Bridging the Gap: The Honda / Acura Legend and Rover 800

ROVER AND STERLING

Although the European market had been Rover’s first priority for the 800, they also hoped to use the new car to return to North America, from which Rover Group had been absent since Jaguar was spun off in 1984.

Like Honda, Rover decided to market its car under a different brand name in the U.S., although Rover’s reasons were somewhat different. While Honda had an excellent reputation in the U.S., Rover’s two previous North American landings had ended badly: Reliability problems had soured American buyers on the Rover P6, prompting British Leyland to withdraw Rover from the U.S. market in the early seventies, and a brief attempt to return in 1980 with a federalized SD1 had been a disaster.

1989 Sterling 827SLi fastback - Sterling nose badge © 2014 Aaron Severson

North American Sterling 800 emblems traded Rover’s traditional Viking ship for this stylized British lion. (author photo)

To avoid reminding buyers of those ventures — and/or to avoid courting the wrath of potentially litigious former dealers — Rover established a new U.S. sales organization, Austin Rover Cars of North America (ARCONA), and a new U.S. brand: Sterling, borrowing the name of the top European 800. By the January 1987 introduction date, ARCONA had lined up almost 150 dealers to sell the new Sterling 825S and 825SL.

The Sterling made a good first impression. It had a firmer ride and crisper handling than the Acura Legend and offered features not yet available on the Legend sedan, including the wood-and-leather ambiance American buyers expected of British luxury cars. Moreover, the Sterling was actually a little cheaper than a Legend — $19,000 to $23,000 to start — and vastly less expensive than a U.S.-market Jaguar XJ6 while promising the same Japanese-style reliability as the Acura.

1989 Sterling 827SLi five-door dashboard © 2014 Aaron Severson

The interior of the North American Sterling 800 was very similar to that of LHD Rover 800s, although equipment levels were generally higher on the Sterling-badged cars. The buttons on the center steering wheel spoke are for the cruise control, a standard feature on U.S. cars. (author photo)

Unfortunately, that promise was not fulfilled. While the Legend topped J.D. Power & Associates customer satisfaction surveys for four consecutive years, the Sterling was consistently at or near the bottom. Early Sterlings were plagued with mechanical and electrical problems, which soured critics otherwise inclined to view the British car favorably. Motor Trend‘s early test car, for example, overheated after mere blocks.

There were improvements throughout the Sterling’s life and ARCONA kept insisting that each year’s model had finally sorted all the earlier problems, but Sterling’s reliability and assembly quality still lagged behind the Legend’s. Since the main reason many American buyers were willing to consider the Legend over established European rivals was Honda’s reputation for reliability, the Sterling’s lapses boded ill for its chances in the U.S. market, particularly since the more trustworthy Legend was available concurrently.

1989 Sterling 827SLi fastback front 3q © 2014 Aaron Severson

The four-door Sterling 800 sedan was initially offered in base S and better-equipped, leather-trimmed SL grades. The five-door 827SLi arrived for 1989 and a sporty four-door 827Si was added for 1990. Confusingly, on Sterlings, the “i” suffix did not signify fuel injection, but rather the Vitesse-style sport suspension. (author photo)

ARCONA had hoped to sell 30,000 cars a year in the U.S., but the Sterling’s best sales year amounted to less than half of that. Things got worse from there as word of mouth began to spread about the Sterling’s problems. The addition of the bigger 2,675 cc (163 cu. in.) engine didn’t help, nor did the introduction of the five-door body. Even sizable rebates and an assortment of special editions didn’t reverse the downward spiral. Discounts didn’t compensate for dismal resale values or the mounting sense that Sterling wasn’t long for the world.

Rover offered the promised 800 coupe as a carrot for Sterling dealers willing to stay the course, but the CCV concept did poorly in U.S. marketing clinics, prompting a time-consuming redesign. ARCONA announced that the coupe would finally arrive in 1992, but it was too late. Rover shuttered the Sterling brand in November 1991 after selling fewer than 35,000 cars in five model years.

1989 Sterling 827SLi fastback - 827SLi decklid badge © 2014 Aaron Severson

Unlike the more luxury-oriented Rover 827SLi, the North American Sterling 827SLi was essentially a rebadged LHD Rover Vitesse with the federalized C27A engine (making the same 161 hp SAE/120 kW as in the contemporary Legend). Even if the Sterling brand had been a greater success, the five-door 827SLi would still have been a dicey commercial proposition in the U.S., where buyers tended to associate hatchbacks with economy cars. (author photo)

HONDA WING TURBO

In Japan, the Legend sedan received a mid-life facelift in October 1988, coinciding with the adoption of the coupe’s double wishbone rear suspension across the line. The update brought new chassis codes: E-KA5 for 2-liter cars, E-KA6 for 2.7-liter sedans.

