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

FACELIFT AND ROVER 800 COUPE

The relationship between Rover and Honda had grown considerably closer since the Legend and 800 debuted. By the early nineties, Honda owned a 20% equity stake in Rover Group, which under BAe ownership had become increasingly reliant on the Japanese for product development. Much of Rover’s lineup now consisted of restyled Honda products, sometimes with Honda engines.

Nonetheless, Rover decided not to develop its own version of the new Legend. Company officials told the press the latest Legend was simply too big, but we suspect the main concerns were cost and the Legend’s longitudinal powertrain, which would have complicated the use of non-Honda engines and transmissions.

Rover opted instead for an extensive facelift of the original car, adding the modern interpretation of the traditional Rover grille previously introduced on the Accord-based Rover 600. The updated 800, which arrived in the fall of 1991, retained the original’s inner structure, but was 7.4 inches (188 mm) longer than the original; in fact, the new car (known internally as R17/R18) was fractionally (0.08 inches/2 mm) longer than the latest Legend coupe. Along with the new styling, the facelifted 800 also got an updated interior with new switchgear and seats, a reshaped tail for more trunk space, and a split-folding rear seat.

1992–95 Rover 827Si sedan front 3q © 2005 Seventies (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

The facelifted Rover 800 sedan was 192.2 inches (4,882 mm) long on a 108.9-inch (2,766mm) wheelbase. Overall width was unchanged at 68.1 inches (1,730 mm). (Photo: “Rover827siA” © 2005 Seventies; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

The 827Si, 827SLi, and Sterling retained the Honda C27A engine, now with a catalytic converter in most markets, but the SOHC O-Series was dropped and the four-cylinder M16 engine was replaced by the updated T16 with 136 PS DIN (100 kW) and 136 lb-ft (184 N-m) of torque, now peaking at only 2,500 rpm. For European buyers who favored diesel, there was also a 2,498 cc (152 cu. in.) four-cylinder turbodiesel (actually introduced back in 1990) with 118 PS (87 kW) and 199 lb-ft (270 N-m) of torque.

The Vitesse, initially absent from the new lineup, returned in February 1992, trading the Honda V-6 for a turbocharged version of the T16 four with a single intercooled Garrett T25 that boosted output to 180 PS DIN (132 kW) and 160 lb-ft (217 N-m) of torque. The turbo engine was offered only with a five-speed gearbox and included a sport suspension and Recaro sport seats. A turbo Vitesse wasn’t much quicker than the earlier V-6 car — Rover claimed 0–60 mph (0–97 km/h) in 7.9 seconds and a top speed of 137 mph (220 km/h) — but it was at least distinct from the 827SLi. One tradeoff was that the turbocharger hardware left no room for air conditioning.

Rover T16 engine © 2012 Greggz1970 (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

Still displacing 1,994 cc (122 cu. in.), the all-aluminum T16 engine was essentially a scaled-up version of the Rover K-series four designed to share the tooling of the M16 (which remained in production for the Rover 220GTI). The T16 had a catalytic converter, a new eight-counterweight crankshaft, a long-runner intake manifold, and camshaft and combustion chamber revisions to improve low-end torque. (Photo: “Rover T-series insitu.” © 2012 Greggz1970; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

Some critics found the new grille a bit much, but build quality was much improved thanks to a sizable investment in the production facilities at Cowley. Still, while the changes were mostly for the better, the Rover 800’s position in the market hadn’t really changed. In middle age, the 800 was settling into its role as an upmarket “repmobile” for mostly British business users, vying more with the Ford Scorpio and Vauxhall Senator than with BMW or Mercedes-Benz. (As badly as the ARCONA venture had turned out, it was nonetheless Rover’s most numerically successful export effort. Annual sales in most other markets appear to have been measurable in the hundreds.)

The T16 wasn’t the sweetest engine and here wasn’t much Rover could do about the 800’s suspension travel deficit or anesthetized steering (although the 2-liter cars were a little better in the latter respect), but the Rover had decent showroom appeal and the 820Si and 820SLi were well-equipped for the money. The V-6 cars were smoother and quicker, but not enough so to overcome their higher price, greater running costs, and depressing residuals.

