The R8 was an undoubted success for Rover but by the time of its launch Honda had already decided that future collaborations would follow a different path - Honda would design the cars and Rover would work “their magic” around the base car. This route was largely a success on the Honda Accord/Rover 600 collaboration but when it came to the replacement of the successful R8 things got a whole lot more difficult.
The R8 Rover 200/400 was always going to be a hard act to follow, and this time Rover would have much less influence in the design of the car. The replacement car was being designed by Honda and Rover would put their interpretation on the car along with its own “K“ and “T” series petrol engines and new “L” series diesel. The HHR was slightly bigger than the R8 in 5 door form and Rover’s own 4 door version was markedly larger than the outgoing 400. To cover the gap between Metro and the HHR 400 was to be a new smaller 200 (R3). These were two of the three “Portfolio” models (the other being the MGF) all to be launched in 1995.
Honda’s long-term sales strategy in Europe was to build sales through production of their vehicles by Rover, which it achieved through the Ballade and Concerto models, before starting their own production. The Honda UK Manufacturing centre (HUM) in Swindon was initially a PDI centre for Rover-built Honda vehicles but the 1995 Honda Civic 5 door was the first vehicle to be built there. Rover continued to produce its HHR vehicles at Longbridge on the same production line in CAB1 that had been used for R8 with the remaining R8 vehicles moving into CAB2.
The Rover 600 had already been launched and was again being pushed upmarket with ambitious pricing and was quickly encountering stiff opposition from Ford’s impressive new Mondeo. Richard Wooley had worked his magic on the bland Honda Accord to create the stylish Rover 600 and it was expected he could do the same on the Honda Civic 5 door; but this time the proportions were much more difficult to deal with. Rover’s answer was to produce a Rover only 4 door that would distance itself from the Civic based 5 door. With the smaller R3 following alongside, the HHR began being pushed further upmarket - both because of the R3 and in search of higher margins.
As HHR development was nearing completion in early 1994 there was the major announcement that BAe were selling Rover to BMW. BMW reviewed the “Portfolio” models and because they were so far advanced decided to continue with them. BMW had aspirations of pushing Rover further upmarket and so when the HH/R Rover 400 was launched in March 1995, initially as a 5-door only, it was priced to compete in the “C” segment and was therefore considerably more expensive than the outgoing 200/400. Despite its improved refinement and ride quality, the press were underwhelmed by the new car. This was not the leap forward from the R8 that had been expected. Rover responded by saying that the soon to arrive 400 saloon was “the real new 400” and sure enough when the saloon was launched it looked a more classy and coherent car. It was however, still lacking in rear legroom (due to its relatively short wheelbase) and expensive. Sales never met the level of the R8 and with the ever strengthening currency making imports cheaper the 400 struggled to maintain market share. Its styling quickly looked dated, not just against the opposition but also against Richard Wooley’s elegant 600 and David Saddington’s sporty looking 200 (R3).
Following the launch of the Rover 75, both the 400 and 200 were revised with R75 styling cues and their names changed to 45 and 25 respectively. Shortly after this BMW announced they were selling Rover controversially to the Phoenix Consortium and the 45 would go on to be further developed initially as a MG (the ZS) and finally a further revamp of the 45 in 2004. A car that was always compromised in its package and styling eventually went on to far outlive its design life with a 10 year production run only ending with the demise of MG Rover in 2005.