Following on from the successful licencing agreement with Honda that produced the Triumph Acclaim, Austin Rover looked to capitalise on this success with a replacement. To avoid taking sales away from the mainstream Maestro and Montego it was agreed that the new car would be pushed more upmarket than the Acclaim. The company was now called Austin Rover, the logical step was to call the Acclaim replacement a Rover.
Whereas the Acclaim was purely a Honda with Triumph badges, Austin Rover were able to adapt Honda’s design of their Ballade in certain aspects of the car’s design, namely the interior design and seats as well as the frontal aspect of the car, the lights, grille and bumpers, to give the car a more European and upmarket feel. Unfortunately Austin Rover were not able to have any involvement in the handling and ride and this would later become a criticism of the car.
The car was launched in June 1984 (following the launches of the Maestro in March 1983 and Montego in April 1984) and there was much play on the quality of the car. It was initially only available with the Honda 1342cc engine but in a range of four trims from standard, S, SE to VandenPlas. Some people questioned the logic of the Rover badge on a relatively small car and the “213” nomenclature was at odds with the rest of the Austin Rover range though it did align with that of the up-and-coming BMW badging policy. Coincidence?
The car was praised for its quietness, and for its cabin quality. This gave it great showroom appeal. It was less successful on the road with its jiggling ride, unsettled handling and fairly cramped rear legroom. Autocar tested it against its recently launched Montego cousin and commented that it was everything that the Montego wasn't. It had great showroom presence and build quality but couldn't match the handling and ride quality of the Montego or the latter’s zesty engines and spacious interior. The lack of power was answered in 1985 when the Austin Rover “S” series 1.6 engine was added to the range in both carburettor and fuel injected (EFI) forms. This also gave Rover the opportunity to fettle the spring rates to improve ride and handling. The Rover also stuck with the slick Honda derived “PG1” gearbox instead of the notchy Volkswagen unit used in the 1.6 Maestro and Montego. The 1.6EFi also gave Rover the opportunity to introduce a sporty version using the Vitesse name as well as it being adopted for the VandenPlas. These models in particular gave the car new verve and presence in the market.
The small Rover (with the help of Honda engineering) soon built a reputation of quality and reliability. 1987 saw Rover update the car with new rear lights, a lowered boot sill and various interior upgrades, such as a new sloping lower centre console and matching door cards. From the time of this upgrade, sales took off and the best UK sales were achieved in 1998. Overall sales peaked in 1989, the final year of production. This was in stark contrast to the Maestro and Montego where sales peaked much earlier and by the late 80’s production was already being cut back because of lack of demand. This sent a clear message that the future lay in more upmarket cars with the Rover badge.