Opinion : Why Rover’s HHR failed

Rover’s ill-fated 1990s replacement for the popular mid-liner, the R8… and why it didn’t hit the spot.

Alejandro Cáceres explains how, with a few little design touches, it could have been so very different.


A brief design analysis using a lightly-modified hatch
compared to a stock saloon

The Rover R8 was the pinnacle of the Rover Group’s small/medium saloon/hatch models. It had all the ingredients to be a class leader: great to drive, with a classy and well-thought-out interior, well equipped, stylish, reliable and competitively priced. It’s no surprise that they flew out of the dealerships to become one of the UK’s top-selling cars in the 1990s, and within the Top Ten imports on most available markets. The key to this success was the great joint design work carried out jointly by Austin-Rover and Honda.

Sadly, Rover wasn’t able to come up with a worthy successor, and the HHR hatch/saloon launched in 1995/96 was lacking in areas its older sibling got right: not so good to drive (sublime ride quality notwithstanding), compromised interior, not as well equipped, indifferent styling and obscenely overpriced. All this together made the Rover Group lose the market share it had won with the R8, and started the downward spiral to oblivion that ended with MG Rover in 2005.

The saddest thing of it all is that the problem with the HH-R seems to be that Rover got overconfident with this car, and assumed that it was worthy of pushing it upmarket without being too much of an improvement beyond the R8. They didn’t seem to work half as hard on this car as on the R8 and, besides the excellent ride quality, everything else makes you feel that you’re ‘stepping down’ when ‘stepping up’ to the HH-R.

In my opinion, the car could have become a success if one of these two things had been done: either launch it at the ‘proper’ price, or give the car more perceived class with relatively little extra work. I’m about to show you how much of a difference add a few touches of class and distinction in some areas can make to a car. Here (pictured below) we have my father’s 1998 HHR 416 Si saloon in British Racing Green. A very tidy example and completely original, as it left longbridge more than ten years ago. It actually compares pretty well to a similarly specced saloon R8 (even if not as desirable), so with the right price it would have sold quite well.

The saloon was a great improvement from the oddly proportioned hatch
The saloon was a great improvement from the oddly proportioned hatch
HH-R saloon goodness at is best: the rear end
HH-R saloon goodness at is best: the rear end

However, I’m thinking they could have gone a different way, something like so:

This is fellow AROnline forum member João Paulo Santos Rosa de Carvalho’s HH-R hatch, in similar trim to my father’s saloon (’00 414 Si), but with some small touches that lift it ‘up where it belongs’ (or, might I say, where it wished to belong). Just looking at the car from the outside shows us that, even if some people don’t like the ‘colour-coding mania’ look on their cars, this would have benefited the HH-R which suffered with the opposite maladies (too little inspiration from its lack of colour coding): the coloured door handles, foglamp surronds and sills give the car a more aggresive stance and lift it away from the ‘daily commuter’ image the HH-R hatch suffers.

Add the rear spoiler and smoked taillights (why didn’t Rover do this from day one baffles me) and it just looks incredible…


Small changes all add up…

While controversial, it's obvious that colour-coding did this car wonders
While controversial, it’s obvious that colour-coding did this car wonders

I’m no big fan of over-sized alloys, but the HH-R could have beneftted from 15in wheels on base trim levels, and 16in on the higher-spec 420s. Here we see why: this one looks very balanced on 16in alloys; they make the HHR hatch lose its bloated appearance, very evident on 14in wheels.

16" alloys, rear spoiler and tinted taillights move this car further upmarket. Colour coding and chrome exhaust tip also help.
16″ alloys, rear spoiler and tinted taillights move this car further upmarket. Colour coding and chrome exhaust tip also help

Let’s move on, and step in. Take a look at the new door cards: the rather boring velour used on the stock car was replaced with a higher quality material, with tasteful stitching matching the front seats. Add fabric speaker covers and it’s a whole different feel, up to scratch to even some of the basic models that the premium German marques offered at the time. The chrome lock button also integrates nicely.

It's incredible how so little improves the look of these door cards so much. It just needs matching fabric speaker covers...
It’s incredible how so little improves the look of these door cards so much. It just needs matching fabric speaker covers…

Taking a seat and closing the door, we notice the leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear knob, a welcome change over the OEM plasticky ones. The full walnut veneer dash kit also lifts the ambience, as do the classy chrome surrounds on the instrument panel, heater controls and gear knob surround.