1990 Acura Legend (KA6) sedan front 3q © 2007 Kentaro Matsui (PD)

Late export Legends did not adopt the restyled nose applied to JDM KA5 and KA6 Legends, but did get the new bumpers, decklid, and tailights; a revised hood and grille; and, for North American cars, the one-piece headlights already used elsewhere. The revised bumpers made the KA6 sedan 1.2 inches (30 mm) longer and 0.8 inches (20 mm) wider than the KA4, bringing overall length to 190.6 inches (4,840 mm) and overall width to 69.1 inches (1,755 mm). This Acura Legend sedan’s body-colored side mirrors, a one-year-only feature, mark it as a 1990 model. (Photo: “1990 Acura Legend” © 2007 Kentaro Matsui; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized 2009 by Aaron Severson)

Along with the facelift, the JDM line also added a new engine option: a turbocharged version of the 1,996 cc (122 cu. in.) C20A.

Back in 1983, Honda had returned to Formula 1 as an engine builder, finding great success with a small-displacement turbocharged V-6. Honda advertising implied that the Legend’s V-6 was descended from that F1 engine, although any real connection between the production V-6 and the 80-degree, 1.5-liter (91 cu. in.), iron-block racing engines was remote. (Author Masaaki Sato says Honda actually selected the V-6 layout for the racing engines to tie into the already-in-development production V-6 rather than the other way around.) Nonetheless, the F1 program had nonetheless given Honda R&D considerable experience with turbocharging, something Honda had used very little in its production engines. The only turbocharged car Honda had ever offered for public sale was the City Turbo, offered from 1982 to 1986.

Aside from reinforcing the marketing connection between the racing engines and the Legend V-6, the turbocharged engine was likely prompted by a recognition that the JDM Legend was handicapped by the lack of engine choices between the overmatched C20A and the expensive-to-own C25A and C27A. Rivals’ base 2-liter sixes weren’t any stronger than the C20A, but Toyota, Nissan, and Mazda all offered turbocharged and/or supercharged versions to bridge the gap between the base engines and the pricier 3-number grades. From a commercial standpoint, the C20A turbo was long overdue.

While late to the party, Honda was not to be outdone in technology. The Legend’s intercooled “Wing Turbo” engine had four airfoil-shaped vanes — which Honda called wings — mounted around the turbine. Half of each “wing” was fixed while the other half pivoted like an aircraft flap, allowing the engine computer to optimize the flow of exhaust gas to the turbine under different operating conditions; the goal was to make the turbocharger more responsive at low rpm without restricting high-end power. Nissan’s 1,998 cc (122 cu. in.) VG20ET “Jet Turbo” engine had used a similar principle for several years, but the Jet Turbo provided only two A/R ratios (the ratio of effective inlet size to inlet-to-turbine distance) while the Wing Turbo’s was continuously variable. There was no wastegate, but the wings were programmed to limit boost to a maximum of 8.7 psi (0.6 bars). Knock sensors were provided to allow the use of a 9.0:1 compression ratio, only slightly lower than the normally aspirated C20A’s.

The Wing Turbo engine was rated at 190 PS JIS (140 kW) and 178 lb-ft (241 N-m) of torque, making it the most powerful production engine Honda had yet offered. It was available only with the dual-mode automatic transmission in a new V6Ti grade available in plain or Exclusive trim, priced at ¥2,960,000 or ¥3,360,000 (approximately $22,000 to $24,500) respectively. Either included sport seats, a shorter axle ratio, and wider tires on alloy wheels. Since it was still in the 5-number tax class, the V6Ti looked like the best deal in the line, at least on paper.

How the turbocharged Legend’s performance compared to that of the 2.7-liter sedan is hard to say. We’ve yet to find any instrumented Japanese road tests and the Western journalists who sampled the V6Ti confined themselves to driving impressions. Subjective reports suggest that the Wing Turbo did indeed minimize the turbo lag common to turbocharged engines of that era and offered strong mid-range punch. However, the Wing Turbo still didn’t produce enough boost at low rpm to match the Legend’s weight. (Thanks to the added weight of the intercooler and turbo hardware, the Legend V6Ti was as heavy as a 2.7-liter V6Xi.) Nonetheless, the more powerful engines prompted Honda to add traction control to the Legend’s options list in mid-1989. Similar systems had been offered on RWD cars since at least 1971, but Honda claimed the Legend system was a first for FF cars.

The Wing Turbo engine appears to have been a dead end. It was never officially exported, didn’t continue into subsequent Legends, and as far as we know hasn’t been used on any subsequent Honda production car (although Honda has since offered other turbocharged engines). Chrysler’s conceptually similar Variable Nozzle Turbocharger, offered briefly during the 1990 model year, was dropped after a few months due to durability concerns, which makes us wonder how reliable the Wing Turbo was in service.