1993 Rover 827 Coupe side © 2007 alexander (PD)

The much-delayed Rover 800 Coupe was quite attractive and boasted an impressive 0.29 Cd, but was let down by a disappointing chassis, unspectacular performance, and, at least early on, an eye-widening price tag. The coupe body eventually became available in a broader range of trim levels and with most of the 800’s engines, making it somewhat more accessible. (Photo: “Rover827coupe” © 2005 alexander; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized 2014 by Aaron Severson)

The long-awaited Rover 800 Coupe finally made its public debut at the Geneva auto show in March 1992 and went on sale in the U.K. that summer, almost six years after the original CCV concept and nine years after Rover first started thinking about a two-door 800. In its final production form, it was less striking than the earlier CCV, but was nonetheless a very handsome car inside and out.

In most markets, the coupe was initially offered only in fully equipped V-6 form with equipment comparable to the Sterling’s. (In Italy, where the tax penalties on engines over 2 liters (122 cu. in.) were prohibitive for most buyers, the coupe was available with the turbocharged T16 engine, but that combination wasn’t offered in the U.K. until 1996.) Most coupes had automatic transmission, but the five-speed manual gearbox was a no-cost option.

Attractive as it was, the 800 Coupe was a disappointment. With automatic, Rover claimed 0–60 mph (0–97 km/h) in 9.2 seconds, lackluster for this class. Worse, the coupe’s chassis suffered the same faults as the V-6 sedans — inert, over-light steering and too little wheel travel — and if anything had poorer body control, discouraging even moderately enthusiastic driving. The same was true of Rover’s smaller 220 Turbo Coupe, but the 220 was at least cheaper; the 800 Coupe started at £30,770 in the U.K., DM 69,950 in Germany, about 15% more than the Sterling sedan. Coupe sales were predictably dire.

1995 Rover 827 Coupe interior © 2005 Rover800 (PD)

The interior of the Rover 800 Coupe was nicely furnished, although the two-door body style lacked the other models’ folding rear seat and some front seat travel was apparently sacrificed to improve legroom for back seat passengers. (Photo: “Interior827coupe” © 2005 Rover800; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized 2014 by Aaron Severson)

In the summer of 1994, Rover added a new 800 model, the Vitesse Sport. Offered in sedan and hatchback forms, the Vitesse Sport used the more powerful turbocharged engine of the 220T coupe, 220T GSi, and 620Ti. The uprated engine had the same 1,994 cc (122 cu. in.) displacement as the standard Vitesse (which remained available), but more boost brought peak output to 200 PS DIN (147 kW) and 177 lb-ft (240 N-m) of torque. The hotter engine was mated with the 220T’s five-speed gearbox and Torsen limited-slip differential along with a retuned sport suspension.

After the critical savaging the 220 Turbo Coupe and 800 Coupe had received, reviewers were prepared to give the Vitesse Sport more of the same, but Autocar & Motor testers were astonished to find that Rover had convincingly transformed the 800’s chassis and even its much-maligned steering. Greater mass meant the Vitesse Sport wasn’t as quick as the smaller cars (Rover claimed 7.3 seconds for the 0–60 mph (0–97 km/h) sprint, compared to 6.4 seconds for the 220T), but the improvements in steering, handling, and ride were well worth the price premium of around £1,500 (about $2,300) over the standard Vitesse. The real question was why Rover hadn’t done it sooner. Had the 800 Coupe offered the Vitesse Sport chassis, its reception might have been much warmer.

1996 Rover Vitesse Sport five-door front 3q © 2005 Guy Laister (PD - modified by Aaron Severson)

Considered as a driver’s car, the turbocharged Rover Vitesse Sport was probably the most credible iteration of the Rover 800, offering ample performance, improved steering feel, and better body control than the standard car. The turbocharger also helped to mask the T16 engine’s gruffness, although the aggressive 17-inch Z-rated tires induced more road noise. The Vitesse Sport naturally had a firmer ride than other 800s, but some critics actually found it more comfortable because it was less crashy than its softer brethren over bumpy roads. (Photo: “1 60 Rover 800 vitesse sport P172MRW” © 2005 Guy Laister; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized and modified 2014 by Aaron Severson)

ROVER AND BMW

Shortly before the Vitesse Sport debuted, Rover Group changed hands again. The new owner was BMW, which promptly installed Wolfgang Reitzle as Rover’s new chairman.

