Chris Haining’s Rover 800 is an illogical daily driver in this day and age. The gearbox is sulkier than a sugar-deprived toddler, and its handling lacks a little in precision or engagement, but despite this, this well-preserved 825 Si is Chris’s car for life.
My Rover and other animals
Everybody should have a touchstone to turn to – a means of keeping things real and observing every inch of human progress as it’s made. Mine is sitting on the driveway right now. It’s a 1997 Rover 825 Si. A Fastback, in Zircon Silver, with a manual gearbox.
It wasn’t a very good car when it was new, where it was comprehensibly thrashed by competition that included the BMW 5 Series (E39) and Mercedes E-Class (W210). In fact, it was thoroughly roasted both objectively in terms of performance, handling and build quality, and subjectively where it comes to style and desirability.
The thing is, all three are now more than 20-years old, and the two Germans now feel like old versions of the cars you can buy today.
Brimming with technology and confidence
The Rover, though, feels like the newest version of something really ancient – which is exactly what it is. In fact, it’s worse than that. When the 800 first appeared in 1986, it rode the crest of a technological wave. It shared pretty much everything you couldn’t see – and several things that you could – with the Honda Legend, a luxury saloon car abrim with Japanese hi-tech knowhow.
However, in 1991, Honda realised that the Legend was rather old hat and replaced it with a new one, while Rover simply gave the 800 a tart-up session with more interior woodwork, overstuffed seats and a top and tail facelift that included a front grille which scaled the very height of pastiche.
By 1995, it really was pensionable. Yet Rover persevered, and gave it yet another facelift, with new light clusters and a rear spoiler on every model, even the lowly entry-level model. Not that it had any aerodynamic benefit, of course. Mine sits in the middle of the range, if you accept that the Sterling and Vitesse were Jekyll and Hyde characters that shared the same top step of the ladder.
About Chris Haining’s Rover 800
As an 825Si, it omits the rear reading lights, powered leather seats and cruise control of the Sterling, but gains alloy wheels and a CD changer to set it apart from the poverty model. It also has the 2.5-litre ‘KV6’ engine that replaced the well-proven and very reliable 2.7-litre Honda unit in 1995.
AROnline offers plenty about the KV6 and its dubious reputation, but I’ll go on the record as saying that mine has been fault-free throughout the car’s admittedly coddled existence. I won’t say it’s a brilliant engine, though, because that would be lying. It sounds fantastic and proves remarkably economical so long as you avoid towns like the plague.
However, it feels like totally the wrong engine for the car. Rover quoted a 0-60mph time of 8.2 seconds for manual cars, and it’s probably achievable but not without taking engine revs into the stratosphere in every gear – not great for either relaxation, engine longevity or nerves.
How it drives
You should be able to drive a car like this on its torque alone, as you can in a BMW 5 Series or Mercedes E-Class, but the Rover doesn’t really have any unless you get rather busy on the accelerator. The power-sapping automatic gearbox makes things even worse, but at least it slurs its gear changes and doesn’t have passengers complaining of whiplash.
Of course, mine is a manual, and I take that as both a blessing and a curse. The good news is that I understand the technology that makes it work, and failure ought not to be cataclysmic. I’ve had need to replace the clutch slave cylinder, and would much rather face that challenge again than meddle with the frightening sorcery that makes a JATCO automatic work.
On the other hand, it’s not a terribly good gearbox. The ratios seem oddly chosen, with first gear tantamount to an underdrive, and fourth not really much different to fifth. It needs a sixth, really. Or a seventh, in fact. The clutch, too, is very odd. There’s a strong chance that it needs adjustment – but I’ve never encountered another KV6 manual to compare it to. It has a long travel and does its clutching within an inch of movement. Once you master it it’s quite progressive, but first encounters tend to be somewhat bouncy.
Why won’t it handle traffic jams properly?
The same is true if you’re trying to crawl along in gear in a traffic jam, which can be something of a kangaroo-fest. I assume this is to do with the fuel-injection system that doesn’t meter fuel very well at just above idle. Perhaps a quick tinker from an expert could sort this out, but that would involve spending money – a concept that has my skin coming out all blotchy.
On the handling and roadholding front, the 825Si doesn’t really have enough of either. By the standards of the late 1990s, its 15-inch wheels and 195 tyres are unfashionably small and spindly, but offer a fairly delicate feel through the ridiculously light steering. They’re remarkably grippy, though, and only once you realise that what feels like understeer can actually usually be worked around by simply turning the wheel further, tyre squeal be damned.
The result is a convincing 2CV imitation from the rather soft suspension, but like the Citroën you have to be pretty heavy handed to find a speed or corner radius that the car won’t tackle. Unlike the 2CV, though, the soft suspension doesn’t translate to a cushy ride – the soft springs are quite firmly damped, and potholes rather upset the ambience.
Oh, the wood. It’s a joy!
The latter is in fairly generous supply. The KV6 is barely audible at quasi-legal velocities, and the timber that dominates the interior actually has traces of wood to it – despite being lacquered and lettered to within an inch of its life. The materials used are pleasant, too. What isn’t wood is leather or wool, and the dashboard plastics that were chosen on merit in 1986 clearly weren’t the result of a product consultancy clinic.
It feels like you’re driving around in the late 1980s, and the impression is emphasised by an extremely low cowl line that makes for an extraordinarily open feeling from behind the wheel. The 800 is a lot lower than most of today’s cars – it’s almost XJ6 low, and the windscreen seems almost as upright as that of a Saab 900. As a result, the 800 somehow has an entirely more laid back demeanour. Set your motorway pace just beyond that of surrounding traffic, and long journeys just disappear.
Compared to the Rover, my Audi A4 feels like it’s from the distant future despite being only a year newer. In fact, the German car only feels a little divorced from its brand new equivalent, and the same is true of my 800’s direct rivals of the time. Today’s cars feel like mere evolutions of those late ’90s machines, whereas my 825 feels an epoch removed. It’s like a 24-valve, climate-controlled vintage car, and an addictive contrast to virtually anything you can buy today.
Mine has also been in the family since Rover Group finished with it as a demonstrator. Its first private owner, my Grandfather, gave me the keys when ill health forced him to hang up his stringbacks. Partly for such saccharin sentimentality and, partly for the fear that I’ll never find anything quite like it again, it’s my car for life.
Chris Haining writes about new cars for Carbuyer.co.uk and rather older wheeled curios for the US-based hooniverse.com