The primary reasons for the turbocharged car’s early demise were probably the advent of Honda’s pioneering VTEC variable-valve timing system and extensive changes in Japanese tax law that went into effect in April 1989. The new rules reduced the cost penalties for 3-number cars with engines over 2,000 cc (122 cu. in.), which in short order led to the demise of many of JDM turbocharged and supercharged 2-liter (122 cu. in.) sixes in favor of normally aspirated or turbocharged 2.5-liter (152 cu. in.) engines. The Wing Turbo’s place in the Honda lineup (albeit not in the Legend line) was effectively taken by the normally aspirated G-block fives, the first of which debuted on the E-CB5 Accord Inspire and Vigor in September 1989.

THE HEAVYWEIGHTS

In August 1989, Toyota and Nissan introduced their new Infiniti Q45 and Lexus LS400. Although both would be sold in Japan (the latter as the Toyota Celsior), they were very much aimed at the U.S. market, following the model Honda had established with Acura. The difference was that the Q45 and LS400 were bigger, more expensive cars with V-8 engines.

Legend sales declined for 1990, although it’s hard to say how much of that was due to the arrival of Lexus and Infiniti. Although we don’t think the JDM Legend sedan’s 1989 facelift would have gone over well in most export markets, skipping it emphasized the fact that the existing car was getting old. Even so, Acura sold more than 50,000 Legends in 1990, which certainly wasn’t bad.

Still, the obvious question was what Honda was going to do next. The American press expected great things, particularly following the debut of the NSX sports car, which showed what Honda engineers could do when given a free hand. Rumors flew that Honda’s next flagship might even trump V-8 rivals with a V-10 engine based on the G-block five.

1991–93 Honda Legend (KA7) sedan © 2010 OSX (PD - modified by Aaron Severson)

The cautiously styled KA7 Legend sedan was bigger than its predecessor in every dimension: 194.9 inches (4,940 mm) long on a 114.6-inch (2,910mm) wheelbase, 71.3 inches (1,810 mm) wide, and 55.3 inches (1,405 mm) high, weighing between 3,500 to 3,615 lb (1,590 to 1,640 kg). Japanese-market Honda Legend sedans were available in Type β (beta) and Type α (alpha) grades, the latter offering a CD-based navigation system with an antenna for picking up local TV broadcasts. A Legend Type α with leather and navigation listed for ¥5,425,000 (around $39,000) in Japan, about as much as a Toyota Celsior B Type. (Photo: “1991-1996 Honda Legend sedan 01” © 2010 OSX; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized and modified 2014 by Aaron Severson)

The reality was less exciting. The new “Super Legend” sedan (chassis code E-KA7), introduced in Japan in October 1990, was bigger than the old car — there were no more 5-number Legends — but was still smaller than the LS400 or Q45 and had neither a V-10 nor a V-8. At launch, the sole engine was the new 3,206 cc (196 cu. in.) C32A, an enlarged version of the previous C27A engine with 215 PS JIS (158 kW; 200 hp SAE/149 kW for U.S. cars, 205 PS DIN/153 kW for European Legends). Japanese-market cars were offered only with the four-speed automatic, although a manual gearbox remained available in North America.

The new Legend retained front-wheel drive, but its V-6 engine was now mounted longitudinally rather than transversely. The transmission was behind the engine, using a short longitudinal shaft to route power back to the differential, which was was located under the engine’s right cylinder bank, passing one halfshaft through the sump. The rationale for this complex layout, which Honda had previously adopted for the five-cylinder Vigor and Accord Inspire, was not to facilitate the use of all-wheel drive (which wouldn’t be available on the Legend until much later), but to bring weight distribution closer to the 60/40 split Honda claimed was optimal for FWD. Suspension was again by double wishbones, although the layout was extensively revised. Unlike the cheaper Accord and Prelude, the Legend didn’t offer four-wheel steering.

1991 Honda Legend Coupe side © 2012 GPS 56 (CC BY 2.0 Generic)

Early KA8 Legend coupes had the same engine as the KA7 sedans, but a more powerful Type II engine was added for 1993. In Japan, the hotter engine was restricted to a new α (alpha) Touring grade with stiffer suspension and bigger tires, but in some export markets — including the U.S. — the Type II engine became standard on late Legend coupes as well as a new Legend GS sedan, both of which offered a six-speed manual gearbox unavailable on JDM cars. (Photo: “1991 Honda Legend Coupe” © 2012 GPS 56; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

The KA7 Legend sedan and the new Legend coupe (chassis code E-KA8) that arrived in Japan in early 1991 were fundamentally conservative but perfectly competent cars — better than their predecessors in almost every respect — that had been thoroughly overshadowed before they ever went on sale. Even with automatic, the Legend could outrun the heavier Lexus LS400 to any speed legal in the U.S. or Japan, but having only six cylinders immediately signaled that Honda was not aspiring to the first rank of prestige cars.

