Auntie's Pride

The 1991 body changes to the Rover 800 have resulted in a new version of the Vitesse that carries the most power offered by Rover in the 800 line, some 180 turbocharged bhp. The result is a 137 mph five-door of great versatility and exceptional civility, which allowed us the pleasant change of fully testing an internationally competitive British executive saloon amongst the welter of Japanese and German offerings.

Just as the Rover badge has a melange of buried marque names behind it, so the Vitesse label has ridden a wide variety of motor cars. Remember the fuel injected V8 racing SDI saloons from TWR? They needed a Vitesse badge to incorporate all the later homologation tricks, and Rover had to sell the public limited numbers of the five-door fastback, spoilers and spats in place, to satisfy then current Group A requirements. Contrast those snorting racers and the brakeless but wonderfully rapid road model – with the mysterious debasement of the Vitesse badge, applied to reworked Hondas with Rover power and 216 designations. Working our way through the '80s, we find the true ancestors of the restyled Rover 800 tested here.

The Vitesse badge was first applied to the 800 line via a toughly suspended fastback with spoilers, though otherwise unmodified with 2.7-litre Honda V6 power (currently rated at 169 bhp). At the close of the previous 800 model's sales life, the limited edition 820 Turbo fastback was offered, these engineered by sub-contract with Tickford. At the time, the idea was to provide more power at the lowest possible tax break for business users, and that is a principle that has continued at significantly lower cost (now £19,845) in the new Vitesse. It amounts to an old badge with a new T-series four cylinder engine within a new outline that has been engineered entirely in house.

UK range

Introduced last Autumn, the later Rover 800 series is no longer an Anglo-Japanese production, although the V6 engine and some Honda transmissions remain after the extensive renovations. The design overhaul was aimed at increasing the Rover identity and is still controversial (one of our editorial members quipped "that's the one that teaches us all about uglification"). Meanwhile, the BRG metallic (a £235 option) test example was openly admired in the street and many adjudged it a great success, a verdict supported by the quality dailies. Unfortunately for Rover, few of our onlookers identified the car correctly, most plumping for Audi, Alfa Romeo or BMW! The current range comes in either four-door saloon or five-door fastback outlines and is priced from £16,750 for the four-cylinder/ 136 bhp 820i in either body. Similarly the top end Sterling, a 2.7-litre V6 of 169 bhp, also costs the same in either style, at £26,895.

The engine content is far more mixed than before, all two-litre, four cylinder motors coming from Coventry whilst the V6s are of Honda origin. A 118 bhp/2.5-litre diesel represents the latest emissions-conscious thinking of VM in Italy.

Technical analysis

The hard work has gone into the iron block. 16-valve, engine. Now christened the T-series, it is a direct descendant of the Mi-16 and has links to less revered power units in the old Austin Rover days. In turbocharged trim it retains the responsive Garrett AiResearch T25 and neatly packaged adjacent to the water radiator front intercooler of its 820 Turbo predecessor. The engine management is now by Rover Modular Engine Management System, and there are some distinct changes in power delivery. Maximum torque is not fabulous at 159 lb it for a turbocharged two-litre, suggesting that the undisclosed boost figure is below 0.5 bar. Yet pulling power is spread generously and evenly, quoted at that peak from 1800-5800 of the 6400 redline rpm.

Peak power supports that 'soft boost' supposition, for releasing 90.2 bhp per litre from 1995 cc is far from the front of the grid these days. The maximum power quote is up 3 bhp over its predecessor, but two printed sheets from Rover quote 6000 and 6100 as the summit of its ambitions; both look correct on the flattening power graph.

Internal engine changes cover 8:1 Mahle pistons, rather than Hepworth and Grandage items, plus a one-way intake breather layout to reduce on/off boost surge, replacement air cleaner and enlarged oil filter. Both overhead camshafts and pulleys are usurped, but the five-bearing bottom end remains common to both two-litre T-series. The ubiquitous sports suspension is standard Vitesse equipment on the double wishbone/trailing arm Rover layout, but no details were forthcoming and the car has been widely criticised for soggy handling.

The biggest change on the adhesion front was the use of 6x16 in alloy wheels (seven-spoke installed, five-spoke in the catalogue), these clothed by very tricky Michelins that carried the code MXV 3A the first time we can recall driving this cover beyond an MXV 2 designation.

