Available with either a five-speed manual or a new continuously variable transmission (CVT) with Steptronic manual shift on six ‘fixed’ ratios, the 1.8-litre K Series would signal the end of a Honda engine in Rover’s midsize model. The 2.0-litre KV6, on the other hand, would be the successor to the home-grown T-Series and had debuted in the Rover 75. However, in the 45, it would only be available with Jatco five-speed automatic transmission and offered in just the four-door saloon.
For those with a love of diesel, the home-grown 2-litre L-Series would now be limited to just the 101Ps TCie version which had its torque increased by 14% to 177lb ft, thanks to a new high pressure injection system.
Enhancements to the interiors were more subtle and essentially focused on revised front seat designs and new seat fabrics and door casings. This was not a problem for the 200 Series whose interior still looked chic and modern. However, with the 400 Series, having the same bland-looking dashboard fascia design and switchgear as the Honda Civic, this presented an even greater challenge for Rover’s Interior Designers to create a more stylish ambience.
For the 25 (above) there was now a useful oddments tray in place of where the optional passenger’s air bag sat and revised front seats with improved lumbar support and new head restraints which offered more effective positioning. Revising the shape of the rear seat bench helped to deliver a marginal improvement in rear legroom while the introduction of rear head restraints provided an upgrade in comfort.
The majority of the seven trim levels on offer would feature new Wiggle, Orbital or Chequers seat fabric offered in either Ash Grey or Sandstone Beige colourways. For the iS and GTi variants there was a distinctly ‘sports’ theme, with the most striking combination being reserved for the GTi. Full leather seat facings would now be available as an extra cost option on the majority of derivatives.
While the Rover 25 looked to reinforce a modish character, the 45 majored more on delivering greater personalising opportunities. The sole colour for the dashboard and door mouldings was Ash Grey, whereas the choice of standard colours for the seats, whether cloth or leather, was Ash Grey and Sandstone Beige. Black leather was now a further option. For those buyers wanting something more distinctive, there was now a Rover 75-inspired Personal Line option comprising of Catkin Green, Copperbeech Red or Neptune Blue hues for the seats and inserts in the door casings.
The 45 (below) also offered customers a choice of a Seat Comfort Pack, two versions of a Leather Option Pack and even a Winter Pack where the accoutrements extended to front fog lamps and the new features of headlamp wash and heated front seats.
New models launched in London
The launch ceremony for the Rover 25 and 45 took place at the London Motor Show on Tuesday 19 October 1999 (Press Day). Stand D2 was a hive of glamour as supermodels such as Sophie Anderton, Jodie Kidd and Kate Moss helped launch the new Rovers to coincide with Rover Cars’ announcement of their sponsorship of the British Fashion Awards.
Taking centre stage were examples of the Rover 25, 45 and 75 finished in silver. Collectively, they reinforced the ‘new face of Rover’ design philosophy which would underpin the future direction of the brand. The Rover 25 was represented by a three-door GTi variant while the 45 was a pre-production V6 variant which did not have the black lower bib spoiler and raised front number plate plinth that would feature on production examples.
While BMW Group was confirming these to be stopgap models until the arrival of R30, in reality both had benefitted from an intense engineering and investment programme. In the supporting press releases, Rover Cars was claiming that the percentage of new components covering the interior, exterior and technical specification was 40% for the Rover 25 and 35% for the 45.
Rover 25: market realignment
Compared with the outgoing 200 and 400 Series, the 25 and 45 were now being priced and pitched in more natural market sectors. The 25 (above) would be a ‘premium supermini’ offering alongside the likes of the Peugeot 206 and Volkswagen Polo, while the 45 would target the lower-medium sector against the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf. With sales of Rover Cars down by 30% on the previous year due to a variety of factors such as the discontinuation of some models, the new models had to be viewed by potential buyers as convincing alternatives to the market leaders.
For the Rover 25 that meant a model line-up which initially started from £9395 for the entry level 1.4i – the more affordable 1.1SE and 1.1i would follow in due course as part of a phased introduction programme – rising to £14,995 for the 1.8 GTi (VVC). The five-door bodystyle was available with all trim levels and added £500 to the purchase price. The carryover 103hp 1.4-litre K-Series was approximately £800 more expensive than the new 84hp version, while the 109hp 1.6-litre commanded a further £1150 premium. The 117hp 1.8-litre engine came with Steptronic CVT transmission only in the Rover 25 and was restricted to just the iL and iS trim levels. In contrast, the 2-litre L-Series turbo-diesel was offered on all trim levels apart from the entry spec.