Honda maintained throughout the nineties that adding a RWD V-8 car like Toyota and Nissan had done would be a money-loser, which was probably true so far as it went; Mazda shelved its planned Amati luxury brand for similar reasons. However, Honda’s refusal to enter the fray left the Legend without a clear direction. The Legend had superb ergonomics, fine build quality, and commendable reliability, but the same was true of Lexus, so that was no longer the unique selling point it had been. The new Legend handled well, but it felt too bulky and nose-heavy to qualify as a sports sedan while its fidgety low-speed ride and less-than-seamless automatic fell short of the LS400’s extraordinary cruising refinement. Despite the KA7 sedan’s 114.6-inch (2,910mm) wheelbase, rear seat room wasn’t generous either; whatever marginal benefits the Legend gained from its longitudinal engine were achieved at the cost of packaging efficiency.

Honda sold more than 65,000 Legends for 1991, the model’s second-best year, but sales dropped off rapidly after that and never recovered. Despite the addition for 1993 of a more powerful Type II engine option (making 235 PS JIS (173 kW) in Japan, 230 hp SAE (172 kW) in the U.S.) and, on export cars, an available six-speed manual gearbox, even American buyers were losing interest. The JDM Legend, meanwhile, never approached the success of better-established big car rivals from Toyota and Nissan, much less the LS400/Celsior, which was surprisingly popular in Japan.

1992 and 1991 Honda Legend Coupes rear 3q © 2014 GPS 56 (CC BY 2.0 Generic)

The KA8 Legend coupe was shorter than the KA7 sedan — 192.1 inches (4,880 mm) overall on a 111.4-inch (2,830mm) wheelbase — and more aggressive-looking despite its size and mass. It was reasonably sporty, particularly with manual transmission, but softer and inevitably more understeer-biased than RWD rivals. (Photo: “1992 & 1991 Honda Legend Coupe’s” © 2014 GPS 56; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

32 Comments

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  1. The British version of the Honda Ballade you referred to was the last car marketed as a Triumph, sold in the UK as the Triumph Acclaim. Later editions were rebadged as Rovers two hundred series cars.

    Roger.

    1. I had talked about the Acclaim in the Ballade/CRX article earlier this year (which even includes a picture of it), so I didn’t want to belabor the point, but I did add a clarification to the Rover 213 caption for the benefit of those joining us late. The reason I cited the Rover 200 rather than the Ballade as the antecedent of the 800 is that the 200 had a bit more Rover content, including the 1.6-liter engines, whereas the Acclaim was really just a Ballade with new badges and whatever minor changes Rover had to make for local type approval.

  2. Another great article. I love my 2005 RL, which was one of the most brilliant (the SH-AWD in the RLs is amazing for dry cornering and not bad in wet/snow), yet bland and poorly marketed vehicles ever (towards the end of its like it was barely selling hundreds of cars a year in the whole US). Still see more older Legends than RLs here in the states.

    Such a shame Honda chose not to give everyone what they wanted (or thought they needed) in a V8 and RWD, but they also didn’t try to really explain how a V6 (and a relatively high performing one in 2005) and AWD (with unique RWD bias as needed) could be a better solution.

    1. The AWD RL wasn’t a bad car and in some ways it was kind of handsome, but it smacked too much of trying to talk a nightclub bouncer into letting you into the posh nightclub after he’s already said no.

      It’s not that RWD vs. FWD (or even AWD, except for certain types of really high-performance car) makes that much of a difference to the way most people drive or that anyone really needs a V-8. (Even with the 5-Series and E-Class, the large majority are sold with sixes or fours.) But that class is all about perception, particularly when you don’t have pedigree to fall back on.

  3. Outside the scope of the article, but when the British government was looking to off-load Rover Group, Ford was the first company that stepped forward to buy. But, the government was aware of the potential public relations problem of selling Britain’s largest automaker to a foreign firm and was under pressure to find a British buyer. British Aerospace had no interest at all in getting into the automotive business, but as a defense contractor heavily dependent on government contracts, they could be “persuaded” into taking the company off the government’s hands.

    By then, Rover had a relatively modern and competitive model range and was making money, but BAe was unwilling to make any significant investment in the business and kind of starved it. When they were looking to sell in 1994, they tried to interest Honda, but the most Honda was willing to do was raise their stake from 20% to 40% and BAe wanted to dispose of the whole thing. So, BMW it became.

    For their part, Ford went on to buy Jaguar instead and was later able to grab Land Rover when BMW broke up the Rover Group.

