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

Japanese cars have a reputation for appliance-like reliability, but are often criticized (fairly or not) for lacking character. Character is a quality of which British cars have rarely been short, but dependability is quite another matter. In the early eighties, Honda and Rover decided to collaborate on two shared-platform luxury cars that promised to bridge that gap: the 1986–1990 Honda / Acura Legend and 1986–1999 Rover 800 (a.k.a. Sterling 800). The long and complicated story of how that project came about and what became of it is our subject in this installment of Ate Up With Motor.

1989 Sterling 827SLi five-door Rover decklid badge © 2014 Aaron Severson

PROJECT XX

The British Leyland Motor Corporation — successively known as British Leyland, Austin-Rover Group, and finally Rover Group — was born in 1968 through the merger of BMC (Austin, Morris, MG, Jaguar, et al) and Leyland Motors (which among other things owned Triumph and Rover). Despite controlling a huge slice of the British market and a host of prestigious marques, the new corporation staggered through the early seventies, shedding market share and nearly collapsing before its 1975 nationalization.

British Leyland was still far from healthy by the late seventies. Storied brands were abandoned or left to rot because they were deemed low priorities or because BL simply didn’t have the money to keep them competitive. Build quality, never a strong point, sank to a low ebb while new products were delayed or canceled. New models that did appear seemed to have either come out of the oven too soon or else not soon enough.

1970 MGB roadster British Leyland fender badge © 2010 Aaron Severson

From 1968 until the early eighties, British Leyland encompassed much of the British motor industry, including not only automakers but also truck and bus manufacturers and a variety of automotive suppliers. (author photo)

One of British Leyland’s numerous product development headaches in this period was the Rover SD1. Launched in 1976, the SD1 was a charismatic executive car offering an appealing blend of performance and luxury, but it was hampered by persistent reliability woes and various minor design deficiencies, some of which were never really corrected.

As had become all too common, BL lacked the resources to develop a credible successor. By 1980–1981, the likeliest options were to re-skin the existing car (a project codenamed Bravo) or else replace it with a stretched version of the forthcoming Montego. Both plans smacked of desperation and it’s hard to envision either finding much success in the ferociously competitive executive car market of the mid-eighties. BL needed a better alternative.

Similar concerns had already led British Leyland to an agreement with Honda to produce licensed versions of the Honda Ballade (a restyled version of the Civic sedan). In the fall of 1981, Edwardes suggested to Honda president Kiyoshi Kawashima that BL and Honda collaborate on a new executive car, which would give the British the benefits of Honda’s technological expertise while ensuring that BL didn’t have to foot the entire bill.

According to Edwardes, Kawashima was initially hesitant, but Honda directors had already been contemplating such a move. The Honda Civic had been very successful, completing Honda’s recovery from a difficult period in the early seventies, and the Accord was doing extremely well in both the U.S. and Japan. Honda had recently added a second JDM sales network and was gradually expanding its offerings. A larger, more expensive model was a logical next step.

However, as Honda’s directors were well aware, the company’s automotive success to date had been based entirely on smaller cars. The four-door Accord, introduced in late 1977, had edged into the Toyota Carina/Nissan Stanza class, but Honda had nothing to offer in the larger, more prestigious segment represented by the popular Toyota Mark II/Chaser/Cressida and Nissan Laurel, much less a big luxury car like the Toyota Crown or Nissan Cedric/Gloria.

1985 Rover SD1 Vanden Plas front 3q © 2011 AlfvanBeem (PD CC0 1.0 - modified by Aaron Severson)

Borrowing its name from the coachbuilder Austin had acquired after the war, the Vanden Plas was the Rover SD1’s top trim level. By the end of the line, the Vanden Plas was available with the 2,597 cc (159 cu. in.) OHC six as well as the 3,528 cc (215 cu. in.) aluminum V-8 in either carbureted or fuel-injected forms. The SD1 was longer and wider than the later Rover 800 — 186.1 inches (4,730 mm) long and 69.6 inches (1,770mm) wide on a 110.8-inch (2,810mm) wheelbase — and was offered only as a five-door, a somewhat daring choice for the late seventies. (Photo: “1985 Rover Vanden Plas” © 2011 AlfvanBeem; dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, resized and modified 2014 by Aaron Severson)

Another consideration was the North American export market. Honda’s annual U.S. sales were rapidly approaching 400,000 units, more than 40% of the company’s total automotive volume, but the new Voluntary Restraint Agreement (VRA) between Japanese automakers and the Reagan administration would be a barrier to future growth until Honda could get its factory in Ohio online. In the meantime, Honda needed to focus on products that could sell for higher prices.