The range of optional extras was certainly more comprehensive than that for the outgoing 200 Series, with some of the more notable new options being a Leather Comfort Pack (£1,100), a Leather Sports Pack on the iS variants (£425), Seat Comfort Pack comprising of a rear centre armrest and rear head restraints (£250) and electric rear windows on the five-door bodystyle (£250). All versions now featured enhanced safety features such as a larger 45-litre driver’s airbag, seat belt load limiters and extending the standard fitment of anti lock braking to all 1.6 and 1.8-litre petrol-engined versions.
The majority of the 25’s trim level identities such as iE, iS and iL had been carried over from the 200 Series’ final phase model line-up announced in the previous April, thereby providing a smoother transition. The Rover 45, on the other hand, utilised different trim level strategies from both the Rover 200 Series and 75, dependent on bodystyle. Five-door variants would adopt the same acronym-style identities as featured on the 25, while the four-door saloon would employ the Classic, Club and Connoisseur names introduced on the 75 to help give it a more upmarket presence.
Rover 45: facing new rivals
The Rover 45 kicked off with the 103Ps 1.4i five-door costing a fiver under £12,000. For £300 more you could have the higher spec iE trim level, while the iS cost £12,995 and featured 15-inch Fisson alloy wheels and an electric sunroof as standard. The iL trim level offered further luxuries as standard such as air conditioning, a CD player and electric front windows and door mirrors.
The marginally more powerful 1.6-litre engine was a £600 premium over the 1.4-litre. The same price difference also applied to those wanting a further upgrade to the 1.8-litre K-Series, which was initially reserved for the high spec iXS and iXL variants. Meanwhile, the 101Ps 2-litre L-Series turbo-diesel could be specified with all but the entry level trim level.
Prices for the saloon variants started with the 1.6 Classic priced at £14,695 rising to £18,995 for the 2.0-litre V6 Connoisseur. The standard specification for the four-door variants was not exactly the same as found on the five-door models, thereby enabling it to emulate more of the attributes found on the bigger Rover 75.
The Rover 25 went on sale on 1 December 1999 with the 45 following on 4 January 2000, making it Rover’s first new model of the new Millennium. The new models would also now be offered with a more industry competitive three-year warranty and extended 15,000 mile service intervals on the majority of variants. A realignment of showroom prices also meant that some variants were up to £1000 cheaper than the equivalent version in the retired 200 and 400 Series.
The advertising campaign for both ranges was based round the new ‘Extraordinary Drive’ slogan that had been introduced for the 75’s sales launch. The 25 boasted about offering ‘more power, more control and more response’, while the 45 emphasised its tuned suspension and array of safety features such as four airbags.
What the press said
The press launch for the Rover 25 and 45 took place in Wales in early November 1999 as a low key event. Examples of each model were available for appraisal, along with the new entry level 1.8 Classic and Classic SE variants in the 75’s line-up. The press demo fleet comprised of examples of the Rover 25 registered on consecutive registration numbers from V250 – V267 LOB, while registrations on the Rover 45s commenced from V450 – V469 LOB. The majority of road testers focused on writing about the mid-spec models so as to draw comparisons with more contemporary offerings from rival manufacturers.
Journalists were left in no doubt over the origins of these models and this undoubtedly reflected in the published road tests. Chris Goffey’s review of the Rover 25 for the Men & Motors Motorweek programme (below) focused on the GTi variant and he praised the sharpening up of the handling and revisions to the interior. He concluded by saying that the revamped models, ‘provide an indication of the way forward for Rover, the structuring of the model range and the marketing approach for the brand.’ He said: ‘For once this is a car that lives up to the marketing hype – the VVC is very, very cool!’
Meanwhile, BBC Top Gear devoted a full 10-minute feature reviewing the new 25, 45 and 75 models. This was broadcast in early 2000 and included asking UK motorists in what looked like a busy motorway services car park about their perceptions of the Rover 75. When driving the Rover 25, presenter Kate Humble said: ‘The 1.4iS is an absolute blast. This is not a place for tweed jackets and stout brogues. It handles like a hot shoe hatch. In fact, it does exactly what it doesn’t say on the tin. It makes the Volkswagen Polo feel like a donkey cart. Only the Fiesta’s chassis can match it for laughs.