A couple chrome rims here and there, the whole dash veneer kit, a prover Rover badge on the wheel, chrome-wrapped everything... We're on to a winner here
A couple chrome rims here and there, the whole dash veneer kit, a proper Rover badge on the wheel, chrome-wrapped everything… We’re on to a winner here
Rover should have replaced its stock digital dash clock for a combined chronograph/clock/thermometer unit, a nice gimmick that could be pitched to the 'lifestyle' buying public.
Rover should have replaced its stock digital dash clock for a combined chronograph/clock/thermometer unit, a nice gimmick that could be pitched to the ‘lifestyle’ buying public
The illuminated rear view mirror from the MGF and the front door mirror tweeters may not be completely necessary, but they add two extra 'bullet points' to the equipment list.
The illuminated rear view mirror from the MGF and the front door mirror tweeters may not be completely necessary, but they add two extra ‘bullet points’ to the equipment list

Summing up, this subtle ‘nip and tuck’ could have made the rather flawed HH-R way more palatable to the buying public at minimum cost. Together with a more comprehensive list of equipment, this would have allowed Rover to sell these cars successfully at a profit with the price premium they intended.

What do you think? Would this have been the right thing to do, or would it have been better to leave the cars alone, and price them sensibly?


Keith Adams
Latest posts by Keith Adams (see all)

22 Comments

  1. But I think this article has missed out some important flaws that the HHR should address when they launch the car.

    First, they should add 2 cup holders in the center console.

    Second, they should add more sound deadening to the vehicle, if they really want to promote the car as a premium small car.

    Third, they should add more lights in the cabin, the rear cabin has no light, also they should add lights in behind the gas and brake pedal and front passenger foot area. I have sat on a Mk 4 golf they have all this features.

    Fourth, they need to install one more vanity mirror in the passenger sun visor.

  2. The biggest mistake people make is that they keep comparing it back to the R8. The R8 was ahead of the pack at launch and by 1995 the pack were catching up. Rover rushed this car into production early (the saloon appeared the following year, just like the Montego had) when the R8 had 2/3 years left in it. The 98.5MY updates made the hatches look a lot better. Rover also gaffed by finishing the R8 hatches with an SEi run out model (leather alloys) and then using a flat painted base model 414i in the launch advert!

    Rover did keep tweaking away at the car and got it a little better each time. I happen to think my late Mk1 45 TD saloon is one of the nicest looking saloons of the last decade.

    Heres a thought, lets say Rover kept the R8 going until 1998/9 then launched the HH-R as a saloon only model 45 with the R3 being called 25. Would this have been better?

    • I’m of the opinion that the R3 should’ve been their supermini, rather than pitching it at the Golf/Escort/Astra market. Should’ve been 15, the HH-R hatch the 25 (or perhaps 35 if they wanted to go upmarket – though their paymasters by the mid-late 90s wouldn’t have allowed a 300 series) with 45 being the saloon.

  3. I have to say that the subtle exterior and interior upgrades as detailed above do make a significant difference to the HHR, they would look especially good with a set of TF alloys.

  4. Maybe R8 should have soldier on until the 45 facelift, in 1.4 8 and 16V along with 1.6 auto’box, GTI and PSA diesels, the new facia on the “Glamour versions” (Coupe, cabby and also the Tourer could have benefited from this )worked well, and could have soldier on longer it was still very well loved. HHR, therefore could have been launched as a saloon only when it was ready, chasing lower versions of D segment, leaving the top to 600. R3 could have been the super super-mini it was in 1.1 &1.4 plus diesel and a “hot version” thus saving Metro’s shameful death. Then when HHR became 45, the hatchback would have completed the offering as R8 was discontinued. HHR deserved more detailing from the offset, it’s so obvious and proven…The lack of “Glamour versions” is also a sign that nothing was as honky dorry as it should have been, Honda getting too demanding and at that point, with R3 such a success, it would have been time for Rover to tell Honda to get to Falkirk… Can I get a penny for my thoughts ?