If Honda were to develop a bigger car, it made sense to collaborate with a partner more familiar with larger vehicles. As clever as Honda’s engineers were, they had no practical experience with the structural engineering of big executive cars; most of Honda’s water-cooled production models to that point had been essentially scaled-up or scaled-down versions of the original Civic. BL’s body engineering knowledge would be a definite asset and if nothing else, few companies knew more than British Leyland about what not to do in the executive class.

That November, Honda and British Leyland signed a letter of intent to jointly develop a new platform for two executive sedans codenamed XX and HX. That deal would be followed in 1983 by a production agreement for Austin Rover — as British Leyland was officially renamed in May 1982 — to build HX sedans for European sale and Honda to assemble “XX” Rovers for sale in Asia.

BRITAIN VS. JAPAN

There’s a common misconception that the XX — known in production as the Rover 800 — was a made-over or even badge-engineered Honda design. In fact, the project was jointly financed by both companies and developed collaboratively by engineers and designers who at some points worked side by side. While the HX and XX did have considerable commonality, the production cars were actually less alike than originally planned, sharing no exterior panels. Nonetheless, it would be fair to say that Honda was the more dominant partner and where there were disagreements, Honda got their way more often than not.

There was no disagreement about the cars’ drivetrain layout, which would use a front engine and front-wheel drive. This was not solely Honda’s idea; even if the XX deal had never happened, the only way Rover seriously envisioned retaining rear-wheel drive for its flagship was in the form of a carryover SD1 platform, and then only as a cost-saving measure. The general feeling in the late seventies and early eighties was that FF layouts were the way of the future, so many automakers were investing heavily in FWD. Most executive cars of the time were still RWD, but the success of Audi had demonstrated that FF cars could be competitive in that segment.

The real disagreements began with the new cars’ intended market position. British Leyland officials insisted early on that the XX not challenge Jaguar, which at the time was BL’s senior brand. Honda reluctantly accepted that dictum and development continued along those lines, but in mid-1984, after the HX and XX designs were more or less final, Jaguar regained its independence and Rover decided the XX needed to become a Jaguar XJ6 rival after all. That would be more easily said than done.

1983–85 Rover 213 side © 1985 Charles01 (PD)

While the Rover 800 was created as an SD1 successor, its closest conceptual predecessor was the 1983 Rover 200, an entry-level Rover based on the second-generation Honda Ballade sedan and using a mixture of Rover and Honda components. The Rover 213, which replaced the similar Triumph Acclaim (based on the previous-generation Ballade), shared the Civic 1300’s 1,342 cc (82 cu. in.) OHC engine while the more powerful 216 had a Rover engine. (Photo: “Rover 213 Jesus Lane” © 1985 Charles01, modified 2007 and 2010 by the photographer; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized 2014 by Aaron Severson)

Another point of contention concerned the dimensions of the shared platform. Honda wanted to sell the HX in the Japanese domestic market, where automobile taxes and fees are based on size, weight, and engine displacement. For the HX to have any chance of commercial viability in Japan, the cheaper versions needed to stay within the small car (“5-number”) class, which meant a maximum width of 66.9 inches (1,700 mm), a maximum overall length of 185 inches (4,700 mm), and an engine displacement not exceeding 2,000 cc (122 cu. in.).

Like most other Japanese automakers in that class, Honda planned to straddle the line: Cheaper grades would be in the small car class with a smaller engine, shorter bumpers, and narrower fenders, while higher trim levels (and export cars) would fall into the more expensive ordinary car (“3-number”) class. However, that strategy required the inner body shell — which the HX and XX were to share — to be narrower than Austin Rover designers and engineers would have preferred from either a styling or packaging standpoint.

The vagaries of Japanese tax law were hardly of Honda’s making, but a more philosophical dispute arose over suspension design. Honda’s seventies cars had all used MacPherson struts, but by the early eighties, Honda was becoming enamored of double wishbones, which would be used both front and rear on the new Accord and Vigor (chassis code E-CA), slated to bow a few months before the HX. Naturally, Honda wanted to use the same layout for the flagship HX, arguing that the superior geometry of double wishbones would provide more precise handling and a more comfortable ride while allowing a lower hood line and smaller frontal area.