‘The whole thing has a more quality feel about it; something sorely lacking in the old incarnation. A huge surprise, then, the 25 is a class act and for twelve grand for this 1.4iS not bad value either. No, this little charmer will do Rover’s image no harm at all.’
Quentin Willson’s appraisal of the 45 2.0-litre V6 saloon considered it to be only average against the 25 and 75, which he described as being genuinely good cars. Criticisms of the 45 centred round the interior where he described the dashboard as being ‘strewn with ’80s switchgear which look like they have been hurled like boiled sweets and just stuck there.’
He concluded by saying: ‘To be fair, the 45 is a huge improvement on the old 400. It’s well specced, it’s got a three-year warranty and it drives reasonably well. But it’s no match for the Golf and the Focus. And I look at this and it reminds me of a middle-aged uncle in Nike trainers.’
His review also highlighted that the remit of the new 25, 45 and the 75 was to ‘inject the Rover brand with some badly needed desirability, although this was hard when some journalists get seriously spiteful.’ Sadly, his views about the attitude from some quarters of the motoring press towards the product and company would continue to ring true over the coming months and years.
A new decade, and under new management
With BMW Group announcing in March 2000 that it would be selling off parts of the Rover Group, including Land Rover and Rover Cars, any potential success the 25 and 45 had in attracting new customers to the Rover brand would now become even more challenging. Despite this, the Rover 25 did manage to become the UK’s best-selling car in April 2000. But beyond this brief spike of optimism, uncertainty over the company’s future together with the commercial damage inflicted on the Rover brand during the final period of BMW’s ownership, had undermined consumer confidence.
After a potential deal with Alchemy Partners had collapsed, it would eventually be the alternative offer tabled by the Phoenix Consortium that would be rubber-stamped on 9 May 2000. The remit for the 25 and 45 had now taken on a more urgent remit beyond merely maintaining sales of ageing models – playing a pivotal role in the survival of the Rover Cars’ business (to be renamed MG Rover Group) as the volume sellers in the range, alongside the Rover 75 and MGF.
Changes to the 25 and 45 would be minimal over the next few months, with exterior colours such as Celadon Green, which had been introduced during the run-out phase of the 400 Series, being discontinued on the 45. Meanwhile, Nightfire Red would be replaced by Copperleaf Red pearlescent on the 25 so as to further standardise its colour palette in-line with that of the 45.
For customers there were price reductions of up to ten-percent on most 25 and 45 models at a time when new car pricing in the industry was a fundamental issue with consumers, the media and the Government. During the summer of 2000 production of the 45 would be transferred from its own dedicated track to the neighbouring assembly line occupied by the 25, to allow the Rover 75 to be built on its own assembly track in Car Assembly Building 1. This was completed by early August 2000 and would enable the two models to be assembled on the same track. Unfortunately, some members of the press misread this as suggesting that production of the Rover 45 was about to be phased out!
Range completed with the KV6 model
In July 2000 the 45’s line-up was completed with the arrival of the 2.0-litre V6 models in dealer showrooms. Available with the Club and Connoisseur trim levels, the V6 models brought a new level of effortless refinement to Rover’s mid-range model. The production-spec cars now featured a rubberised bib spoiler beneath the front bumper and a number plate plinth fitted to the front of the bumper which made the number plate sit slightly higher.
One of the biggest changes that would affect all models built by the renamed MG Rover Group was Project Drive. Intended as a cost-savings initiative to reduce some of the associated costs of some of the components used in each vehicle, this commenced from the autumn of 2000. It initially saw detail trim items such as the small Viking longship badges from the rear pillars being deleted. This would be followed by other initiatives before the programme became more intense and further changes started to impact on the quality of appointments.
With the 45’s intended replacement, the R30, not being part of BMW’s sell-off agreement of the Rover Cars business to the Phoenix Consortium, there was a need to start from afresh in evaluating possible replacement opportunities. In the meantime, MG Rover Group needed to squeeze as much sales opportunity out of the existing models within a quick time frame and with minimal engineering costs involved.
MG reinvigorated by new Zed-models
Therefore, few were surprised when MG Rover Group were hinting at plans to produce a range of MG sports saloons derived from the Rover models. Unveiled in January 2001, the MG ZR, ZS and ZT/ZT-T models were designed to provide MG Rover Group with a wider product portfolio which, under the MG banner, would have a fulltime sporting intent and not be restricted to just high performance derivatives.
