LM11 arrives, named Montego

Austin-Rover’s management has been telling us for long enough that “LM 11 is not just a stretched version of the Maestro”, and now that the model range is announced, with the name Montego, we can see that the claim is true. An extra 2.3 inches on the wheelbase brings the measurement up to 101 in (most of it allocated to rear seat legroom), and the separate boot is some 80% larger than the Maestro’s hatchback version. Revised power units, the most interesting being the MG version’s two-litre rated at 117 bhp, take the Montego right out of the Maestro’s class and gives the Austin Rover Group a strong contender in what the marketing men call the upper medium car sector which accounts for 27% of the British market, estimated at 483,000 registrations last year.

You have to cast your minds back two decades to the era of the Austin Cambridge and the Morris Oxford to recall when BMC, as it was then, had a major share of the medium capacity family car market. The Ford Cortina knocked those ageing models from the charts and they were never properly replaced, since the Morris Marina and the Austin Princess failed to sell in high volumes, and the Rover / Triumph saloons were too far upmarket to challenge the Cortina head-on. The reshaped, competitive and commercially aggressive Austin Rover Group now presents a serious challenge to Ford’s dominance, which is already looking a bit wobbly under pressure from Vauxhall. Harold Musgrove, the group’s chief executive, and his team decided that the Montego should feature a proper boot, demand for the so-called “three box” design stilI being as strong as ever, and the end result is a family of models ranging from the 1.3-litre Montego to the two-litre, fuel injected MG. ARG’s prediction is that the 1.6L will be the most popular version, the revised engine now developing 86 bhp at 5,600 rpm. Linkage to the VW five-speed gearbox is revised, and improved compared with the Maestro’s system, and the two-litre models use new Honda five-speed transmissions which are outstandingly slick, the MG having a close-ratio version. The A-series “base” engine has the familiar 1,275 cc capacity, but has been further improved with the development of electronic engine management, consisting of breakerless ignition and an electronic SC carburettor fuel system. This, dubbed the “thinking carburettor”, is controlled by micro-processors which reduce the automatic choke application, control the idling speed and shut off the fuel on overrun, resulting in significant improvements in economy. The power unit gives 69 bhp, as it does in the Maestro. The 1.6-litre engine is virtually a brand-new unit with thinwall castings, a five-bearing crankshaft, and a belt driven overhead camshaft. The cast-iron cylinder head features Weslake combustion chambers, and the main attributes claimed for the unit are good torque and economy. The 0-series two-litre engine is also revised, now having a single carburettor without any loss of power as compared with the twin-carburettor arrangement seen in the Rover. Both the 1.6 and the two-litre have knock sensors which are extremely sensitive, to the point of being able to retard the ignition on one cylinder. The MG version develops 117 bhp, compared with 104 bhp for the carburated engine, aided by a new Lucas electronic engine management system which includes fuel injection.

Montego’s suspension and brakes are much the same as Maestro’s, and the new model needs servicing at 12,000 mile intervals. With 11.7 gallon fuel tanks a good touring range is assured, aided by the low rolling resistance Dunlop Denloc tyres which further improve the economy factor; the worst consumption figure seen on the comparative charts is 27 mpg in the urban cycle, for the MG, the best being 53.3 mpg for the 1.6L at a steady 56 mph, and while we cannot pass judgment on economy on the basis of a test run, we will assume that they do meet Austin’s usual standards for economy.

Although 60% of the Montego’s body pressings are the same as on the Maestro, and notably the scalloped doors which keep the distinctive family resemblance, much of the new model has a fresh look. The frontal styling is quite different, this being only the second European model, after Mercedes, to hide the windscreen wipers when they’re parked. The roofline has been extended and the glass area increased with the addition of a sixth light, resulting in a minimal loss of view on account of pillars. Most of the eight versions in the range have a drag coefficient of 0.37 but the MG, with a deeper air dam and a spoiler across the boot, reduces this figure to 0.35.

ARG launched the Montego range to the European Press in southern France, the Alpes-Maritimes providing a route that tested the brakes and suspension quite thoroughly. Our favourites, at the end of the day, were the 1.6L and the MG, since the power steering on the 2.0 and Vanden Plas models was just too low-geared for that sort of work. In England, on home ground, we might come to a different conclusion.

The 1.3 and 1.6 versions ordinaire have four-speed transmissions, which we did not try, but the 1.6L five-speed turned out to be a torquey and willing car with a claimed top speed of 102 mph. On the hills the new 1.6-litre had a fairly pronounced engine or exhaust boom when working hard, but it was satisfyingly fast, handled extremely well, and the disc / drum brake system was satisfactory.

The Vanden Plas two-litre we drove had a fairly pronounced camshaft whine and a low-pitched gearbox whine, which together made the example sound fussy, though this may not be typical of the model. The extra performance would have needed a stopwatch to confirm, and we felt that you’d need the MG version to enjoy the extra power. With a claimed 0-60 mph time of 8.9 sec the MG is a fairly rapid family car, competing with the Vauxhall 1.8 SRi quite strongly, though not up to the Sierra XR4i standards at the moment . . maybe later, when a turbo version comes along.

Without pre-empting a full road test, we’d say that Austin Rover have come into this market sector with a really good family car range, which is likely to earn them a good share of the sales potential. — M.L.C.