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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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?