This approach meant that there would be no more performance variants sold under the Rover brand. In addition, the 16-inch Active wheel design as fitted to the 25 GTi and 45 2.0-litre V6 Connoisseur, would be withdrawn from the Rover models and renamed ‘Hairpins’ for use as the standard alloy wheel design for the MG ‘Zed’ ranges. The Rover 45 would feature the ‘Cosmos’ design in its place.
A further new initiative was to enable customers to reflect more of their own personality through a choice of special exterior colours and leather seat facings offered as part of a new personalisation programme. Announced in 2001, the Monogram personalisation programme offered 20 exterior colours, including the latest Chromactive, Kinetic and Supertallic finishes, and 12 different leather seat facings offered in a selection of colours and styles.
Admittedly, this was a relatively expensive personalisation route for customers to take, while it also increased their vehicle’s lead time. Despite this, it proved to attract more confirmed orders than first envisaged. For MG Rover Group it required relatively low investment requirements to enable them to offer a level of colour and trim individualisation normally only available from high-end manufacturers.
The Rover 25 GTi bows out
With MG Rover Group’s plan to launch a range of sporting saloon variants under the MG banner to complement the MGF, it signalled the end of production for the 25 GTi. This occurred in approximately June 2001, just before the MG ZR arrived in showrooms. The 25 GTi had rekindled a popular moniker that had previously been used on Rover’s small and medium offerings between 1990 and 1994 to help enrich the brand by delivering creditable high performance derivatives. To set the GTi apart from regular 25 variants, it would have its own dedicated six-page sales brochure (Publication No. 5723) emphasising its more driver-focused credentials.
Dynamically, the 25 GTi felt even more sure-footed than other 25 derivatives, while it also had a more agreeable ride and handling mix than that of the MG ZR160 which superseded it. One thing the GTi wasn’t though was brash in its appearance. The exterior enhancements were limited to just 16-inch Active alloy wheels, a black finish to the radiator grille inset vanes and colour-coding to the roof spoiler, front bib spoiler and inserts in the bumpers. Even the ‘GTi’ badge for the tailgate was a dealer fit item, while the exterior colour range was limited to just six.
Inside, the seats seemed to have taken some inspiration from the 1998 Rover 200 Spirit special edition sold in Germany, with bold contrasting inserts for the seat centre sections. For the 25 GTi this comprised of black leather seat facings with Orbital cloth offered in a choice of Sports Black, Lapis Blue, Tartan Red or Chartreuse Green. In place of wood trim for the dashboard fascia was a carbon fibre insert, while air conditioning was now a standard feature in preference to a sunroof.
Internal data from Rover Marketing suggests that just 1984 examples were built over its mere 18-month production life, with the split being equal between both bodystyles. The 25 GTi would ultimately be the last sporting variant to be sold under the Rover brand and, despite its attributes, would soon become something of an overlooked member of the hot hatch back catalogue.
Special editions make an impression
The new owners of the Rover Cars business had announced in a press release dated June 2000 that they planned to offer their product ranges as ‘value-orientated mainstream brands’. Therefore, the decision to opt for the special edition route, using enhanced specification and standout derivative identities to help boost sales, was an easy one to make. To many critics special editions serve as a short-term means to shift more metal rather than enrich a brand. This was certainly the case for the Rover 25 and 45 to help maintain sales by emphasising value-for-money rather than being part of any longer-term strategy to rebuild the aspirational appeal of the Rover brand.
The first offering was the 25 and 45 ‘Olympic’ announced in July 2000 to coincide with the company’s support of Team GB at the Sydney Olympic Games. Prices started from £8795 for the entry level 25 1.4-litre Olympic three-door, rising to £9495 for the higher specification Olympic ‘S’. The range of exterior colours was limited to just three, whereas for the 45 there was a choice of four. The 45 versions could be specified with both the 1.4 and 1.6-litre engines, with the cheapest model being the 1.4 Olympic at £11,495, rising to £12,495 for the 1.6-litre Olympic ‘S’. While the 25 versions could be specified in both bodystyles, on the 45 they were restricted to just the five-door hatchback.
This was followed in January 2001 by the Impression special edition. For the 25, there was just the standard Impression specification and the 1.4-litre engine. The 45 could be specified with 1.4, 1.6 and 1.8-litre versions of the K-Series engine as well as the 2-litre L-Series diesel, and in both hatchback and saloon bodystyles. The saloon bodystyle though was available with just the higher-spec Impression S trim level. Supporting the marketing campaign for this special edition was the strapline ‘More extras make a better Impression’.