1988 Honda Accord (CA) sedan front 3q © 2007 IFCAR (PD - modified by Aaron Severson)

The new CA Honda Accord and Vigor, launched in June 1985, won great critical acclaim for their technical sophistication, including four-wheel double wishbone suspension and, in some markets, four-wheel wheel disc brakes with ABS. North American Accords of this generation all had popup headlights and 1,955 cc (119 cu. in.) SOHC engines, but European cars and some late JDM sedans had fixed halogen lights and a variety of other engine options, including a 16-valve, twin-cam B20A shared with the contemporary Prelude. (Photo: “1988-Honda-Accord-Sedan” © 2007 IFCAR; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized and modified 2014 by Aaron Severson)

Austin Rover engineers (excepting those at Jaguar) were less enamored of double wishbones, maintaining that the theoretical advantages were not worth the tradeoffs. The British wanted to use struts and a beam axle, which A-R felt would provide perfectly adequate handling and better packaging at lower cost. Struts would mean a higher hood line, but would also provide greater wheel travel for a better ride on rough surfaces.

The difficulty with that approach, from Honda’s perspective, was that greater wheel travel requires firmer damping to maintain body control. Honda engineers also argued that struts suffered a high level of initial friction that made them inherently harsher than double wishbones over small bumps. Those were compromises to which Europeans were accustomed, but that many American and Japanese buyers perceived as too hard. The head of Honda’s R&D organization, Nobuhiko Kawamoto, later explained to the press that he’d deliberately sought to avoid giving the HX the stiff-legged feel of high-end German sedans.

The eventual compromise was to use double wishbones up front and struts in back. The front suspension was much like the Accord’s: an anti-roll bar, a lower control arm triangulated by a radius rod, an upper wishbone connected to a curved steering knuckle extension (which Honda called a twisted upper arm), and a strut-like coil-over shock absorber mounted between the inner fender and the lower control arm. In back, the coil spring was divorced from the strut and mounted on the lower control arm, which was triangulated by a trailing link and fitted with a rear anti-roll bar. Honda specified special reduced-friction rear dampers while the Rover used progressive-rate springs and, on senior models, BOGE Nivomat self-leveling struts like those offered on some SD1 models.

GO AND STOP

Along with their basic platform, the HX and XX would share a new Honda-designed, fuel-injected V-6. The open-deck, die-cast aluminum block had a 90-degree bank angle, which reduced engine height but required offset crank pins to provide even firing intervals. As was becoming customary Honda practice in this era, the heads had pentroof combustion chambers and four valves per cylinder. Unlike many early four-valve engines, Honda used only one belt-driven camshaft per bank, actuating the intake valves via rocker arms and the exhaust valves via short horizontal pushrods. Hydraulic lash adjusters eliminated the need for the routine valve adjustments required by most contemporary Honda fours.

Although the “C” block V-6 would be quite reliable in service, it was Honda’s first engine of this type and its development was troublesome. Durability problems prompted extensive redesign work in the summer of 1984 and the resulting increases in the engine’s exterior dimensions required last-minute styling changes for both the HX and XX. (We assume this was particularly galling to Austin Rover designers already frustrated by the earlier arguments about overall width, although Honda did pay for the additional work.)

1986 Rover 825 Sterling - Honda C25A engine © 2013 Tim Hunter (with permission)

The 2,493 cc (152 cu. in.) Honda C25A V-6 was widely criticized for lackluster low-speed torque, in part because it lacked the three-mode, dual-runner intake manifold fitted to the smaller C20A and later C27A engines. Japanese, North American, and Australian versions of the C25A engine had catalytic converters to meet local emissions standards, but markets like the U.K. (where unleaded gasoline was not widely available until a few years later) received a uncatalyzed C25A2 version with a higher compression ratio (9.6:1 versus 9.0:1 for catalyzed cars) and a bit more power. (Photo: “1986 Rover 825 Sterling 1990 Rover 827 Vitesse” © 2013 Tim Hunter; used with permission)

Honda had no interest in offering the HX with either a four-cylinder engine or a diesel, which Austin Rover would have eagerly supplied. Big Japanese cars did offer fours and/or diesels in the home market, but they went mainly to fleet buyers; the prestige market demanded six cylinders even for 5-number cars. To that end, Honda created two versions of the V-6: a 1,996 cc (122 cu. in.) C20A for the cheaper 5-number JDM grades and a 2,493 cc (152 cu. in.) C25A for 3-number and export cars. Save for bore and stroke, the two engines were very similar, but the C20A added a computer-controlled dual-runner intake manifold to boost low-end torque.