BMW’s main objectives in buying Rover were to acquire brands like Mini and Triumph and expand the Bavarian company’s reach into cheaper price classes without taking BMW’s existing lineup any further down-market. Rover, however, saw the deal as an opportunity to improve the standing of its senior models. Reitzle told journalist Georg Kacher that the British ambitions for an 800 successor had involved a Rover version of BMW’s forthcoming E39 5-Series, which Rover hoped to offer at a lower price than the BMW version. Reitzle didn’t consider that a very funny joke and instead ordered Rover to develop an 800 replacement based on the E48/E49, an abortive BMW proposal for a FWD 3-Series.

1997 Rover Sterling - KV6 engine © 2014 Alan Chang (with permission)

Rover had contemplated an in-house V-6 back when the K-series was first developed in the mid-eighties — the K-series originally included both three- and four-cylinder versions — but the availability of the Honda engine had put the project on the shelf. BMW agreed to finance the development of the KV6 because it was slated to power senior versions of the 800’s eventual successor. In addition to the 2,497 cc (152 cu. in.) version used in the 825, the 75 would offer a smaller 1,991 cc (121 cu. in.) KV6, echoing the long-departed (and never exported) Honda C20A. (Photo: “Rover 825 KV6” © 2014 Alan Chang; used with permission)

The Rover 800’s modest sales (and the fact that it was a direct competitor, albeit not a very threatening one, for the 5-Series) made it a low priority for BMW, so the existing car would soldier on for another five years, receiving a final update in early 1996.

The biggest change to the final 800s was the replacement of the Honda C27A with a new internally developed V-6 based on Rover’s K-series four. The new 2,497 cc (152 cu. in.) KV6 also traded the dual-shaft Honda automatic for an optional four-speed JATCO unit. Although the KV6 was 60 lb (27 kg) lighter than the C27A and had slightly more power — 173 PS DIN (127 kW) and 177 lb-ft (240 N-m) of torque — taller gearing made the latest 825 Sterling a bit slower than before.

1999 Rover 825 Sterling five-door front 3q © 2013 free photos & art/free photos (CC BY 2.0 Generic - modified by Aaron Severson)

Late in its life, the British-market Rover 800 had more of a price advantage over premium German rivals than had originally been the case, but the Rover was still expensive given its age. An 825 Sterling like this one listed for almost £26,000 (equivalent to more than $42,000 at the contemporary exchange rate), thousands more than a loaded Ford Mondeo or Volkswagen Passat V-6. We doubt many Rovers of this vintage sold for anything close to list price, however. (Photo: “Rover 825 Sterling” © 2013 free photos & art/free photos; resized and modified 2014 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license with modifications offered under the same license)

The less-powerful Vitesse was dropped when the KV6 arrived, although the Vitesse Sport continued, dropping the “Sport” from its name to become the 820T Vitesse. The 800 Coupe was now available with both the normally aspirated and turbocharged T16 engines, although unfortunately not as a Vitesse, which probably would have been the most desirable combination.

The 800 was feeling its age — by 1996, the platform on which it was based was not one but two generations out of date — and the market for Ford Scorpio/Vauxhall Omega-type executive cars was being eaten alive by the German premium brands. Nonetheless, the Rover remained in production through the summer of 1998 and in showrooms well into 1999, held over by delays in the launch of the new Rover 75. By that time, the Germans were ready to wash their hands of Rover entirely. In 2000, BMW sold Rover Group to a private investment group for a pittance.

1999 Rover 825 Sterling five-door rear 3q © 2013 free photos & art/free photos (CC BY 2.0 Generic - modified by Aaron Severson)

One piece of wisdom Rover took from the 800 was the danger (at least in the European market) of tying more expensive, more profitable trim levels to specific engines. While this 1999 Sterling five-door has the KV6, late-model Rover Sterlings were also available in 820 form, which was about £3,500 cheaper than the 825 Sterling. Continuing that trend, each of the later Rover 75’s trim levels could be combined with any of the four available engines. (Photo: “Rover 825 Sterling” © 2013 free photos & art/free photos; resized and modified 2014 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license with modifications offered under the same license)

BLAND LEADING BLAND

Meanwhile, the conservative streak that Honda had displayed with the second-generation Legend had come into full blossom. Anyone hoping that Honda would take a lesson from the outgoing car’s declining sales and fading critical acclaim was to be sorely disappointed by the third-generation Honda Legend (chassis code E-KA9) that debuted in early 1996.