    1. I think Rover Group ended up spending much of its later existence as a sort of perpetual white elephant. Each of its successive owners recognized (or at least hoped) that it had value, but saw that value as either notional or hypothetical: “This will certainly be worth a lot to someone, somewhere, following some reversal of fortune we would rather not have to pay for.” BAe is often criticized for not investing more in development, but the same could be said of BMW. Other than the MINI — a saga in itself — the main additions were the 75, which began as a BMW castoff, and the MGF, which I assume must have been largely done by the time the BMW deal was closed. There was the KV6, but that was a derivative of an existing Rover engine and something that, as I understand it, Rover only hadn’t built previously because it was simpler to use the Honda V-6.

      I’m honestly not sure what Ford would have had to gain by buying Rover at that time other than some of the shuttered brands (which it’s not easy to envision Ford actually reviving). Of course, they later bought Land Rover, but the high-end SUV market wasn’t yet looking as gold-plated as it did a decade or so later. As much hindsight-driven criticism as the acquisition of Jaguar has since received, the original rationale isn’t hard to grasp. Rover, though… hmmm.

      1. In the ’80s, Ford was coveting a European prestige brand of its own due to the success of the Germans, and to a lesser extent the Swedes, in the US, and the Rover brand, though tarnished, still had some upscale equity in it at that point. Plus, it could potentially be had for cheap. The courting of Rover, the acquisition of Jaguar, and the creation of Merkur all stemmed from the same desire to appeal to a different sort of customer than Lincoln-Mercury was chasing.

        A final bit of irony is that the Sterling name was created partly to avoid any connections with Rover’s past bad reputation in the US, but soon developed such a poor image itself that Rover Group was seriously considering dropping Sterling in favor of Rover for 1992. By then, the Range Rover had been launched here and had been favorably received, helping to remove some of the name’s taint.

        The MGF and Rover 75 were both supposedly developed with US sales in mind, but BMW’s fears of internecine competition followed by the loss of the Land Rover dealer network in 2000 prevented that from ever happening. I believe there were some images of 75 styling clays that showed US-spec reflectors and lights in place.

        1. The idea of getting a premium brand to take over the niche of the Granada would have made some sense for Ford, since (as is mentioned in the text) the high-end Germans essentially devoured the “big, non-premium exec” niche. Whether replacing the 800 and Granada with a what presumably would have been essentially a new Granada with a Rover badge would have worked commercially is an interesting question, although I don’t think it would have done Rover’s image any more harm than was done by slapping the Rover badge on the Metro. (Creating a premium supermini is one thing, but the Metro was past its sell-by at that point.)

          The confusing bit is what Ford would have done with the rest of Rover Group. Ford certainly had no need of Austin or Morris and while the MG badge obviously had (and still has) some cachet, it’s hard to envision Ford doing anything with it or reviving Triumph or Riley.

          I heard rumors of Rover bringing the MGF to the U.S., which would have made a modicum of sense were the timing right (of which I’m not so sure). MG and the pre-TR7 Triumph sports cars were about the only BL products that consistently sold well here. (American buyers didn’t know what to make of the big Triumph sedans and to the extent that there was a market for the P6, it was torpedoed by reliability problems.) I think the decision not to try to federalize the 75 was the correct one. Americans would have perceived the 75 as underpowered, and since it would have had to vie with Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus, any reliability or service weaknesses would have been fatal in very short order. (The American luxury buyer mindset is that if you’re not getting a brag-worthy German or Italian brand, it had better be bulletproof and the dealers had better offer lavish VIP treatment.)

          1. And as to the Rover, 75 or an MG variant, they really needed a more robust engine than the KV6 which came to the USA in the Freelander and had significant engine reliability issues.

  4. I recognise that white Sterling badged as a Rover; it was at last April’s Queen’s English show in Los Angeles – and I have to give the owner full credit for persistence, obstinance, and perseverance.

    Rover (in its many incarnations) was a company that never figured out how it should capitalise on the engineering virtues of its vehicles through superior build quality, and this shows in the progression of their models from the P6 to the SD1 through to the 800-series – they just couldn’t make the cars <b>work</b>, at least not consistently – even when Honda was giving more than just assistance at the start of the end.

    In many ways, it pains me to say this because I am the past owner of a Rover P6. It was a great car, and mine was clearly built on a good day because it was incredibly reliable and a fantastic driver. But I also grew up with Rover at the end of the P6 era, through the SD1 into the 200-, 400-, and 800-series cars, as well as into the twilight days with the 100/Metro, and 45 and 75.

    With a bit more effort, Rover could have been where BMW is now, instead of ultimately being a part of them – and then nothing except a phonetic variation of the name in China. But no matter how much brilliance may shine through from time to time, if you can’t learn from history’s mistakes you will be doomed to repeat them.