Senior Rovers would share the C25A, but the European market also demanded cheaper four-cylinder options. To that end, Austin Rover developed the M16 engine, a new DOHC, 16-valve version of the 1,994 cc (122 cu. in.) O-series four (itself a distant descendant of the old BMC B-series engine). With its iron block, the twin-cam M16 was only 35 lb (16 kg) lighter than the all-aluminum C25A.

All five-speed Rovers had Honda-designed gearboxes, but four-cylinder automatic cars had a four-speed ZF transmission while V-6 Rovers shared the new four-speed Honda automatic. The latter was an unusual two-shaft, constant-mesh transmission — more like an automated four-speed manual with a torque converter than a conventional planetary-gear automatic — with torque converter lockup in all gears but first to reduce slippage. Equal-length halfshafts were specified to reduce torque steer.

Both cars would have four-wheel disc brakes. In Japan, senior HX grades would use Honda’s peculiar two-channel antilock braking system, also available on some non-U.S. Accords and Preludes, but Austin Rover rejected that system, which had been roundly criticized in the British press for allowing one front wheel to lock if the other was still turning, and opted instead for a four-channel Bosch system. Honda, whose directors were philosophically resistant to licensing other companies’ technology unless absolutely necessary, decided not to offer ABS on export cars until the company’s new three-channel system was ready.

HONDA LEGEND

Due to supplier difficulties in the U.K., the HX bowed some seven months before the Rover version, debuting at the 1985 Tokyo auto show. The new sedan, which Honda boldly christened “Legend,” went on sale through the new Japanese-market Honda Clio network on November 23.

At launch, the JDM Honda Legend was available in three grades. The cheaper 5-number V6Zi and V6Gi (chassis code E-KA1) had the C20A engine, rated at 145 PS JIS (107 kW) and 123 lb-ft (168 N-m) of torque. The top-spec, 3-number V6Xi (E-KA2) had the C25A, which in Japan was rated at 165 PS (121 kW) and 156 lb-ft (211 N-m) of torque. Starting prices ranged from ¥2,480,000 to ¥3,135,000 (equivalent to about $12,000 to $16,000), which put the Legend in same realm as a six-cylinder Nissan Cedric or Toyota Crown. (For comparison, the most expensive JDM Accord listed for around ¥2 million at that point.) A stripped-down Legend V6Mi price-leader was added about a year after launch.

1986 Honda Legend 2.5 Xi (KA2) sedan © 2014 Rainmaker47 (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

An early KA2 Legend V6Xi in Honda’s collection. JDM Legends had a little more brightwork than export cars — note the chrome stripe through the front bumper — and used one-piece headlights and a different grille than early Acura-badged cars. (Photo: “Honda Legend Honda Collection Hall” © 2014 Rainmaker47; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

Honda recognized that they were not going to crack the stratified Japanese luxury market overnight and, unlike Toyota and Nissan rivals, the Legend would not have taxi and fleet sales to bolster sales volume. Initial sales target was a modest 1,500 units a month, and even that proved optimistic.

Japanese auto magazines like Jikayousha praised the JDM Legend for its impressively smooth engines, but even the 2.5-liter version had no surplus of torque and the Legend was heavy enough to make the smaller C20A feel gutless, particularly with the automatic that Japanese luxury car buyers preferred. Moreover, the Legend’s exterior styling was on the bland side and the cabin, though ergonomically excellent, seemed spartan and down-market next to the plush velour interiors of rivals like the Toyota Crown Royal Saloon. While the sleek, sophisticated new Accord and Vigor were standouts in their class, the Legend seemed too cautious for its own good.

THE BIRTH OF ACURA

Honda probably recognized that the Legend’s best hopes lay in the U.S., where the new model debuted in early 1986. In Japan, Honda was an upstart; in Europe, a foreign interloper. In the U.S., it was now a serious player. The latest Accord and Civic had been ecstatically received and the VRA restrictions had boosted transaction prices to enviable levels. Honda executives had some trepidation about offering a model as large or expensive as the Legend, but Honda could hardly have asked for a better moment to try.

Nonetheless, the executives of American Honda identified several potential flies in the ointment. The first and most obvious was brand credibility. American buyers liked Hondas, but it was still unclear if the goodwill Honda had developed in that realm would translate into higher price classes.