The new Legend was still front-wheel-drive and still offered only a V-6 engine, although both car and engine were a bit bigger than before. The coupe was gone, as were the hotter engine option and most remaining steering feel. The sole powertrain was a 3,473 cc (212 cu. in.) C35A V-6 linked to a four-speed automatic transmission. The new engine was no more powerful than the milder C32A, offering the same 215 PS JIS (158 kW), but now had 230 lb-ft (312 N-m) of torque.

1996–98 Acura 3.5 RL (KA9) sedan front 3q © 2006 IFCAR (PD)

When the KA9 Legend/RL debuted, the new car was widely perceived to be significantly larger and heavier than the KA7, but that’s not borne out by the specifications. The KA9 was 0.6 inches (15 mm) longer and 0.8 inches (20 mm) taller than the KA7, but other exterior dimensions were identical and the factory curb weights differ very little. The biggest change was the drag coefficient, which climbed from 0.34 for the KA7 to an unimpressive 0.37 for the KA9. (Photo: “Acura RL” © 2006 IFCAR; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized 2014 by Aaron Severson)

The KA9 continued to be marketed as the Honda Legend in Japan and Europe, but in North America, Acura abandoned most of its existing model names in favor of alphanumeric designations, presumably in an effort to seem more like high-end Japanese and European rivals. (The sole holdout was the sporty Integra, which didn’t succumb until 2002.) In the States, the new Legend, which arrived later in the year as an early 1997 model, was now called Acura 3.5 RL.

Regardless of badge, the Legend/RL embodied most of the old stereotypes about Japanese cars: It was well-made, reliable, viceless, and relentlessly dull to look at and drive. The KA9 seemed like a conceptual return to the era when senior Japanese businessmen bought big six-cylinder sedans simply because those cars’ size and higher running costs correlated directly with the owner’s social status. Even in Japan, those days had passed, which made the operative question, “Why bother?”

1999–2004 Acura 3.5 RL (KA9) sedan front 3q © 2006 IFCAR (PD - modified by Aaron Severson)

Aside from its restyled grille and lights, the KA9 Legend/RL’s 1999 facelift tidied up the aerodynamics, dropping the claimed drag coefficient to 0.32. Most of the other changes the KA9 received throughout its long lifespan were equipment- and trim-related, although there were also suspension and safety improvements, including the addition of side airbags. (Photo: “AcuraRL” © 2006 IFCAR; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized 2014 by Aaron Severson)

Further complicating that question was the fact that the smaller Honda Inspire/Saber (the latter replacing the outgoing Vigor) now offered most of the Legend’s virtues in a cheaper, more conveniently sized package. The Inspire and Saber, sold in North America as the Acura TL, weren’t notably more exciting than the Legend, but they were less ponderous and much less expensive, which made them reasonably successful in the Japanese market.

In the U.S., both the Acura RL and TL also faced new competition from Honda dealers, which could finally offer a V-6 Accord. The Accord V-6, added for the 1995 model year, used the C27A engine, which Honda had continued to manufacture for Rover. (The late arrival of the Accord V-6, which bowed a year after the rest of the CD Accord line, makes us wonder if its introduction — or at least the timing of its introduction — was occasioned by BMW’s decision to switch senior Rover 800s to the KV6.) Updated for the latest U.S. emission standards, the Accord’s C27A4 V-6 had 170 hp SAE (127 kW) and 165 lb-ft (224 N-m) of torque and was mated only with a four-speed automatic.