  5. Simple and plush, in a word perfect. Sleek, english… those were cars… Still dreaming about a 45 V6…

    • Yes Domenco… all these years later after owning three HHR’s, (1.4 to 1.8) I also wish I could have test driven a 45 / 2.0 V6 as well, or the ZS180

  6. I think the issue was that Rover did not have much say in this car – it was designed initially by Honda and Rover just jazzed it up for sale and then paid a rather large fee for each one sold. It failed because Honda had not learnt enough from the R8 – they went back to their own vehicle to base the new model on not the R8 and Rover under BMW thought they could charge a premium for each model when most people still say them as a slightly posher Ford and not a slightly downmarket BM.

  7. I had a few HHRs as company cars right up to 2000. Mundane, ok, uninspiring.
    My point would be: why would you want one?
    R8 was tight, stylish and aspirational – though it was expensive to make with low margins.
    HHR was none of these and the general the buying public voted with their feet.

  8. Sorry, but nothing could make that car interesting and the lacklustre sales proved it right to the end.

  9. Did the HH-R actually fail, the lacklustre sales were actually ok, not enough to pay for a new car but a tidy little profit and in MG form beging to become a cult classic.
    I loved the car, and much preferred it to the previous 200/400. You still see quite a few on the roads today which suggest for all the problems with the K it is actually pretty robust. Sales could have been better with better pricing and more of the niche models that made the 200/400 so popular. But I think failure is a bit harsh.

  10. The R8 looked modern when it was released and the HHR looked old fashioned, I remember being so disappointed when it came out.

  11. What surprised me is how well R8 sold in the year before R3 and HHR were launched, its peak year was easily 1994. Indeed it’s possibly a unique example of a BMC/BL/Rover product effectively being replaced too soon!

  12. BL cars usually died too late. The Marina/Ital, Maxi, Allegro and Metro all lived way past their sell by dates. In the case of the R8 it died too young at the zenith of its market penetration. Rover seemed almost embarrassed by its success and seemed to set out to make the HHR every bit as unappealing as the Maxi was in its day. To compound the problem, only a few months later it launched the R3 which effectively competed with it. The Allegro/Marina all over again. Factor in ludicrously ambitious pricing and it was doomed. Thing is the R3 wasn’t a bad car and was of course based heavily on R8 engineering. The HHR should never have happened with a full sized, properly priced R3 being the R8 replacement.

    • Would have to agree on the R8’s production life being cut short, especially since Rover could have used the R8 as a basis to develop a new / rebodied replacement in the same way the Renault 19 became the Renault Megane and the Citroen ZX became the Citroen Xsara.

      As for the R3, perhaps Rover would have been better further developing the R7 project that was derived from a cut-down R8 platform with the same design theme as the R6X prototype.

      However did the R8 possess the same potential HHR did in how the latter later formed the basis of the well-regard handling of the MG ZS?

  13. The MG ZS (original not the school run tank) showed what potential the HH-R had, I’ve seen people (non-car nuts obviously) mistaking blue, spoilered examples for Subarus!…

    The Domani was something of an uninspiring base car, I sometimes wonder why they didn’t use the 5th gen Civic – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honda_Civic_(fifth_generation) – could you imagine this with a Rover grille? The saloon looks like a mini-600. The hatchback previewed the fashion in the late 90s onwards for hatches to have vertical tailgates, rather than the bustleback of the likes of the HH-R, Ford Escort, Citroen Xsara etc. Plus the coupe would’ve gave them a new Tomcat…

    Of course Rover were fighting with one hand behind their back, BMW did not want them to step on their toes too much – as shown by the stillborn 400 V6 concept, they seemed happy for Rover to settle into the “pipe and slippers” image and leave the “thrusting young exec” to buy a 316i.

  14. You list up several details like more chrome oder more colour on the outside. But you forget, that all these changes would have cost extra in production.
    Door handles oder fog lamp covers are mounted after the bodywork has been painted. So you need an extra process to paint these parts, which costs extra. And the production and mouting of the chrome parts for the dashboard you won’t get for free either. Of course all these changes would have been nice.
    But there had to be some changes in the construction before. Why these door handles? Look at most other cars. The don’t have these frames around the grip. That’s why there is less plastic to be painted and even without coloured grip you have more colour on the doors because of the lacking frame. Look at a 90s Mercedes 190 without coloured door handles. But they do look high-grade. Also in case of an Evo.
    And why these framed fog lamps? Why not mounting the fog lamps directly into the bumper?
    Oh and please no rear spoiler. That one looks ridiculous. Maybe that integrated and decent design used at a Mazda Liftback in the mid-90s. But not such an after market show-off style.