October 2001 saw the arrival of the Olympic Impression (above) special edition for both model ranges, followed in January 2002 by the return of the Impression nameplate. The Series 2 Impression was perhaps a slightly more enticing proposition as it saw the introduction of three new exterior colours to supplement the regular mainline colours. Available exclusively on these special edition variants, the new colours were Oxygen Blue metallic for both ranges, Paprika metallic for the 25 and Odyssey pearlescent for the 45.
‘Rover captures the Spirit’ was the headline for the announcement of the Spirit special edition in July 2002 (below), to help commemorate Rover Cars being the official car sponsor at the XVII Commonwealth Games. Boasting enhanced specification to provide extra value and appeal over the standard models, the Spirit and higher-spec Spirit S (above) helped keep sales of the 25 and 45 upbeat at a time when it was being widely reported in the press that MG Rover Group’s annual sales were in decline.
The final special editions were the Impression and Impression ‘S’ variants launched in October 2002. In Series 3 form the nameplate would remain a mainstay in the 25 and 45 line-ups right up until when the facelifted 25 and 45 models were revealed in 2004. As with the previous Impression incarnation and the more recently retired Spirit special edition, the Series 3 Impression maintained the tradition of offering customers Oxygen Blue metallic as an exclusive colour. Prices started from £8970 for the 25 Impression three-door and rose to £12,150 for the Impression S turbo-diesel five-door. Rover 45 versions commenced from £11,750 for the 1.4 Impression 5-door to £14,970 for the turbo-diesel Impression S four-door saloon.
Trying to maintain momentum
While sales of the MG ZR and ZS were helping to slow down the rate of decline in overall sales, there was still a need to maintain sales interest in the bigger selling Rover 25 and 45 – especially in export markets, where the models were more favourably received. The 25 line-up would become more accessible from May 2001 with the availability of the new 75hp 1.1-litre K-Series engine. The entry level 1.1i became the most affordable Rover car priced at £7995, while the higher spec iE version was £8585. At the other end of the line-up was a new high spec iXL variant offered with just the 1.6-litre K-Series. Priced at £13,980 in three-door form, the iXL’s standard specification extended to metallic or pearlescent paint, full leather trim, air conditioning, anti-lock braking, Coronet alloy wheels and a passenger’s airbag.
Beyond these new additions was the Rover 25 Matthew Williamson Art Car concept unveiled at the 2002 Geneva Motor Show. Created through a partnership between the Rover brand and top British Fashion Designer Matthew Williamson, the Art Car concept linked the developing style trends of the catwalk with those for the highway. It featured a unique (and unnamed) pearlescent gold paint finish that flipped to pink in certain lighting conditions, while the interior was trimmed in gold Indian silk with translucent pink finish fascia mouldings and pink backlighting. The Art Car also featured 17-inch Serpent alloy wheels from the Rover 75 fitted on specially modified wheel hubs, as well as the 120hp 1.8-litre K-Series which had recently been withdrawn from the 25’s engine line-up.
The original ambition had been to launch a limited edition model derived from the Art Car concept, with the Daily Telegraph quoting in its magazine dated 13 April 2002 that there were plans to build 100 examples. However, the reality was that Williamson’s tastes were too extreme for such a proposition to be saleable.
Instead, a more restrained offering influenced by Williamson would be previewed at the British International Motor Show held later on that year. Finished in Chatsworth Supertallic paintwork, a colour taken from the Monogram colour palette, the Rover 25 Matthew Williamson was based on a 1.4iL 3-door and also featured 15-inch Serpent alloy wheels. The interior featured Alpaca leather with subtle cerise pink stitching for the seats, door casing inserts and transmission gaiter. The intention to build 50 examples was supported by a sales brochure being produced (Publication No. 5960), although for reasons unknown only the motor show display car was actually built.
The 2003 model year
Enhancements for the 2003 Model Year would be formally announced at the 2002 British International Motor Show, although two weeks before this there had been a Rover Regional Road Show event held in Wiltshire. Journalists got to drive the new Model Year models along a pre-planned route passing near Castle Combe race circuit. These enhancements would focus on minor cosmetic changes, some of which had been influenced by Project Drive. For the Rover 25 niceties such as the wood insert from the dashboard fascia and the black exterior tape from the sides of the door window frames had been discontinued. On the Rover 45 the wood garnish rails in the door casings were no longer a standard fitment.