1995 Honda Accord V-6 sedan rear 3q © 2005 Austin Delk (CC BY 2.0 Generic - modified by Aaron Severson)

The first V-6 Accord was nearly as big as the original Acura Legend and could be had with most of the same features for roughly $6,000 less (in real dollars) than the final 1991 Legend LS — and about $3,000 less than the five-cylinder Acura 2.5 TL. (Photo: “Photo 291” © 2005 Austin Delk; modified 2015 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license with modifications offered under the same license)

With the Accord V-6, it seemed Honda had finally given U.S. buyers what they’d wanted all along. Throughout the late nineties, the Accord remained one of the bestselling cars in the U.S. (although most sales were still of the cheaper and thriftier four-cylinder models) while the RL sank to around 15,000 units a year, less than half the average of either previous Legend. The bigger, blander Legend was also a marginal player in Japan and Europe, handicapped by high running costs and near-catastrophic depreciation.

THE AFTERMATH

The Rover 800’s successor finally debuted at the 1998 London Motorshow and went on sale in June 1999. Called Rover 75, a name borrowed from the earlier P3 and P4 — where the designation originally referred to bhp — the new car was an interesting if contrived attempt to revive the traditional comfort-oriented Rover formula. (It seems there’s nothing like foreign ownership to make a company self-conscious about its heritage.) It was not a great commercial success, hampered by heavy-handed retro styling cues, too much weight for the available engines, and the fact that no one was exactly crying out for a nouveau “Auntie” Rover. In 2001, a new MG version, the aggressive and extroverted MG ZT190, swung the pendulum too far in the opposite direction, earning critical respect but failing to convince buyers. Both versions have now expired, although their underpinnings have since been resurrected in China.

2001–04 Rover 75 Connoisseur sedan front 3q © 2010 OSX (PD - modified by Aaron Severson)

Auntie, indeed. In standard form, the Rover 75 was a deliberate throwback to the stodgy conservatism that characterized production Rovers before the P6, with proportions and styling that we would delicately call an acquired taste and a suspension tuned for leisure rather than sport. As the later MG ZT derivative demonstrated, there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the sophisticated chassis, but Rover Group’s former owners had presumably wanted to ensure no one would mistake the 75 for a serious BMW alternative. (Photo: “2001-2004 Rover 75 Connoisseur sedan” © 2010 OSX; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized and modified 2014 by Aaron Severson)

The Honda Legend/Acura 3.5 RL lingered into the new century with several rounds of minor changes, none of which reversed the downward sales spiral. In October 2004, Honda made a valiant attempt to revive interest with a more sophisticated platform; more power; Honda’s SH-AWD (Super Handling All-Wheel Drive) system; and a vast array of high-tech features, including available infrared night vision, radar cruise control, and Lane-Keeping Assist System.

The new Legend/RL (chassis code DBA-KB1) was better-looking and more technically interesting than before, which helped it win Japan’s 2005 Car of the Year Award, but the new model was at least 265 lb (120 kg) heavier than its already-portly predecessor and still had only a 3.5-liter (212 cu. in.) V-6 engine to contend with V-8 rivals. Sales improved a little — which wasn’t hard to do — but the big car remained a rare sight even after a 2008 makeover that added a larger 3,664 cc (224 cu. in.) engine. The Legend gradually disappeared from many European markets and was withdrawn from Japan in 2012, although a new Acura RLX arrived in North America in late 2013, continuing the previous formula, but adding a Sport Hybrid version. [Author’s note: Shortly after this article was published, Honda belatedly announced that a new Legend, similar to the RLX but offered only in Sport Hybrid form, would be introduced in the Japanese domestic market from January 2015.] Without a major sales turnaround, the current generation may well be the last.

2007 Honda Legend (KB1) sedan front 3q © 2007 Kārlis Dambrāns (CC BY 2.0 Generic - modified by Aaron Severson)

The KB1 Legend/RL’s 3,471 cc (212 cu. in.) J35A V-6 had 300 PS JIS (221 kW), but was peaky for a car of this weight despite variable valve timing and a variable-length intake manifold; torque output was 260 lb-ft (353 N-m) at 5,000 rpm. The 2008 3,664 cc (224 cu. in.) J37A had 273 lb-ft (370 N-m) (and 309 PS JIS/227 kW), but the updated KB2 Legend was also up to 130 lb (60 kg) heavier than the KB1. (Photo: “Honda Legend 2007 087” © 2007 Kārlis Dambrāns; modified 2014 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license with modifications offered under the same 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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