There are many internal equipment fitments that come with a Vitesse badge, but the only other relevant technical move is the installation of a large rear deck aerofoil, for the Vitesse Fastback only. No aerodynamic improvement, or drag factor, was quoted.

Action

Inside the Vitesse one can see that Rover is aiming at a mixed clientele, for outstanding (even by their high standards) Recaro seats offer sporting comfort. Yet burr walnut strips are liberally applied to ensure that hedonists are not scared away from the showroom. Another contrasting influence is the hefty four-spoke wheel, which looks as though it was designed to accommodate an absent air bag. A forthcoming option, perhaps?

The effectiveness of the cockpit is marred by 'carryover' controls for the heating and ventilation that were of Honda origin. The switchgear is distinctly of two generations, but there is a basic logic and the compensation of clear – but minimalist – four-dial instrumentation. Rover does not feel either turbocharger boost pressure or oil pressure/ temperature would prove relevant subjects for their sporting executive operators to study. Much appreciated are the standard electric sunroof and anti-theft measures, these including an immobiliser operating through the engine electronics management.

Load accommodation, of people or luggage, is exceptionally flexible thanks to the space provided, and the 60/40 split action of the rear seats.

From the driver's seat the mixed reactions continue. The view forward, beneath heavily shaded windscreen, is calculated to remind you of Jaguar, particularly in the test colour. The bonnet contours and a ride that will float over crests (needs more control in this application) are a distinct contrast to the subdued, but audibly muttering, turbocharged four-cylinder. The power unit is an enormous improvement over the previous turbo four and does a very fair job of propelling nearly 1.5 tons. The eight-second dash from 0-60 mph was available with some wheel hop as the clutch was released below 3000 rpm, but traction control of the front-drive layout was generally good enough to justify the absence of a limited slip, or electronically activated, differential system. We understand that Rover will be developing this turbocharged engine for application in the smaller 220 GTI series, so it may be that the Vitesse will benefit later from a shared differential device to limit wheelspin.

Meanwhile, an average of little over 21 sec for 0-100 mph, a stable 137 mph maximum and the relaxed delivery of cruising speeds from 70-100 mph seemed entirely satisfactory to us. The Vitesse was most akin to the driving experience of the Audi 200 in front-drive, turbocharged format.

The more practical benefits of the turbocharged Rover motor are its excellent power spread and cruising capabilities at speed. In our third, fourth and fifth gear trials the figures showed demonstrable flexibility advantages over current BMW 24-valve class opposition. This performance underlined for us that the peak value of torque achieved is less important to everyday performance than the engine rpm at which it is delivered. For example, BMW reports 245 lb ft of torque, but it is not available until 4700 rpm in the 2.5-litre, dohc six that powers both 3and 5-series. However, the Rover turbo four stands no comparison with either BMW or Mercedes in-line 24-valve sixes for smoothness, suffering some resonance as it hovers on 4000 rpm. It also has a 'throbby' tickover at 800 rpm, and the cold start characteristics are far from suave as the motor clears its lubrication channels.

Beyond 4500 rpm. the Rover unit is a delightful companion all the way to the conservative redline. We enjoyed driving behind the accessible power of this Rover unit rather more than expected, for it has an appetite for high rpm, one that is an encouraging additional quality to its strong mid-range co-operation.

The manual gearchange was excellent in lazy or hurried use. Rover has chosen the top gear ratio well, maximum speed representing just under 6200 rpm. Then the tachometer proved a little slow and the speedometer exaggerated less than the usual boastful instruments of today.

The handling traits are dominated by a fine country ride that loves to lope over down land tarmac, but deteriorates at town speeds. Coupled with the float experienced over crests, we would say Rover had some more work to do to defend its reputation as excellent sorters of suspension traits.

Yet the writer feels customers are unlikely to complain because of the comfort and driving pleasure provided. The steering has been taken to task for a lack of feedback, but we were impressed with its manageable gearing and the interpretation of the vast grip provided by those advanced Michelins. Complementing accurate guidance were strong brakes. Their reassuring action was spoiled by a mite too much sensitivity on the ABS front, leading to zealous action at modest speeds over bumpier tarmac.

Verdict

Rover has deliberately opted to face the hottest opposition in the £20,000 zone. We enjoyed the Vitesse very much and thought that Rover had hit the executive express sector very accurately, without the anonymity favoured by so many manufacturers. The Vitesse is a product Rover can be proud of, one to place on the shopping list of anyone who favours accessible performance in maximum comfort.