Your Cars : Chris Haining’s Rover 825 Si

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

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

Chris Haining's Rover 800
Chris Haining’s Rover 800

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

Chris Haining's Rover 800
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!

Chris Haining's Rover 800
Chris Haining’s Rover 800

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's Rover 800
Chris Haining’s Rover 800

Chris Haining writes about new cars for Carbuyer.co.uk and rather older wheeled curios for the US-based hooniverse.com

Chris Haining’s Rover 825 Si: Gallery

18 Comments

  1. It’s still a good looking car and says Rover to me every time( quite rare these days) when I see an 800. The 800 was how a Rover should be, a large, comfortable car designed for long distances and with a Jaguar like interior for less money. Mind you, the 75 took this a step further and seems to be a more durable car as they’re still a common sight.

  2. Great article Chris. Good to see the shoots of new growth on the twigs of branching out from Hooniverse.

  3. The problem is whether the faults are down to the car or age. I have never driven a new car, so every car I have owned has had irritating faults or annoyances that I have had to work around.

    I have never had the time or the money to fix them all. It works, has an MOT and is safe. So I put up with it

  4. Not surprised if it is real wood inside these things, as the original R8’s all were, at least until the R3 dash appeared.

    I used to drive my boss’s ones of these in 1998 and I loved them. Wanted a Vitesse like mad, but never got round to it.

  5. Back in the 90s did it really compete with BMW’s and Mercedes? There was still a “non-premium” big car market back then whilst BMW’s and Mercs where perhaps a bit more premium than they are now. In that respect the real competitors to the 800, in the UK at least where the Ford Granada/Scorpio and the Vauxhall Omega. I don’t think it stacked up too badly against these?

    • Seem to remember Rover sitting in the space between the likes of Ford but below BMW.

      Similar to Volvo, Saab etc.

    • It’s a funny thing. On its launch, the top 800 Sterling and Vitesse were priced squarely to compete with the BMW 530i and Mercedes 230E, while the lower models in the range were Granada / Carlton rivals. Ten years later, when mine was built, the sensible world saw the range as Scorpio / Omega rivals, but Rover still reckoned they could challenge the Germans. In truth, the range between base and Sterling grew narrower towards the end.

      • Yes now you come mention it there was that Britischer Architekt advert that suggested it was an alternative to the German heavyweights. Completely delusional!

    • the Rover was hopelessly outclassed dynamically by the Omega, the Vauxhall being a hugely underrated luxury performance saloon in its day. I drove both when I served as a traffic cop, and as comfortable as the Rover is, it never matched the Senator of the late 80s or the Omega that followed it for all round performance and heandling

  6. I suppose there was a bit of a generational change going on during 8-series production. Whilst I can see it being utterly uncompetitive against things like the BMW E39 5 series by the late 90s, it would be really interesting to see how it stacked up against the other 80s execs still on sale then – the Volvo 940, Saab 9000 and Ford Scorpio.

    • It is also worth mentioning that the Audi 100/a6 c4 was a heavily reworked c2 (1982),the Alfa 164 (1987) was still made, the citroen xm (1989),Peugeot 605 (1989) etc so comparing the 800 to the BMW e39, a car that really moved the game ahead is a bit unfair.

  7. A very entertaining review! Thanks.

    The last time I test drove a new 5 Series was in 2011, when I compared it to a new Freelander 2. There was no contest and I bought my first new Land Rover. I realise that this must be sacrilegious to the generally BMW worshipping British public but I struggle now, as I did then, to understand what is “premium” about a 5 Series.

    • I understand what you mean about BMWs seeming “non-premium”.
      I have an early E60 and it doesn’t feel that premium at all. A very much costed-down E39 IMO. Admittedly, it has gadgets but they’re fronted by cheap looking and feeling plastics and some nice E39 touches were removed… interior boot release, glovebox torch, temp gauge, dual climate…
      The E60 underwhelmed me so much so when I bought it, I bought an E39 the following year as well !

  8. Lovely car and a very enjoyable read. I perfectly understand why a car with so many shortcomings in comparison to its direct competition, is actually more desirable 🙂 I had a 1993 820 Si Fastback and I still regret I ever sold it. The 75 I bought to replace it was lovely too, but not as convincingly genuine and honest as the 800 was. I especially loved the interior ambience which always made me want to stay inside the car even after completing a very long journey. Also I doubt that any car in the same price class offers the same level of comfort in the rear seat. Just phenomenal. I would love to own another Fastback (or perhaps a coupé) again some day . . . Perhaps a T-series turbo . . . ?

  9. Great article Chris, a very frank and fair assessment of these less than perfect but very personable cars. Rover was the underdog, just about surviving as a business but slowly moving forward, building more and more creditable cars – with some help from Honda admittedly. They weren’t perfect and as you illustrate, if we’re honest, they really didn’t match up to the best but we did what we could and produced a car which performed on its own merits. I remember reading an Autocar comment back in 1986 saying the 820 was their best rated exec car, so at its ’86 launch at least it was up there at the head of the pack. Of course by the mid-90s it was flagging but we still loved it. The 75 was a better car all round but in some ways even more of a pastiche than the R17 facelift thanks to the German stewardship at the time and the forbidden overlap with anything BMW and slightly sporting. I hope you enjoy your 800 for a long time to come!

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