  5. Stirling. I was excited as all get out when the car first arrived. Japanese reliability coupled with British class.

    To this day I still remember the one page Car and Driver review of the 825. They were reasonably impressed . . . . . . and then in the middle of the test drive, the electrics suddenly cut out (completely) and a second or so later, came back on again. Never to happen again, of course. While C&D had enough class not to start making Lucas jokes, the did make this incident the closing couple of paragraphs in the review.

    And my though upon reaching the end was, “It’s dead Jim.”

  6. Very interesting article. Good to read about the Japanese market products. Inevitably some errors creep in and where it says “Four-cylinder Rovers had either an Austin Rover-supplied five-speed gearbox…” although this is true it gives the wrong impression. The PG1 manual box, although built by Austin-Rover was a Honda design manufactured under license.

    A work colleague bought, new, one of the last Legends sold in the UK in 2009. Honda had to discount the price of the new car to the level of a well-used car to shift them. Given that this was during the financial crisis just after the collapse of Lehmann Brothers the timing wasn’t great and the price cut understandable.

    1. Thanks for the note on the manual gearbox. I double-checked and you’re quite right (I’d misread my own notes on that point). I’ve amended the text.

  7. This article was well worth the wait, especially in terms of filling in the blanks relating to the Legend. I didn’t know there was one with a smaller engine available on the Japanese market. I remember when the turbo version came out; “Car’s” comment after testing it was “Not as good as we had hoped”.
    Despite the technological advances in the latest model (I much prefer names rather than the alphanumeric thing everyone is doing these days), I don’t think enough is done to market the RL and I am surprised it hasn’t been dropped entirely.

    1. Did CAR at some point test the Japanese-market Wing Turbo Legend? Or did you mean the Rover Vitesse turbo? I haven’t read their test of the latter, although their reaction to the 220TC was quite harsh and they were never especially fond of the 800 in any form.

      I think the dilemma for the RLX now is that while some of its technology is impressive, most modern big executive cars could do double duty as a rolling display room for a consumer electronics chain. What Honda desperately needs is some compelling reason for a buyer to choose the RLX over, say, an Audi A6. Unfortunately, I don’t know how willing Honda is to sink more money into that platform (especially since I think the current RLX is now limited to North America). Given its sales, I can’t exactly blame them, but at present it seems likely that the RLX will just fade out, probably without replacement.

  8. The test of the Legend Wing Turbo was more of a driving impression than a full test in the “Newcomers” section of either the January or March 1989 issue of “Car”. Of course that was when Honda was on a high after having dominated F1 in 1988 with Senna and Prost and the McLaren Honda team. The January issue cover was a feature on the Cizeta-Moroder V16T (which was hailed as the new Lamborghini Countach), while the March issue was headlined “Japan Shows Europe How to Build Sports Cars”, which dealt with the Acura NSX, Mazda Miata and the 1990 Nissan 300ZX. Hope this helps.

    1. Thanks — that does help. I keep hoping that at some point I’ll find either factory performance figures or a Japanese road test with same. I’ve seen several driving impressions, but they don’t offer any factory or measured figures. The gist I’m getting from the impressions is that the V6Ti felt a bit like some later turbodiesel cars: somewhat lethargic off-idle and then robust mid-range. (The C20A actually claimed a bit more torque than the 2.7-liter normally aspirated engine and the torque peak was 1,000 rpm lower.) I suspect one of the reasons for only offering the turbo with automatic was to try to use the torque converter to bolster low-RPM response.

      I can certainly understand why Western automotive writers would be a little disappointed; one might initially assume “Legend turbo” would be a sportier edition, which really wasn’t the point. Most of these engines were driven by the desire to maximize performance within the bounds of the five-number class, which produced some fascinating solutions. During that era, Toyota simultaneously offered plain SOHC, cooking or performance-oriented DOHC 24-valve, twin-turbocharged, and supercharged versions of its 2-liter 1G engine — in some lines, you could take your choice!

  9. In the early 90’s there was a used Rover 800 sitting in the company carpark, which I drove a couple of times. Lovely interior, quite nice to drive, and it would have been even better if it ran on all four cylinders.Finding someone willing to work on a BL engine was proving difficult for the owner, who had already found a replacement car. I can recall long-term tests of the 800 in the 80’s commenting that the reason the electric windows sometimes ceased working was because the relay fell out of its’ intended location! In later years I was a real fan of the Rover 600, but when I found someone to let me drive one, there was no clutch pedal – just a metal spike to which the pedal had once been ( poorly) welded.
    As a true Brit, I have only bought Japanese-built cars for the last 20 years or so.

  10. Been watching Season 6 of the detective series George Gently.

    There is an eye catching blue 1964 Rover 2000 (P6) driven by George, featured in the shows. P6s were very stylish and Rover’s follow up SDI model despite it’s build issues was still an eye catcher. There were long waiting lists for these cars when they were introduced.

