Rover 200 Mk1 (SD3) : 1984 - 1990
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 1988. 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.
Rover 200 Mk 2 & 400 Mk1 (R8) : 1989 - 1999
Once the Rover 213 (SD3) had been launched and the Rover 800 (XX) was well underway, thoughts turned to a replacement to the SD3. This time the co-operation between Austin Rover (ARG) and Honda would go beyond anything experienced before and, unlike the SD3 (which was initially a mildly reworked Honda Ballade), this car was jointly-designed by engineers from Austin Rover and Honda. The new car would not only replace the then current SD3 Rover 200 but the Maestro and Montego as well and so because of this it was always planned to design 5 door as well as 4 door versions. By 1985 both ARG and Honda understood their strengths and weaknesses and so ARG lead the project in terms of interior packaging and styling, dashboard, seats, and importantly suspension tuning. Roy Axe led the overall styling of the car for ARG and the team gave the car a very British look. The engineering teams worked well together to achieve a common bodyshell for both Honda and ARG. Honda also supplied much of the switchgear and instrumentation. The Rover vehicles were codenamed R8 whereas the Honda vehicle were initially codenamed YY (following on from the XX Rover 800/Honda Legend project) and latterly EJ.
Having fought hard with the UK government for funding for a new engine range, the Rover version of the car was always destined to include the new ‘high-tech’ "K" series engine. Rover considered the new engine so important that it was 'launched' to the press shortly prior to the car itself.
Graham Day took over as Chairman of the company in 1986 and immediately stated his intention to move the company up market and as part of this strategy the company was renamed “Rover Group”. The success of the previous Rover 200 made it inevitable that the new R8 would be branded a Rover. By the time of the launch in October 1989 Rover realised that they had a great package and to maximize its potential they had already made the decision that their car would go beyond the two jointly designed 5 and 4 door models, which were launched in 1989 as the Honda Concerto and Rover 200. The latter was the first car to be introduced by the newly privatised Rover Group PLC, which was now under the wing of British Aerospace. The 4 door 400 saloon followed quickly in April 1990, and this time with the sporty 416GTi gunning for BMW. The 3-door models, with both lower-priced and GTi versions were launched in 1991. All vehicles for the European markets, both Rovers and Hondas, were produced by Rover Group on the same production line at Longbridge in Birmingham.
At launch, the cars were priced above their immediate rivals to capitalize on their high-tech engines, classy interiors and high build quality. To avoid the risk of alienating the bottom end of their customer base it was decided to continue production of the Maestro and for a short while the SD3. The plan worked and the press raved about the new R8 and accepted the ambitious pricing as being justified. Many accolades were bestowed on the car by the press. What Car! voted the 214Si their car of the year. Finally, Rover had a winner on their hands and with other models in the pipeline they could keep the momentum going.
Rover had planned further derivatives of the R8 platform but these were designed completely independently from Honda. In 1992 the Cabriolet became available, with the Coupe following later the same year and the Tourer in 1994. Here was Rover, platform sharing, years before much of the European motor industry started doing the same.
The Cabriolet, Coupe and Tourer were codenamed ‘Tracer’, ‘Tomcat’ and ‘Tex’ respectively during their development, the first 2 having been chosen from suggestions of employees working on the projects.
A wide family of engines were also available in each body style, with the award winning "K" series being launched as a 1.4 and the 1.6 Honda "D" series in 1989. In 1991 the 2.0 "M" series engine was added to the GTi range, being replaced by the "T" series engine in 1992. Turbocharged versions of the "T" series engine were available in the hatchback, Saloon and Coupe producing 200PS. In 1992 the Peugeot "XUD" diesel engine was added to the range in both naturally aspirated and turbo form. With the "T" series Turbo the 200 became a devastatingly rapid car for the money. It was capable of a genuine 150mph which was proved when 2 Coupes, built and run by a group of Rover employees and those working at several of Rover’s key suppliers, ran for 24 hours at the Millbrook test track in Bedfordshire and broke 37 UK Land Speed records, many of which are still held today.
The high-performance derivatives were initially badged ‘GTI’ and ‘GTi Turbo’ as per the market norm at the time but were rebadged ‘GSi’ and ‘GSi Turbo’ in an attempt to reduce spiralling insurance costs which were prevalent at the time due to the number of car thefts.
In 1996 the 2.0 "T" series and 1.6 Honda "D" series (with the exception of the automatic) were removed from the range being replaced by the 1.6 and 1.8 "K" series in both standard 16-valve and VVC forms. The Coupe, Cabriolet and Tourer also received a revised interior from the newly introduced R3 model.
The Hatchback and Saloon ceased production in 1995, but the Coupe, Cabriolet and Tourer were produced until 1999.
Rover 400 Mk 2 & 45 (HHR) : 1995 - 2005
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.
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