The choice of interior colourways for both models was also revised. For the 25 that meant Ash Grey and Sandstone being replaced by Puma and Smokestone, while the 45 now featured a duo-tone fascia. New parchment coloured instrument dials and revised graphics provided a link with those found in the Rover 75, while the new straight-grain Rosewood effect wood trim looked more modern even if it did resemble the wood casing on a 1970s Pye television. There were also new Geo, Alpha and Mode seat fabric designs for the majority of trim levels, a redesigned Viking longship badge for the steering wheel centre boss and improvements in convenience storage features.
The Rover 45 received further enhancements in the form of redesigned front seats designed to provide improved support, while there was also a more contemporary facings design for those variants specified with leather. Ride and handling were also improved by lowering the suspension by 10mm, retuning the rear suspension geometry, fitting firm suspension bushes and raising the steering rack’s ratio. Even the choice of alloy wheel designs was reviewed, with the Serpent style, originally introduced as an accessory item, replacing the Coronet type and a new 12-spoke Turbine design joining the line-up.
Trafficmaster arrives at Rover
One of the more prominently promoted areas of enhancement was the availability of new technology. This included a Trafficmaster traffic alert system fitted as standard on all 25 and 45 models, a Becker Satellite Navigation being available as an extra cost option and an upgrade in security features. Even the choice of in-car entertainment was revised, with ‘Rover’ branded equipment now being discontinued in preference to off-the-shelf units.
Sales of the 25 would be aided from September 2003 with the introduction of the Streetwise, an urban on-roader which had the rufty-tufty looks of a soft-roader, but without the associated higher purchase price and likely compromises in handling. Further support, albeit in much smaller numbers, came from offering car-derived vans in the form of the Rover 25-based Commerce and MG ZR Express. Unveiled in 2003 and requiring no major engineering changes over the cars on which they were based, the Commerce and Express had been designed to appeal to small businesses.
Collectively these enhancements would serve to try and keep sales of the 25 and 45 active for the foreseeable future. But was it enough?
Last chance saloons
Originally intended as stopgap models only, by 2004 the 25 and 45 were long past their expected shelf lives. The intended all-new replacement model for the Rover 45 and MG ZS, codenamed RDX60, had not yet been signed off for production, while MG Rover Group would also likely struggle to put it into production without the financial support of a collaborative partner. In addition, annual sales of nearly all of MG Rover Group’s models were now in steady decline, most noticeably in the home market. Therefore, the only option left was to further prolong the sales life of all the Rover models and the supplementary MG variants by giving them a comprehensive update.
These revision programmes would also need to serve as a means of reducing the cost of some of the components used where appropriate and also standardising further items across more variants. For the Rover brand the revised models would also look to modernise the styling of its models, including introducing a contemporary rendition of the radiator grille and the Viking longship badge adorning it.
Announced on 20 April 2004, the Rover 45 was the first of the two models to be revised. Featuring a more sculpted front bumper design and twin headlamps sitting beneath a single lens, the frontal design looked more up-to-date. Even the side protection strips were now colour-coded on all variants to help give a cleaner profile to the body’s sides. The use of chrome trim was now largely confined to the door handle pulls and a smaller aspect of the front grille’s surround. What was not so impressive was the rear profile where the tailgate/bootlid now featured a new outer skin and revised badging which relegated the number plate to the bumper. This made the 45 look rather ungainly and drew comparisons with one or two budget brand offerings from South Korea.
Changes to the interior were also comprehensive and included a remodelled dashboard fascia and centre floor console, complete with revised ‘soft touch’ switches, and a satin finish to the carryover column stalks. For the first time there would now be a choice of different wood-effect trim for the dashboard – Light Oak, Dark Oak and classic Burr Walnut. Revisions were also made to the trim level identities, with both bodystyles now adopting the Classic, Club and Connoisseur names previously reserved for the four-door saloon. For the home market the engine line-up would see the discontinuation of the 2-litre V6.
The revised Rover 25 followed a month later, with a similar approach to revamping the front and rear end styling, repositioning the rear number plate to the bumper and offering a revamped dashboard fascia design with new switchgear. Trim levels identities were also changed to i, Si, SEi and SXi.
