By the early 1990s Rover’s owner, British Aerospace, were going through a difficult period with their core aerospace business and did not have the capital required to invest in an “all new” range of cars. Honda co-operation continued and the Metro had recently been “Roverised” but a replacement for the Metro was required. Superminis were getting larger and the major deficiency of the Rover Metro was its small size. A decision was made to use the platform of the R8 as a basis for a replacement. This was an uncertain time at Rover due to severe financial limits being placed upon it by their owners BAe and it was recognised that three new mainstream models could not be funded. Therefore Rover had to decide how best to replace the 100, 200 and 400 ranges. With the HH/R project in place this left just the 100 and 200. As the design developed it was noted that the Rover Metro was selling considerably better than anticipated, and so it was decided to again push the R3 upmarket. The initial 200 replacement project, SK3, had a 3 inch longer wheelbase than the final R3 but was shortened during its gestation to move it away from the already agreed size of the HHR. Styling proposals of both the SK3 and CB40/Freelander were shown to Honda with a view to collaboration, but Honda decided not to be involved with either project although they did gain valuable insight into the future plans of its partner. Amusingly the initial ‘SK3’ codename came from a part of the set of Honda component part numbers used on R8 but was changed later to R3 to align it with other Rover project code numbers.
With the reduced wheelbase and by shortening the front and rear overhangs the car’s length was reduced significantly compared to the R8. David Saddington styled a modern looking body onto the structure of the R8. To cut costs most of the front end of the car was carried over from the R8 and the rear suspension was simplified by using a twist-beam from the Maestro/Montego but much modified for improved handling. It also enabled the packaging of a spare wheel, as well as saving over £100 per car when compared to the complex rear suspension of the R8. The whole project was delivered in a very cost effective manner but compromises were needed and some older parts were obviously carried over from the previous generation vehicle. Overall this was a stylish, youthful car that retained links to the recently launched 600 and 400.
The new Rover 200 was previewed at the 1995 London Motor Show for launch the following month in Rapallo, Italy. The confusion over the new car’s original target market were very nearly revealed at the press launch with an early styling drawing having to be hastily modified the night before the first press event to remove ‘100’ from the numberplate!
The new car was well received by the press and public alike. The whole feeling was far more upbeat than at the launch of the 400 earlier in the year. Pricing was ambitious, competing with the larger Golf and Peugeot 306. It would be the pricing that would hamper sales at the start. As well as the standard 1.4 & 1.6 "K" series engines there was a sporty “Vi” model and the very capable (and quick) "L" series diesels. The “Vi” name was chose to avoid the awkward looking “VVC” badge and no derivative number was used to avoid advertising the fact that the engine was ‘only’ a 1.8 when many competitors had a capacity of two litres, even though the "K" series was amongst the most powerful.
Despite the positive launch, and probably because of the ambitious pricing, sales would never match the figures it deserved. Following the launch of the Rover 75, the 200 was treated to an update to bring the styling in tune with the 75. At the same time the pricing was realigned to make it more in line with the super minis (the Rover 100 was discontinued in 1997 following falling sales after poor results in early EuroNCAP crash tests); but by now rumours were circulating that BMW were considering pulling out and sales nose dived.
Following the sale of Rover to the Phoenix consortium, further development took place to create the MG ZR. This proved to be a great sales success for the newly formed MG Rover and helped maintain interest in the marque. MG Rover also sent the R3 into another direction by creating the “urban crossover”, the Streetwise. This predated other manufacturers such as Skoda with the Yeti and was a concept ahead of its time. The car’s understructure and petrol and diesel powerunits were carried over from the R3 meaning it was able to be developed at a low cost.
The final development prior to the untimely demise of MG Rover was the 2004 facelift which gave the 25 new front bumpers and lights, new rear tailgate and a new dashboard.