A second issue was the danger of demoting the Accord to second banana in the U.S. lineup. Even in Japan, where larger dimensions and a six-cylinder engine were enough to put a car into a distinctly different class, the Legend was perceived as being a little too similar to the Accord. That risk was particularly acute in the U.S., where the Legend was smaller than some cheaper domestic family sedans. American Honda was concerned that dealers would shift emphasis away from the company’s most popular model to a more expensive car that would not (and could) not sell in the same numbers.

1988–89 Acura Integra three-door front 3q © 2012 IFCAR (PD)

The first-generation Legend was accompanied in Acura showrooms by the compact Integra, a sporty four-cylinder hatchback sold in Japan as the Honda Quint Integra. The North American Integra was a solid commercial and critical success, although it was far from an obvious companion for the bigger, softer, and generally milder Legend. This U.S. car is actually a late (1988–1989) example, distinguishable by its restyled front airdam. (Photo: “1st Acura Integra — 03-31-2012” © 2012 IFCAR; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized 2014 by Aaron Severson)

A third concern was the size of Honda’s dealer network. Honda then had around 800 U.S. dealers, which wasn’t enough for the kind of volume the company was after. The simplest way to add more dealers without stepping on existing franchise holders’ toes was to set up a new dealer network with its own products. Honda and most other Japanese automakers had done that repeatedly in the home market, but in Japan, each network was clearly identified as a Honda channel (Honda Verno, Honda Clio, and so on). American Honda officials warned that the new U.S. network and its products should not carry the Honda name, which would do little to mitigate the brand credibility issues — not to mention courting trouble with local franchise laws.

Honda’s Japanese directors were resistant to this line of reasoning in no small part because they feared Soichiro Honda’s reaction. The company’s retired founder had little if any actual authority by then, but Soichiro was both outspoken and fearless, so failing to secure his blessing would have been imprudent as well as disrespectful. Fortunately, Soichiro responded with surprising equanimity, so Honda’s senior executive conceded the point.

The result was a new division called Acura, which opened its first 60 dealerships in March 1986. They initially had two products: the Legend sedan and the Integra, a sporty hatchback based on the Civic platform.

ACURA LEGEND

The first Acura Legend sedan was similar to the JDM Legend V6Xi, differing mostly in trim and equipment details (and of course having left-hand drive). The sole engine was the 2,493 cc (152 cu. in.) C25A1, which in U.S. form had SAE net ratings of 151 hp (113 kW) and 154 lb-ft (209 N-m) of torque.

1988 Acura Legend LS sedan front © 2008 Karl Schultz (with permission)

Export versions of the Legend were the same size as the “3-number” Japanese-market V6Xi, which was 68.1 inches (1,735 mm) wide and 54.7 inches (1,390 mm) high. The JDM “5-number” cars were the same height, but had a 0.4-inch (10mm) narrower track and narrower fenders that trimmed overall width to 66.7 inches (1,695 mm), just under the 66.9-inch (1,700mm) limit of the small car tax class. Note the two-piece headlamps, which were specific to early North American cars, as was the grille. Legends in other markets had one-piece halogen lights, which were added to Acura Legends for 1989. (Photo: “IMG_0332” © 2008 Karl Schultz; used with permission)

The Legend’s starting price with manual transmission and destination charge was $2 shy of the $20,000 mark, making the Legend the most expensive Japanese car ever offered in the U.S. As was Honda’s U.S. practice, there were no factory options; even Legends with automatic transmission were listed as separate models.

Despite its Acura badge, boxy flared fenders, rectangular grille, and exposed halogen headlights, the Legend was unmistakably a Honda and bore a clear stylistic relationship to the Accord. The Legend drove like the contemporary Accord, too. Ultimate handling limits were nothing special, but road manners were quite polished despite the soft springs. The Legend also had a plush ride at legal speeds, although rough pavement showed up the relatively flaccid damping and the fact that the suspension provided less wheel travel than some European rivals. The Legend’s biggest dynamic flaw was the speed-sensitive power steering, which was over-light at low speeds and then weighted up in abrupt, noticeable steps.

With the slick five-speed gearbox, most U.S. testers bettered Honda’s official 9.2-second 0–62 mph (0–100 km/h) time by a half-second or so and equaled or exceeded the claimed 126 mph (203 km/h) top speed, competitive for the time. Even with manual transmission, however, the C25A didn’t have a lot of grunt at lower engine speeds. The added multiplication of the automatic’s torque converter helped, but Legends with automatic were notably slower than manually shifted cars; Honda quoted 10.2 seconds for the automatic Legend’s 0–62 mph (0–100 km/h) sprint. Testers found the automatic Legend could nearly equal the manually shifted car’s unrestricted top speed, but, as on the contemporary Accord, the automatic tended to be both indecisive and jerky.

