Road test: Rover Vitesse

The homologation of a suitably equipped competition version of the 3.5-litre V8-engined Rover into the GpA racing category was one of the prime reasons behind BL’s decision to offer a high performance version of this big saloon at the end of 1982. You won’t have had to look far to note that Rover is currently enjoying considerable success in the national British RAC touring car championship and it was initially planned that the Rover Vitesse, as this fastest production saloon carrying the marque’s name is known, would be available only to special order and in somewhat limited numbers. It was subsequently decided that the Rover Vitesse would be made available in rather larger numbers than originally anticipated and, potential buyers may find, there may even be some dealers who actually have one in stock just waiting for a purchaser. Up until this point in time the only performance versions of the aerodynamically attractive Rover V8 have been available from outside tuning establishments, but the Vitesse is the first proper performance version to have been developed within the BL empire.

The 3,528 cc aluminium V8 has gained a reputation as a notably smooth, free-revving power unit and, in its latest form, now produces 190 bhp at 5,280 rpm as opposed to the 150 bhp offered by the standard model, thanks to modifications which include the incorporation of Lucas L electronic fuel injection, higher compression ratio and re-profiled inlet ports to improve the gas flow.

The result of this development work has been to unleash the V8’s potential and, with a 0-60 mph time of fractionally under eight seconds and the ability to sprint from 0-100 mph in less than 21 sec, the Vitesse unquestionably slots into the upper echelon occupied by the very fast luxury saloons from Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Utilising the indicated 5,500 rpm red line on the Vitesse’s quartic rev counter, it will pull 33 mph in first gear, 65 mph in second, 94 mph in third and 126 mph in fourth. The overdrive fifth ratio is claimed to be capable of pulling the Vitesse to over the magical 130 mph mark, something we were unable positively to verify during the course of our test, but a figure which we have little reason to doubt, bearing in mind this Rover’s smooth, willing performance throughout the rest of its acceleration curve.

Visually, the Vitesse is distinguished from its lesser stablemates by the incorporation of a hefty rear spoiler, multi-spoke alloy wheels shod with Pirelli P6 rubber and sporting the appropriate badges. Under the skin, apart from the engine modifications, spring rates have been stiffened significantly, the transmission has been uprated to deal with the extra power by means of stronger gearbox bearings and ventilated disc brakes with four pot calipers are fitted on the front wheels — although drum brakes are still used to take care of the rear wheels.

With a price tag of £14,950, the Vitesse clearly offers tremendous performance for the money and undercuts several of significant European rivals by a healthy amount. But how does this high speed version of a seven-year-old design stand in terms of ride, comfort and refinement against its competitors. The answer to the first couple of aspects is “pretty reasonable”, but in terms of refinement, the Rover Vitesse doesn’t score as highly as, say, the Opel Senator CD, the six-cylinder Jaguar XJ6 or the 380SE Mercedes-Benz. The ride is firmer than on the other big luxury cars, and while it is quite sensitive to minor undulations in the road surface, the other side of the coin is an impressive feeling of solid stability at higher speeds. In fact, the harder one drives the Vitesse, the more “complete” one finds the ride and handling characteristics. It feels pretty neutral at medium speeds, but reassuring understeer builds up progressively the faster one goes.

The power assisted steering has slightly higher gearing than its regular Rover V8 counterparts and, although I would dearly like BL to get rid of that frightful “quartic” steering wheel once and for all, the steering feels sensitive without totally depriving the driver of his awareness of what the front wheels are doing. At high speed, in particular, it feels nicely weighted and imparts every bit as much confidence as similar systems from BMW and GM. The large rear spoiler clearly makes a significant improvement to the Vitesse’s overall stability and the whole car has a pleasantly taut, agile feeling about it.

Our test car was fitted with low profile Pirelli P6 rubber (205/60 VR-15), endowing the Vitesse with familiarly high levels of adhesion on dry roads. ln the wet, however, the P6s have an established reputation for rather lower, if predictable, levels of adhesion than some of their rival high speed tyres, but even when a sudden rain shower doused our local lanes, the Vitesse could be rushed along with an eye-opening degree of confidence, a touch of opposite lock checking any wayward progress from the rear end without a moment’s hesitation or doubt. Although one might legitimately take the view that a car endowed with such considerable performance could be better served with an all-disc brake configuration, we can report that the front ventilated disc/rear drum arrangement proved more than adequate on this Rover, pulling it up quickly from around the 100 mph mark on several occasions without any significant fading.

