On Test -- Rover 216 GTi 16v

Invigorating Rover

Sharp decreases in new car sales have not passed Rover by, but the sparkling performance of the versatile 3/4/5-door Rover 200/400 line, and the later Metros, must partially offset the slow selling sting of the moribund Maestro and Montego, plus the disappointing commercial record of the 800/Sterling in the USA. The Rover 216 GTi 16v we examine in our new abbreviated test format this month began life as a classic example of Honda-Rover cooperation. Yet this cumbersome collection of numbers in a 3-door performance package has no bodily equivalent in the Honda Concerto range. Honda owners may care to note that the 130 bhp engine and five-speed gearbox have previously only been available in the diminutive CRX Coupe, but have now been superseded by the VTEC (150 bhp) powertrain.

Announced in September of last year, the 216 GTi couples Rover excellence in chassis engineering with the enviable reputation of Honda hardware. At more than £14,000, the model nudges uncomfortably close to the rapid charms of the Vauxhall Astra 16v GTE and the established merits of Volkswagen's evergreen GTi in 16v trim.

Rover showroom equipment is competitive. An electrically operated sunroof joins power-assisted steering, mirrors (including a demist action), front windows, door and boot locks. A stereo cassette player/radio is also included and there are a number of detail alterations that differentiate the 130 bhp GTi from its confusing £12,995 single overhead camshaft (116 bhp) GTi stablemate. These include a larger rear spoiler, bright metal finish to the twin exhausts, leather edging to the "lightning" cloth seat trims and the use of 15 inch diameter wheels, rather than steel 14 inch units. Rover have not been slow to charge premium prices for a combination that has obvious appeal to the British, the announcement quote of £13,530 now superseded by a retail cost of nearly £14,200. Option prices have gone up too: the valuable Bosch electronic anti-lock braking system is now a £950 option rather the 1990 cost of £895.

Overall finish of the "six-light" side glass treatment of the 3-door body was excellent. Our main test car was a plain white, but a shade of metallic racing green has long been a Rover bestseller, and it looks particularly apt on the 216 GTi. Rover have stuck very much to the dimension popularised in its range of 5-door 200s, which includes a 130 bhp 16-valve model for those who need more doors with their speed rations. Incidentally the cheapest Rover 200/400 that you can buy now belongs to the 3-door range, a 214S with K-series propulsion and a price that is currently just below £10,000. Yes. £10,000 is now regarded as the minimum for a smallish saloon. No wonder new car sales have slowed so much in recent months!

The interior is also familiar, especially to the Honda owner, who will recognise most of the switching and legible black and white instrumentation that embraces a 150 mph (!) speedometer. Since the makers —or more likely their marketing men — feel that such velocities are relevant to this model, it would be nice if they would brace the hapless driver with at least a footrest.

Rover trim and seating are their own, rather than shared with Honda, along with a safety (rather than sports) biased steering wheel and excellent seating that includes seat height adjustment on the driving side.

The compact alloy engine, one that the Japanese seem to have cheerfully discarded, features minimalist alloy block engineering (siamesed bores) beneath a twin overhead camshaft layout of four valves per cylinder layout. The compact chambers are happy to compress cheaper unleaded fuels at 9.5: 1 and remains exploitable to 7200 rpm. The gearbox is a perfect match for the high rpm engine, its close ratios engaged with a deft precision that makes one wonder if the complete arrangement is not electronic rather than metallic.

The heavier body weight and higher drag factor of the 216 GTi Rover remove some of the performance/economy bias that is so prominent in the "rollerskate" suspended Honda CRX. Statistics say this means the top speed of the 0.34Cd Rover drops into the 123 mph band, rather than the near 130 mph of the 0.30Cd Honda. The much quoted 0-60 mph figure just passes below 9 seconds (rather than eight, or less, of the CRX) and Rover fuel consumption was a best of 26.5 mpg (24.2 mpg overall, including performance tests) versus the 32-33 mpg the parsimonious author has enjoyed in his similarly powered Honda.

Yet the writer prefers the Rover recipe, because a degree of civilisation is added as Rover have invested their 216 GTi with a balance between handling and ride that makes fluid progress possible in a way that seems to escape Honda products outside the NSX league. Every non-motorway journey becomes an enjoyable prospect, every flowing country road a pleasurable outing.