The revamped Rover 25 and 45 also benefited from improvements in vehicle security and a new remote release for the tailgate/boot lid operated from the key fob. To further reinforce their modern day attitudes there were new alloy wheel designs and an expanded exterior colour palette which delivered brighter, more current hues. Few areas were left untouched to try and extend the appeal of these models.
Valiant though these efforts were, in reality there is only so much a makeover can do to hide the age of these models and their main shortcomings against the qualities of more modern rivals. In addition, there was also criticism of the efforts to update the Rover brand, with some observers viewing the revisions as cheapening the appeal of both the brand and its models.
The end approaches
The final changes to the 25 and 45 would be announced in December 2004 with the announcement of supplementary derivatives designed to deliver enhanced specification and greater luxury as standard. To be promoted in both print and radio advertising from early 2005 under the ‘World of Leather’ strapline, the GLi and GSi models standardised leather and extra equipment. There was also a more comprehensively equipped GXi variant for the 25 line-up offered in five-door form only and with the 1.6-litre K-Series. Prices started from £8995 for the 25 GLi 1.4 (84hp) three-door, rising to £13,945 for the 45 GSi 2.0-litre Turbo diesel four-door.
Unlike the regular mainline models, the ‘World of Leather’ variants were offered in just six exterior colours and with a more restricted choice of options in order to simplify the build programme and deliver greater economies of scale. For the customer though it offered them recognisable features often found on more expensive variants, and often aspired to, but now made more accessible. Such a strategy was to have been implemented on a full-time basis beyond the life of these new promotion-led value-for-money derivatives.
However, less than three months later, time and money had both run out for MG Rover Group. The Rover 25 and 45 would be the last mid-sized models to wear the Rover badge.
Conclusion: were the 25 and 45 a success?
Make no mistake, when the Rover 25 and 45 were announced back in October 1999, few could have imagined the enormity of the task they would have to undertake, including for an unexpected new owner with limited resources for delivering replacement models. Essentially, these models had to make the best out of what quickly became a difficult situation. Despite this, and whatever our affections are for these models, whether in Rover or MG form, by the time the curtain fell on them in 2005 they were old designs with little more to give in terms of ongoing development opportunities.
Figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) show that product diversification beyond the core Rover 25 and 45 had played a significant part in reducing the extent of natural decline in year-on-year production. The figures also show that for 2002 and 2003, as full sales years for the MG ZR and ZS, the Rover 25 accounted for between 63% and 55% of combined 25/ZR production. Meanwhile, the 45 represented between 79.3% and 71% of 45/ZS production. Only in 2004, as the final full year of production, did the MG ZR have a 6% lead over the number of Rover 25s built, whereas the Rover 45 continued to make up almost three-quarters of all 45/ZS production.
Using the same SMMT data, overall production of the Rover 25, when taking into account MG ZR, Streetwise and the car-derived vans, was approximately 326,000 examples. The Rover 45 and MG ZS’s combined production was just 125,690. Therefore, while the Rover 25 had been reasonably successful in maintaining some form of volume production, the Rover 45 had failed.
Much of the Rover 45’s poor sales performance can be attributed to its origins as the HHR 400 Series. As a collaborative project lead by Honda, it had not presented Rover’s Designers with sufficient opportunity to address its lack of flair, particularly in relation to the exterior styling and interior. Therefore, when the Rover 45 arrived some four and a half years after the launch of the 400 Series, it felt as if it was playing a game of catch-up with itself. Dynamically, it was not late for the party – the later MG ZS180 would confirm this. Yet, in terms of ongoing revisions to its exterior styling and interior, it was not convincing enough to become a serious threat to more compelling and newer rivals such as the Ford Focus. In essence, the updates delivered under both BMW and MG Rover Group had not been sufficient to overcome the shortcomings of the original HHR project.
Despite this, let’s not forget the fact that collectively the Rover 25 and 45 had a vital contribution in maintaining volume car production and the jobs of 5000 workers in the West Midlands for a further five and a bit years after their launch.
Moreover, the passage of time often provides perspective – as motoring journalist Quentin Willson told the author in correspondence in December 2019, ‘History tells us that the 25, 45 and especially 75, weren’t nearly as bad as those contemporary pundits said. Looking back I’m glad that I was one of the few positive voices in the barrage of criticism that Rover faced back then. When you look at surviving 25s, 45s and 75s, they’ve stood the test of time really well.’
Thanks to the following individuals for their assistance with this article: Ian Elliott, Stephen Fussell, Kevin Jones and Quentin Willson.