    Then we have the 800 and Sterling, “115% sized Accord”. Bland and anonymous. White bread. Only the fastback Vitesse looked decent.

    Rover and Triumph should have stayed well away from BMC.

    1. Certainly, I don’t think there are many (any?) people now who would argue that Leyland merging with BMC was a good idea — certainly not as far as Rover and Triumph were concerned. Of course, the point of the merger was that the government was understandably worried about BMC collapsing or ending up foreign-owned, fates the marriage didn’t so much prevent as protract.

      How well Rover and Triumph would have fared sans BMC is an interesting and difficult question. They would still have had a tough road after the U.K. entered the Common Market, which put the P6 and 2000/2500 into more direct competition with BMW, Mercedes, and Audi, and neither Rover nor Triumph had had much luck in the U.S. market beyond the TR and Spitfire. It would have been a tough road in any case.

      I think it’s important to emphasize that Rover’s alternatives as regards an SD1 replacement/successor were not encouraging. Whatever one thinks of the 800, it’s hard to argue that a thinly veiled SD1 re-skin (still with live axle but probably minus V-8) or a 115% Montego with a V-6 engine would have been better…

      1. Leyland motors needed some lower priced models below their Herald and Triumph 1300 (another interesting car that started off FWD and became RWD).

        Tony Benn and the UK Government of the time brokered the Leyland deal, when Leyland found out how much BMC was really worth they wanted to back out. Not a merger of equals. BMC was already in a big mess.

        The tie up killed a lot of new Rover models that the tooling was already purchased and done.

        There is no doubt that Rover needed Honda , just a shame the cars were so bland.

        The Rover P6 was one of the stars of the Movie Gattaca, along with an Avanti and a Citroen DS. Iconic vehicles. Not so the 800.

        1. Yeah, I know the merger did for the Rover P8 and the revival of Alvis as an automaker. (I think they kept making armored fighting vehicles for some time afterward.) I’ve never been sure exactly how serious Rover was about the P6BS mid-engine car; whether Rover- or Alvis-badged, it just seems like an unlikely idea.

          Honestly, I don’t know how much sense it would have made for Leyland to get into a lower-priced market than the 1300/Toledo/Dolomite. There was certainly more money to be made from those and the bigger sedans, and going lower just meant clashing with Ford, Vauxhall, Austin, and later the Japanese, the French, and the Germans. I think one of the various problems hampering BL was that they desperately wanted mass-market, low-priced cars even at the expense of the posher brands; the former were obviously more politically desirable, but significantly harder to achieve than it would have been to sustain/salvage the latter.

          Icons are a tricky thing. It’s difficult to create one on purpose (and trying too hard at it is a good way to become a joke) and if you have a few, they can handcuff you to your past whether you want them to or not. There are quite a few automakers who’ve fallen into the trap of clinging to iconic themes because any deviation from them elicits cries of outrage from loyalists while failing to convince anyone who finds the look dated or trite. It’s all the more difficult if you’re trying to make it in a class that has already become disinclined to take you seriously…

          1. Speaking of jokes, I remember a car book that described the Sterling this way: “If it was trying any harder to be British, it would be Madonna!”

    2. (This does remind me that I still want to do the Rover P5…)

      1. This site is great, please do something on the P5 , when you put the P5 and P6 alongside each other it’s difficult to believe they came from the same company. The P4 and P5 is definitely “Aunty Rover”.

        Without BMH, who knows what could have happened but Leyland , Rover, Triumph might have become the UKs own BMW.

        And in 1968 BMW was a niche player.

        1. That’s true, although by 1968, BMW was already more successful in the U.S. market than Rover (and certainly far more than the Triumph sedans, which never sold well in the States). Leyland certainly had a head start insofar as Rover and Triumph had well-established credentials in the British 2-liter prestige class, which those two marques essentially owned until around the mid-70s, and because prior to Britain’s entry to the ECE, BMW (and Mercedes) was more expensive than domestic rivals. The price of a 2002 in the U.K. would get you a Triumph 2.5 PI, which otherwise would be more comparable to a BMW 2500 in size and performance. The erosion of that price advantage was a major challenge for Triumph and Rover, compounded by the reliability problems and lower assembly quality. (The early SD1 3500 was really quite cheap for what it offered, but I think its problems ended up becoming a de facto advertisement for buying German.)

  11. The T series was not all aluminium. Like the M16 before it, it was a cast iron (O-series derived) block, and an aluminium head. In fact the T16 was a development of the M16.

