THE Rover 800 Coupé proved once and for all that the talented styling team at Gaydon really could turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse – compare the gawky R17 saloon to any Coupé and you’ll see what we mean.
JONATHAN SELLARS tests the rarest 800 Coupé of them all, the two-litre Sterling. Does it really combine all the beauty of its more powerful stablemates without any of the drawbacks?
ROVER proudly labeled it ‘a prestigious gentleman’s carriage’, but does the Viking flagship of the Nineties really live up to the expectations fashioned by its stately looks and £30,000 price tag?
Let’s turn the clock back a decade or so. It’s 1996 and as a teenager with a fast developing fascination with all things automotive, being dragged around the showrooms as my parents test drive the new 200 series is hardly an unwelcome pursuit for me. But I’m not interested in the little bubble shaped car. My attention is drawn to the big expensive looking saloon on the other side of the showroom.
It looks just like the chauffeur-driven car the Prime Minister always pulls up in on the television, and as a rather diminutive 13-year old sitting in the giant drivers seat, surrounded by more banks of controls than an aeroplane cockpit and that rich new leather smell I’m almost left in awe. If you’d told me I’d be a Rover 800 owner by the age of 21 I’d have thought it unreal, and if the cars hadn’t already been dinosaurs by that time I might just have been right. In reality though, depreciation quickly did its stuff.
First impressions stick and when something more modern was required to take some of the strain off my 16 year-old MG Maestro as a daily commuting car, the sales brochures I’d taken back with me from that childhood showroom visit were the first to come off the shelf. I’d never really intended on owning the Coupé variant until, after two rather ill-fated encounters with saloons, a good friend mentioned to me that she was selling her pampered 1997 2-litre Sterling Coupé. With the asking price being little more than a replacement ‘KV6’ engine and the uncertainty that would go with it, I could hardly say no.
But that’s enough sentimentality. What’s the Sterling actually been like to live with over the last year?
Performance and Economy
Even with over 1300kg of car to pull, the 2-litre engine feels lively. There’s no shortage of torque throughout the rev range giving a respectable acceleration from rest to 60mph in just under 10 seconds and plenty of response on the move, with 30-70mph through the gears achievable in 9.2 seconds. Even at motorway speeds it’s rarely necessary to bury the pedal into the carpet to get an instant and measurable response.
Unfortunately any kind of acceleration is accompanied by more noise than one expects from a car of this class, but I have not accounted for its sole modification, a non-standard exhaust system installed by the previous owner which will have some bearing on this. I still miss the smoother power delivery and overall refinement of the V6 I owned previously. Although quite adequate for the car, the T-Series just doesn’t quite have the same feel to it leaving me wanting a little bit more at times.
The gearbox fitted to these cars has a positive feel to it, although I often find the clutch up-take is a little too sudden for smooth changes which can spoil an otherwise relaxed ride around town. Once allowed to settle at a constant cruising speed though, the Rover is at home and it really will waft along quietly and effortlessly.
A recent 1500 mile touring break provided not only an excuse to put the car through its paces on some of Britain’s toughest roads but also a chance to gauge its average economy over a long distance run. Over the three days some 207 litres of petrol were consumed (£190 worth at the time) which works out at about 31mpg. That doesn’t sound too bad, until you consider that much of the mileage was covered on motorways and fast ‘A’ roads!
Handling and Ride
The sheer size of any Rover 800 takes some getting used to. At almost five metres in length and with its wide ‘C’ pillars and long bonnet, intricate low speed maneuvering in the Coupé was never going to be easy. This is somewhat compensated for by the steering which works very well in this situation. It’s exceptionally light and effortless to turn from lock-to-lock quickly, something that also proved helpful when confronted by a notorious Lake District mountain pass involving alarmingly steep gradients interjected by an unrelenting series of hairpin bends. It is almost possible to feel a little too remote from the road at times, but Rover’s “positive centre feel” system does add a little more weight at higher speeds through the bends just where it’s needed.