Another aspect of the Rover Vitesse’s appeal is its flexibility in high gears, for although the muted throb of that pushrod ohv V8 can be wound up impressively on the motorway, it also produces 220 lb/ft of torque at 4,000 rpm which enables it to trickle along in fourth gear from just over 10 mph. The on-board computer gives an “instant” fuel consumption reading of about 48 mpg under these conditions, but when you flatten the throttle, it drops dramatically towards single figures as the revs rise. However, the legal 70 mph limit is achieved at a very restful 2,200 rpm in fifth gear, at which point it’s possible to back right off the throttle without losing any momentum and still return around 31 mpg. The overall average for the period of the Vitesse’s road test was 22.5 mpg which, by any standards, is extremely acceptable for a car with this sort of performance.

Although this Rover saloon is quite a big car externally, I’ve never considered that it has offered adequate room inside. In fact, behind the wheel a tall driver is very conscious of its lack of space, and while the seats are moderately comfortable, they don’t provide a great deal of lateral support and anybody over six feet tall will feel rather hemmed in. Even with the front seat pushed as far back as possible, there is a confined feeling behind the wheel and, under those conditions, the rear seat legroom is quite laughable.

Ever since the Rover SD1 was introduced its fascia layout prompted mixed reactions and I’m afraid I feel that the Vitesse’s instrument panel still looks like a boxy afterthought stacked atop a shelf. It is a source of continuing amazement to me why the quiet good taste of BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar in this area cannot be duplicated by most of their rivals. Surely in this day and age it is not too much to ask for? As it is, the Rover’s quartic rev counter (red lined at 5,500 rpm) and speedometer (calibrated from 0-130 mph) face the driver through the upper segment of that unsightly, aforementioned quartic steering wheel. To the left of the driver stretches a selection of secondary gauges, comprising contents gauge for the 14.5 gallon fuel tank, water temperature and oil pressure gauges. Below the radio/stereo unit and the controls for the heater/demister is the control panel for the computer, unfortunately masked by the gear lever when the car is in fifth.

The Vitesse’s ventilation system is extremely efficient, with adjustable vents in the centre of the fascia and also in the top of the doors for ducting air to the side windows. Electrically operated windows come as standard equipment, there is lots of padding on the fascia and around the inside of the doors, although it will be a matter for individual taste as to whether one approves of the simulated grained veneer cappings along the doors and across the centre line of the fascia!

The relationship between the clutch, brake and accelerator pedal is fine, with plenty of room within the footwell, but the gearchange is rather notchy and I always had a slight suspicion that second gear was reluctant to engage. In fact it never failed to go in, but there was a peculiar feel about the change, noticed by more than one colleague, which prompted the driver to give it a reassuring tug, even when it was securely in second. In general terms, the Rover’s gearchange has longer movements than one would ideally like and doesn’t really encourage really quick shifts.

As has always been the case with the big Rover saloons, the Vitesse has considerable luggage carrying capacity, its large rear hatchback revealing an enormous boot into which luggage has to be lifted over a very high sill. The rear parcel shelf lifts up with the tailgate, but we nearly had a nasty accident when one of the supporting hydraulic struts became detached at its upper extremity, causing the tailgate to drop alarmingly on its one good strut. We fortunately managed to repair this little problem before the weight of the tailgate distorted its hinges, but it could have been a nasty moment if the other strut had given way under double its intended capacity.

Although there are no door pockets, the drop down glove compartments on either side of the fascia are quite deep and accommodating as is the shelf immediately ahead of the front seat passenger. The bonnet release is to the right of the driver within the glove compartment and the spare wheel is mounted within an underflow compartment in the boot. Central door locking comes as standard equipment and our test car was fitted with a welcome sunroof. The halogen headlights are fitted with washers mounted in the front over-riders and twin halogen foglights are also incorporated in the Vitesse’s generous specification.

Unquestionably, the Vitesse is one of the quickest cars in its class, but it has to be said that the big Rover V8 saloon, for all its on-paper excellence, has never managed to assume the quality cachet associated with its rivals, even those carrying the Opel badge. If performance is the buyer’s main criterium, then this English four-door saloon stands up to its market opposition very well indeed. But if you feel that the investment of £14,950 is too much to pay for a car which, visually, is little different from its considerably more modest stablemates, then the Rover Vitesse will not be for you. Above all, although some people will relish its rugged character, it is competing in a market sector where buyers expect just a little more style, refinement and general “pizzaz” than the Rover Vitesse can really offer. — AH