THE Rover 200 was one of the best cars Rover ever made. Sure, it wasn’t quite the most dramatic-looking.
No, not even the iconic original Mini.
Controversial? Maybe. But it’s also because the 1989 Rover 200 was just about as perfect an all-rounder as it’s possible to be, given the market Rover was aiming at.
Taking on the Ford Escort, Vauxhall Astra and Volkswagen Golf was never going to be easy for a relative minnow like the plucky Brum Brit. With this car, though, Rover did it.
At launch, the press were so amazed by it, plaudits flowed from every corner. That was at the launch, from where group tests were hastily organised. During these, it was discovered that Rover had done the unthinkable. Built a family hatchback that took on all-comers – and won. For a few star-struck years, there really was no better family mass-market model on sale.
This was unthinkable. This was unheralded.
So how was it possible? Through one of the best partnerships of recent times: Rover and Honda. The Japanese designed the car, made it work, made it reliable. Rover then took it, tuned it for UK roads, added its own styling genius tweaks and, most importantly, piled on some trad British elegance to the already-impeccable interior.
Most models came with a real wood strip on the dash (the more expensive the car, the more wood you got). There were chrome kickplates when you opened the doors, Rover 800-spec executive seats to drop into, and the sound of total build quality from the noise of the door closing to boot slamming. Rarely has a British car had such a winning combination.
This ensured there were rational reasons for choosing the Rover, too. The firm’s own 1.4-litre
K-Series was punchy, smooth and economical – back then, head gasket problems were an unheard of concern. Buyers wanting more chose the 1.6-litre Honda version instead, which progressively upped the power to near hot-hatch levels.
Fancy drop-top cabrios too. Even a smart, ahead-of-its-time lifestyle Tourer estate. All joining the five-door hatch which, from launch, was complemented by the junior BMW 3 Series-style Rover 400.
No, it wasn’t cheap. Sure, the spec levels on the base i and Si versions were austere at best. But even this didn’t matter, because the build quality, elegance, refinement and kudos of owning a Rover compensated. What a winning mix. What potential it had for the future.
Of course, it couldn’t last. Rover is a British company, after all. Something had to go wrong. It did – owners British Aerospace sold the firm to BMW, Honda rightly got brassed off, and the rest is history. What a tragedy.
Because, for a few fleeting years in the early 1990s, Rover really was where it was at. It was a model that sold more than 100,000 a year – massive numbers by Rover standards, and impressive even by Ford levels. Enough to make it, in our eyes, a sales legend. Alas, there’s no chance of seeing its like again…
by RICHARD AUCOCK