  15. My R 400s, R45 & MG ZS were of the Hatch body which I preferred, though in hindsight, the saloon looks better now than I thought it used to.

    I agree the colour coding, extra chrome and wood dash / door caps on the R45 were an improvement in those days. My R45 had 15″ alloys and rear spoiler, though the ZS was my favourite overall.

  16. Two things amaze me about the HHR 400 that show just how out of touch Rover and British Aerospace we’re with the reality of range planning.
    That they tried to price and market it at such a premium it became a D-segment Mondeo rival despite it being (clearly and even more so than the R8) based upon a mainstream C-segment Honda.
    That they didn’t have the ability to develop a new car of their own and were therefore “forced” to take the ungainly Domani as a base when developing the HHR hatchback, yet found the resources to develop their own unique saloon version, despite the original Domani base car being a 4-door.
    With a little extra investment they could have developed their own successor to the R8 carrying over most of the chassis and mechanical components (the Domani and therefore the HHR 400/Civic were themselves a develop of the R8 project, not a completely new design) that owed nothing to Honda but would have had a lot of commonality with the R3 project, essentially taking the R8 platform that Rover co-owned the rights to and building the next generation of B/C-segment competitors upon it. Instead the HHR ended up costing Rover massively in Honda royalty payments.

  17. I agree with your comments about developing an R8 based replacement, as the 200 really did show what the Rover engineers could do.

    The price was caused by Rover deciding the 200 wasn’t going to replace the Metro, so had to price it above, which fell into the next bracket and so therefore pushed the HHR price up.

  18. We see many comments about how R3 and HHR were overpriced. I used to work for a guy who had a good job in Rover Homologation, he told me something very insightful on this topic.
    Apparently HHR was cheap to build, as it was entirely Japanese engineered (apart from the British engines); but R3 actually cost more to build, as it was engineered by Brits, who weren’t so good at cost down (and obviously it shared less Honda components).
    This doesn’t take account of licence fees to Honda, which would be higher for HHR, but does a lot to explain MGR’s financial woes. The 45 & ZS could be sold at a profit, but didn’t sell well; while 25&ZR sold decently, but made a loss. In the short term, they could break even and stimulate sales by cutting prices, as the tooling was paid off; but you need a profit to develop succeeding models – oops.
    Both 25 and 45 had outdated engineering, I remember from a late visit to Longbridge that they showed us the 75 line because it was the most modern – they had maybe 2 guys working on front subframes, which were hydroformed. This required expensive tooling, but made the subframes in a small number of components. Both 25 and 45 needed a team of 20 just to weld front subframes together! You can buy a lot of pressurized hydraulic fluid for the salaries of 18 blokes…

  19. The talk on the R8 being rebodied and forming the basis of an early B-Segment models brings up questions on the likely dimensions of the R7 prototype that made use of a shortened R8 platform and helped the company ease their way to the R3 project.

    Because apart from height and possibly width the R3 in terms of dimensions elsewhere, it appears to have been little different to a 4th generation 3-door Honda Civic hatchback.

    Also another member of the 4th generation Civic family that the R8 was part of includes the South East Asian specific 3rd generation (96-02) Honda City, despite appearing to resemble the 5th/6th generation Civic family.

    One thing that is rather annoying about using the R8 in place of HHR would be how both the R8 and R3 (the latter even in MG ZR 160 form) could not match the dynamics of the MG ZS (and particularly in ZS 180 form).

    From that perspective Rover would have been better off being permitted by Honda to use the 5th gen 1991-1995 Honda Civic hatchback as a starting point for an R3 analogue with better dynamic potential though understand Honda itself had their own issues from the early/mid-1990s under Nobuhiko Kawamoto following the death of Soichiro Honda, which adds a bit of context as to why they proved to be increasingly difficult with Rover prior to the latter being bought by BMW.

    Found the following article interesting concerning one Ayrton Senna and Honda’s double wishbone suspension, which is relevant for Rover given their partnership with Honda at the time and how the HHR’s dynamic potential would be belatedly unleashed with the MG ZS.

    https://hondaroots.com/2016/05/09/ayrton-senna-and-hondas-double-wishbone-suspension/

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