Naturally the Anglo-Japanese alliance has weaknesses. In three examples we have driven, the power-steering proved accurate but said little to the driver about how the front Dunlops were faring under duress. As with older Jaguars we eventually became accustomed to the system (incidentally appreciating its resistance to untidy tugging effects of torque steer), but we believe more driving pleasure could be achieved in this respect.

We had our doubts about the braking system as well. In two examples assessed over brief mileages there were no concerns, but over a long distance with the optional anti-lock feature, the pedal travel grew alarmingly. As the brake pedal sank to around halfway of its usable travel, our concerns increased, but the brakes always remained effective when they finally did report for duty.

Another niggling drawback to the success of the Rover GTi formula is that of engine noise at motorway speeds. The body does not noticeably suffer from the inevitable resonances of a four-cylinder power plant, but the small aluminium motor naturally sounds pretty busy about its motorway labours. Geared short of 20 mph per 1000 rpm and delivered with a power summit of 6000 rpm, higher rpm are a regular Rover feature that leads to a fatigue you would not find in the larger-engined Vauxhall and Volkswagen products earlier mentioned. Noise levels are entirely passable at 60-70 mph in fifth gear, but beyond this point the fussiness grows so that a sustained 85-90 mph (4600 to 4900 rpm in fifth) is a far more wearing process than in similarly priced sports opposition.

Summary

The Rover 216 GTi is not without its flaws and there are plenty of really keen drivers who would enjoy Peugeot's almost unnoticed 309 GTI-1.9 litre at £13,550 even more than the 1.6-litre Honda-Rover. Yet the combination of Rover's reviving reputation, the hidden charms of Honda and a brisk one-make racing series to glamorise the Rover product will ensure that the 216 GTi becomes one of those indefinable "cars to be seen in."

I leave it to readers to decide whether they want to be seen in the kind of company that has previously held the Golf GTi and BMW 3-series as sacrosanct, but commend the 216 GTi on its own merits. Personally, I can only say the Rover is a machine that will go on my short list when my Honda departs. The blend of creature comforts and slick Honda powertrain has a strong appeal after five years in two Honda CRX skateboards.-- JW

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Key Features

Rover 216 GTi 16v-3 door. Tax-inclusive price: £14,180. Body: Steel, 2 doors and hatchback and ancillary spoilers. Drag factor: 0.34Cd. Engine: In-line Honda 4-cyl, 1590cc (75x90mm). DOHC, 16-valve alloy cylinder head, 9.5: 1 Cr. Honda PGM Fl electronic fuel injection and ignition management. Power outputs: 130 bhp @ 6000 rpm; 106 lb ft @ 5700 rpm. Transmission: Transverse engine drives the front wheels through Honda 5-speed close ratio gearbox. Ratios: First — 3.25; second — 1.94; third — 1.35; fourth — 1.03; fifth — 0.85 gives 18.5 mph per 1000 rpm. Final drive, 4.25: 1. Running gear: Suspension: MacPherson strut front suspension with anti-roll bar and forward facing tie bars. Independent trailing rear suspension with "Steer Control" bushing, twin location links and separate anti-roll bar. Steering: Power-assisted rack and pinion, 3.4 turns lock-to-lock. Brakes: Ventilated 262mm/10.3 inch front discs; 203mm/8 inch solid disc rears. Wheels & tyres: Alloy 6 x 15 inch and 185/55 Dunlop D8 test tyres.

Performance Highlights

Rover 216 GTi; Millbrook Proving Ground test site using Correvit electronic measuring gear. Acceleration (average of two-way best runs) 0-30 mph: 3.5 seconds; 0-60 mph: 9.0 seconds; 0-100 mph: 28.3 seconds. Standing 0.25 mile/400 metres: 16.5s @ 79.7 mph. Flexibility 30-50 mph — Fifth gear: 13.1 seconds. Maximum speed of 2.029 mile bowl: 122.07 mph. Best flying 0.25 mile: 122.78 mph. Overall test Fuel Consumption: 33.5 mpg. Government mpg figures -- Urban: 28.5 mpg; 75 mph: 33.2 mpg; 56 mph: 43.6 mpg.