On the whole the ride is comfortable and dignified, the car soaking up bumps and potholes with ease. Occasionally the limited travel of the suspension does cause it to crash around a little but in reality this only happens if, for example, you take a particularly abrupt speed bump a bit too fast. There’s a little roll through the corners coupled with perhaps ever so slight understeer, but this doesn’t seem to have too much of an adverse affect giving a reassuring feeling of poise and stability throughout.
Fast roads with sweeping bends may be very pleasurable in the Sterling, but point it at a motorway and it’s in its element. The big long body feels consistently stable at speed where in some smaller cars you often get that slightly unsettling wobble at times. There’s none of that here and it is surprising just how quickly and comfortably the miles begin to pile on with the driver barely noticing. Wind noise is certainly evident on the motorway, but not to the extent that it becomes intrusive.
At the wheel
If the Coupé looks distinguished from the outside, its interior has a certain ambience that would not have disappointed even the most discerning driver. The wood and leather formula may be a little old fashioned but it has been well executed in the Sterling giving it that distinctly English air that almost identifies a Rover. Such details as the branded door inserts, contrasting piping in the seats and even the neatly arranged rows of warning symbols at the bottom of the window glass give the car a touch of individuality. All controls (and there are a lot of them) surround the driver in comfortable reach, except those mounted on the armrest where I have visions of mistakenly jettisoning the contents of the boot instead of opening the sunroof while driving.
The armchair-like seats are great, supportive in all the right places and adjustable in every which way. Passengers often find themselves nodding off on long journeys especially in the rear compartment where they are almost completely cocooned from the world around them. There are three seats in the rear but the third is really only child sized and with all three occupied things become intimate, at best! Despite what you’d expect of a Coupé legroom is quite adequate for most throughout.
I’m convinced that stowage space inside the cabin did not come high on the list of priorities at design stage. Whilst there’s the occasionally handy Austin Rover trademark coin tray, the door bins are narrow and inaccessible, there are no cup holders, anything in the tray beneath the centre console interferes with the handbrake and the glove compartment can barely accommodate the handbook let alone anything else. If you spend a lot of time in the car, this becomes an issue.
Finish and equipment
If you’re taken in by the Sterling’s grandeur don’t look too hard for its flaws, because you won’t have to. Build quality was vastly improved in the later years and everything feels solid enough with the squeaks or rattles of earlier cars far less evident. But some of them are still there and the generally excellent finish is marred slightly by one or two cheap looking clip-on bits of plastic trim.
Being the top model equipment levels are generous as is to be expected, right down to the various different interior lights, presumably for reading your Financial Times. Rover were throwing everything at the later 800s to increase their appeal and the only option lacking by modern standards is Satellite navigation. The climate control with its rather complex 14-button control panel is a wonderful system when you learn how to use it, and particularly impressive is the 6-speaker stereo which delivers some of the best sound quality I’ve experienced in any factory standard car.
There’s no doubt about it, the Rover 800 Coupé is an attractive car. Its elegant lines and lavish interior won it accolades from its introduction and it won’t look at all out of place in the director’s spot even today. Comfort and long distance ability are also significant strengths. With such qualities it could, and should, have been a runaway success in the US market for which it was primarily developed had it been given the opportunity.
Of course, this alone is not sufficient to make a truly great car into a class leader and comparing certain aspects of it with similarly priced rivals of the time towards which the Rover has aspirations, it is easy to see why the list price had actually fallen somewhat by 1997. But if it falls short in the detail, it doesn’t do so by far. The main problem is surely the badge. No matter how hard it tried the Rover name no longer had the kudos behind it in a highly competitive and image-conscious market to frighten the usual German heavyweights, and that’s a shame for such a worthy contender.
If you like your comforts and don’t mind sacrificing a bit of practicality, as an understated modern classic the Rover 800 Coupé has it all and now is the time to buy while they’re so affordable and relatively easy to find. It’s one of those cars you’ll find yourself glancing back at in the car park, and you’ll even want to keep on finding excuses to make long journeys for the most trivial reasons, too. That kind of appeal has to put it on anyone’s shortlist.
|Scores out of ten|
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.