Plugging the gap



The senior Rover 800 saloons and hatchbacks have been doing a wonderful job for British Aerospace’s car division in the harsh sales environment of the 1990s. The facelift which edged the marque away from its co-operative cloning with Honda and returned a vestige of ancestral tradition was obviously popular with the public. Witness the fact that the Cowley production plant had to commence a Sunday shift to satisfy demand.

Now the company has to persuade the public that its 600, which fills a gap between the 200/400 and aforementioned 800 ranges, is of equal worth.

We were highly impressed by our drive at its British debut, but were disappointed that the Honda content is virtually back to the Triumph Acclaim levels of old. It will not always be so, but for the present what we have is a Honda Accord adorned with Rover’s corporate identity.

The four-door line utilises three four-cylinder Honda engines, all powering the front wheels. Immediately available are longer stroke (88 x 85mm), 131 bhp, two-litre, 16-valve units with Honda’s clever sohc layout. Later this year the same basic engine will be offered in 115 bhp guise in the 620i, which starts the range at £13,995. At the other end of the scale will be the £21,995 623 GSi, powered by the 158 bhp unit first seen in the Honda Prelude, albeit without the latter’s VTEC variable valve timing.

Performance is not a priority in the battle against upper-end Mondeos/Cavaliers (the latter now available with a very civil V6) and the inevitable BMW 3-series/Audi 80/ Mercedes 190 set, yet it is a surprise to learn that these slippery (0.31 Cd) Rovers will reach a claimed 134 mph in 2.3-litre trim. Even the base model is good for 123 mph. All will reach 60 mph from rest in fractionally over 10s, or less.

Urban fuel consumption figures range from 23.6 mpg for a 2.3 automatic to just over 27 for a manual 620i. A catalyst is standard, and all models sup the cheaper kind of unleaded pump fuel.

Rover’s priorities were to ensure running refinement and to meet the safety criteria which have seen European manufacturers enthusiastically adopting air bag crash protection and side intrusion beams. A steering wheel air bag will be standard on 2.3 models (on sale by the autumn) and anti-lock brakes will also be standard on everything from the 620 SLi upwards.

Standard fittings throughout the range encompass numb, but accurate, power steering, central locking, electric front windows, immobiliser alarm and Blaupunkt four-speaker radio with stereo cassette player and electric aerial. Extra electricity, for sunroof and rear windows, is standard on the 620 SLi (£17,200) and its superiors. Further down the range, a £1000 options pack encompasses sliding roof, ABS and 15 in wheels, so a £14,995 620 Si thus equipped could make economic sense.

We applaud the standard fitment, throughout the range, of four-wheel disc brakes and the fact that the ventilated fronts are conscientiously increased in diameter for models featuring the four-speed automatic.

We tried both a 131 bhp two-litre and a Rover 623 Si (£19,250), the latter’s sportier pretensions emphasised by a modest rear boot spoiler and the larger 195/60 R15 tyres. First impressions are of a passing familiarity with Mazda’s Xedos, the shape curved in the current Japanese mould and the fit and finish being particularly impressive.

Inside the 623 Si there were mandatory ‘executive’ features such as burr walnut facia and door cappings and leather seats. Our recent test Bentley (see pages 432-437) probably spoiled our judgment of interior ambiance, but the token wood and lower cost leather seemed out of place in this thoroughly modern, middleweight competitor, but such accoutrements are typical of a business buyer’s preferences.

At the wheel, there is no mistaking Honda’s dead power steering feedback and choppy damper/spring settings, but the steering is well geared at little more than three turns lock-to-lock. We found that the two-litre felt the more balanced of the pair, but both do exactly what they are meant to do, provide safe handling and considerable cornering grip in the conventional understeering idiom.

As you would expect in this aspirant class, the motorway manners are exceptionally refined. The engines run beautifully, whether at tickover or their 6500 rpm limits, thanks to hydraulic rear mounts and counterbalancer shafts. Complementing these abilities, wind noise is exceptionally low as the 623 Si slips along at a genuine 90 mph (4100 rpm).

Bigger than average for this class, the 600 could have been a more capable car with greater input from Rover’s ride and handling engineers. We mourn the lack of originality which stops the 600 standing out amongst the challengers to the West German dominance in this sector, although Rover reports extremely encouraging product clinic results (though the 1990 Ford Escort proved just how misleading those can be!).

What we have is a very competent middle class entrant that will hopefully assist Rover’s continued financial recovery. J W