Ardent supporter of BMC>MG products, man and boy, Steven Ward decides to call time on the Rover R8…
Is he right to do so?
Was it as good as it’s cracked up to be?
The Rover 200/400 is a fine and worthy choice, no doubt about it. It showed that Longbridge could finally design, market and sell a class-leading car with no inherent issues or obvious flaws.
We all know the qualities that marked out this car as being largely excellent; contemporary, clean styling, both inside and out, that harmoniously included advanced aerodynamics matched with reliable, modern engines, which were as refined as they were powerful and coupled to faultless gearboxes.
So near, so far…
Inside, cosseting ergonomics and seats from the 800 were all there, along with a stress reducing low waistline. Excellent build oozed from every surface, while quality was apparent in all aspects of build and design. Electrical gremlins were banished for good, resulting in life-long sales that were increasingly strong with resultantly good residuals.
So what that Rover progressively took the quality out and failed to improve its flaws? Rover did improve its home grown star of the show, the K-series, mid life and kept pace with fashionable passive safety features in its defence.
So what else marks this Longbridge product out from its predecessors? Well, flying in the face of popular opinion, I’m going to focus on its negatives – actually, make that three negatives.
Not as big as it should be
Let us first get into the car shall we? Or rather step down into it. By blindly using the Honda format of a low car, Longbridge made life slightly difficult for its core customers – the aged. Step down from a Maestro to a R8 and see exactly what I mean. A low-set driving position might appear sporty, but practical it isn’t. So, while the ergonomics worked wholesale in Rover 800, the R8 being shorter, cramped its rear seat passengers – despite that long-in-class wheelbase.
If you were over 6ft, headroom was cramped (especially with the slide ‘n’ tilt) and the adjustable (for rake) wheel still rubbed your thighs. Rover made a slight concession in this area by reshaping the seat squab. However, this was later offset by the flat steering wheel that was necessitated by the airbag. Also, with that airbag came another round of cost cutting.
From Honda to GM
The delightfully engineered (Honda?) seat height adjustment was replaced with a GM cast-off. This added even more height to the driver’s seat with no increase in foot room for the rear passenger. Here is the rub though: seat height adjustment always added height over the non-adjustable chairs – infuriating for those taller than average.
The advanced rear suspension arrangement cost valuable square inches in the boot too. The low waistline combined with a high axle line (despite class-leading independence) reduced the boot’s depth significantly.
How it rides and handles
We’ve seen how the impressive (on paper) Honda rear suspension really intruded into the middle and sides. This rear end is where the R8 falls apart in my opinion. Yes, Longbridge was following BMC tradition of advanced independent suspension designs, but no, it wasn’t actually any good – which wasn’t tradition. It sounded great though, I must stress that. The late ’80s buzzwords of ‘Multi-link’ and the motor sport holy grail ‘double wishbones’ were the exciting watchwords.
Sadly, just ask anyone who has suffered the ill effects of lift-off (without any warning) oversteer and they’ll painfully tell you why. There was no ‘feel’ or ‘feedback’ from the rear. This oversteer wasn’t helped by the steering or the early onset of understeer, both of which we’ll come to later. Here, then, was a complicated and therefore expensive suspension arrangement which robbed space and gave nothing in return.
Ride at the rear was always bumpy (and increasingly sounded it as sound proofing was progressively deleted). Blame the lack of wheel travel, blame the poor damping, blame Rover’s out-of-vogue ‘soft’ spring rates, blame the various ‘trick’ bushes. Hell, bin or tweak the trendy anti-roll bars. Whatever, it just didn’t stack-up, not when the handling suffered too. As mentioned, the back was all too keen to break away beyond recovery when you weren’t expecting it. It was tricky for the keen and inexperienced to say the least.
…not a smooth experience
A wise man once wrote ‘what is good for handling is also good for ride’. Here was a system that was nowhere near as good as what went before. Rover knew this and reverted to the Maestro rear end when R8 was properly facelifted into the R3-generation 200. Deep down, this was always the way forward, especially when Rover convinced Honda that Maestro-style struts were preferable to their domestic market double wishbones. Incidentally, has anyone ever compared and contrasted this set-up?
Just to recap, the R8 was a car which totally shattered every BMC>MG issue in one fell swoop: quality, ergonomics, styling, reliability, desirability, residuals, advanced technology (which worked straight out of the box) and workforce co-operation. It was the car that got it all together. We were up where we belonged and it was paying dividends.
Ironically, though, this came at the cost of the traditional BMC strengths we’d come to know and love. Chassis, packaging, and steering all suffered. This was despite a bodyshell some 20 per cent stiffer in torsion than the Maestro and with some award-winning systems bolted to it. We’ve covered the first two; now let us concentrate on this final insult – the feel of fear.
How it steers
ARG in the mid ’80s invented a PAS set-up called Positive Centre Feel (PCF). The aim of this system was to give the driver decent steering feel and feedback on the straights and absolute assistance on the twirl. It was said to achieve this by basically switching off on the straight ahead positioning of the steering wheel – great for motorway work was the theory.
It debuted on M-Series XX and went on to win a design accolade. Further assurance of the ‘rightness’ of this design was confirmed when Ferrari adopted it for their greatest ever line-up. Sadly, in this application, it lacked any sensuality. Like the rear, here was a set-up devoid of that all important ‘feel’.
Quite often you felt like you were steering on sheet ice such was the remoteness of the system. Positive on the (dead) straight, but devoid of feedback on the corners, the whole set-up conspired to trick you. In fairness, the steering weight and quickness was sound and its consistency thoroughly decent.
First impressions flatter to deceive
On initial impressions, R8 felt sharp (the turn-in bordered on electric!) and it seemed well pinned down. But ask questions your Maestro would answer without hesitation and R8 needed to ‘phone a friend. Understeer was the plat du jour but push harder and that rear end would washout just as soon as the dampers had wheezed their last – or the ARB relaxed.
Push less to tame the understeer and that rear end would also be mighty tempted to step out dramatically depending on speed. However, it could have been worse – you could have been mean and not bought into PAS. The manual steering was incredibly heavy (strangely, it got heavier as the tyres wore) and was slow too at four turns lock-to-lock.
For your saving of around £340 you were saddled with this, loaded, lame and lethargic steering that offered no more feedback over the powered rack. This was quite unlike the Maestro, especially since a curious ‘knock’ afflicted the every R8 steering rack on tight, bumpy bends.
Still, it got better
A chassis-shame really, from a specification sheet that shone brightly, then and now (astonishingly some 20 years later) and from a company that pioneered FWD winners working with Honda whom had just won F1 and was committed to engineering purity.
Rover in the end got it right both ways. The MG ZR/Rover 25 (nee R3) used an R8 platform with Maestro suspension front and rear, while the ZS/45 (nee HH-R) used a platform closely related to the original Concerto with wishbones front and the multi-link rear-end pretending to be wishbones. However, like BMC, by the time it was right, we’d all moved-on. Unlike the product…
As a footnote, Honda now use struts front and a torsion beam rear for their Civic. Of course, it was Volkswagen which pioneered this system that the Maestro shamelessly copied. The Golf now has a fully independent rear.