    1. You’re right about the block material — that was a bit of confusion on my part and I’ve amended the text. Regarding the design, my impression was that while the T16 was designed to share some of the tooling of the M16 (derived, as you note, from the older O-series, which I think in turn had its roots in the ancient BMC B-series), the block and head architecture owed a lot to the much newer K-series and was to some extent a K-series/M16 hybrid.

  12. A very good article on the Honda side. However, there is, in my opinion, much more comprehensive information on the Austin/Rover O, M and T series engines at AROnline.co.uk.

    Also some reasonable criticism of the Honda approach to things, which has always seemed overly idiosyncratic to me, relying on things like Double A arms good, McPherson strut bad, 60/40 weight distribution ideal for FWD and other maxims that are more opinion than fact. Rather like BMW’s cuurrent insistence that 500cc is the ideal cylinder volume which has zero engineering basis I’m aware of. Why not 397.5 cc?

    I find that reading aronline’s numerous articles on the whole BL saga gives a good understanding of all the troubles, financial, political, personalities than the usual “once over lightly approach” of most magazines and books. You can read all the sagas on Rover, Triumph, Jaguar as well as Austin and Morris.

    I mention this aronline resource because I see only one reference to it in your source list.

    1. I’m a great admirer of AROnline’s and would certainly recommend them to anyone interested in learning more about the labyrinthine saga of British Leyland/Austin Rover/Rover Group. In this case, I delved into a lot of what I’m reasonably sure were AROnline’s original sources, including the many contemporary reports in the British press on the development of the XX and Austin-Rover’s ongoing travails in that period. The BL/AR saga is obviously very complex and there’s a lot of stuff that’s really beyond the scope of this article, which was already straining the limits of reasonable length. (As it is, it’s more than 12,000 words and left me asking myself difficult questions like, “Is anyone really going to care this much?”)

      I strongly disagree that this article is Honda-centric. Considering the circumstances of their development, I think the 800 and first-generation Legend really have to be considered together. The Rover side is much better-documented in English-language sources, but English-language sources are often hazy on why Honda was insistent on certain things, such as the width issue. I’ve also noticed over the years that British sources in general tend to take a decidedly chauvinistic attitude toward all things Japanese. Particularly in the ’80s and ’90s, British reviewers might praise a Japanese car’s gearbox or perhaps the engine, but beyond that, kind words are rare unless the reviewers have reason to think the car was developed in Europe (which is a fascinating contrast with the almost fetishistic admiration American reviewers had for Japanese cars in the ’80s).

      I’ve read the criticisms from Austin Rover engineers, some of which I’m inclined to take with a grain of salt. It’s not that I think Honda is above criticism, because I don’t, but a distinction must be drawn between quality of execution and differences of priority or approach. I don’t subscribe to the common car buff assumption that sophisticated = good / unsophisticated = crap; the well-considered application of a comparatively rustic principle may well be superior to the indifferent execution of a new and brilliant idea. However, I don’t think anyone would deny that certain technologies do have specific, quantifiable advantages. The eternal question of all production engineering is whether those advantages (which may be incremental) are worth the tradeoffs involved. Those questions have been raised about MacPherson struts versus double wishbones, live axles versus independent rear suspension, and overhead cams versus pushrods, and the answers are not always clear cut. For instance, the idea that 60/40 weight distribution is ideal is not necessarily an ill-founded one, but whether that ideal was worth the expensive contortions Honda went through to achieve it with the company’s longitudinal-engineed FWD cars is quite another matter.

      As for the cylinder volume issue, that particular maxim is not original to BMW, although the way I’ve usually heard it applied is to say that 500 cc is really the MAXIMUM desirable swept area of a single cylinder, beyond which combustion roughness and other drawbacks begin to outweigh the additional potential power. I’m not an engineer and so am not really equipped to comment on the theoretical foundation of that idea, although I can think of various examples of production engines that are sweet and smooth at around 500cc/cylinder that become noticeably less so above that threshold. On the other hand, some engines are noticeably smoother than others of similar displacement and there are certainly engines that are sweeter at 600cc/cylinder than rivals are at 400cc/cylinder. All else is not necessarily equal, in other words.

  13. Fascinating and well written story, but please fix the photos–most do not match their legends (eg, showing a Sterling badge but talking about a Legend, showing a coupe and talking about a sedan…).

    1. Adam,

      I’m concerned about the photo issue you mention, which I’m not seeing. I was tinkering with the photos early today to address a technical issue with the ALT tags, but I don’t think that should have caused the captions to be assigned to the wrong photos. May I ask which OS and browser you’re using? I checked the page in all the browsers available to me and didn’t see the problem you’re describing, but if you’re using a tablet or mobile device, I don’t have a way to test that behavior myself. Feel free to send me a note via the Contact Form and I’ll see if I can sort it out. (It’s conceivable that something very stupid happened as a result of my editing the tags, but if so, I can’t see what…)

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