1988 Acura Legend LS sedan side © 2008 Karl Schultz (with permission)

All first-generation Legends (and early Rover 800s) rode a 108.7-inch (2,760mm) wheelbase. Export and 3-number Legends were 189.4 inches (4,810 mm) long, but the 5-number JDM cars, with shorter bumpers, were only 184.7 inches (4,690 mm) overall, again for tax classification reasons. Note the gap between the front wheel and the wheelhouse: In stock form, the Legend had 7.1 inches (180 mm) of front wheel travel, about an inch (25 mm) less than an E28 5-Series BMW and 1.7 inches (40 mm) less than the E32 7-Series released in mid-1986. Although the Legend was often criticized for its lack of suspension travel, the owner of this car later elected to lower it about 2 inches (51 mm) for autocross duty. (Photo: “IMG_0334” © 2008 Karl Schultz; used with permission)

Even so, most U.S. critics were pleased with the Legend, if not quite as rapturous as they had been about the new Accord. Some complained that the Legend wasn’t much fun to drive, but reviewers generally respected that Honda had deliberately chosen a middle ground between American and European luxury car standards. The Legend couldn’t match the performance, solidity, or snob appeal of a Mercedes 300E or BMW 535i, but in the U.S., the Acura was more than $10,000 cheaper than either. Its most direct rivals were the Audi 5000, Saab 9000, and Volvo 700-Series, against which the Acura could offer a six-cylinder engine (something that at that time only the Volvo 760 could match) and Honda-style quality and reliability in a class not noted for trouble-free ownership experiences.

The Legend had also obvious appeal to Honda owners. Had it been introduced five years earlier, it might have greeted with puzzlement, but now there were people lining up to pay full list price or more for a $13,000 Accord and some of those buyers were more than happy to spend still more for a bigger, fancier version. Acura sold around 25,000 Legends in 1986, almost 55,000 in 1987, and more than 70,000 in 1988. However, while officials boasted of strong conquest sales, we can’t help thinking that Honda could have sold nearly as many Legends if they’d been branded as super deluxe V-6 Accords.

1988 Acura Legend LS sedan rear © 2008 Karl Schultz (with permission)

The North American Acura Legend received only very minor cosmetic changes throughout its life. This is actually a 1988 Acura Legend, retaining the rear strut suspension and original exterior, but with the new 2.7-liter (163 cu. in.) C27A1 V-6. Starting in 1988, Acura Legends were offered in several trim levels with different standard equipment, in keeping with American Honda’s no-factory-options policy; the LS was the top trim level, with leather upholstery and Honda’s three-channel ABS. One easy way to identify North American Legends, at least from the rear, is the center high-mounted stop light (CHMSL), added to meet a new U.S. safety requirement. (Photo: “IMG_0358” © 2008 Karl Schultz; used with permission)

ROVER 800

The Rover 800 debuted in the U.K. in July 1986, shortly after Austin Rover changed its name to Rover Group.

As with the SD1 a decade earlier, Rover launched the 800 with the largest, most powerful engine: in this case, the Honda V-6. With a manual gearbox, the uncatalyzed C25A2 had 173 PS DIN (127 kW) and 160 lb-ft (217 N-m) of torque. Automatic cars had a different cam that reduced peak power to 167 PS DIN (123 kW), but provided slightly more torque — 163 lb-ft (221 N-m) — at lower RPM. Cars for certain export markets, including Australia, retained the catalyst and were rated at 150 PS DIN (110 kW) and 153 lb-ft (207 N-m) of torque. (Those figures, incidentally, make us question Honda’s JDM power ratings, which although ostensibly net figures seem rather generous.)

1986 Rover 825 Sterling front 3q and 1991 Rover Vitesse front 3q © 2013 Tim Hunter (with permission)

Early Rover 800s are now thin on the ground; this 1986 Rover Sterling (foreground) is the oldest still on British roads. The car behind it is one of the final pre-facelift cars, a 1991 Vitesse fastback. The early 800 was a bit smaller than the contemporary Legend in most dimensions and looks notably crisper. Rover claimed a Cd of 0.32, very good for the time. In Sterling form, the early four-door weighed around 3,150 lb (1,430 kg) with a full tank of fuel, roughly the same as a 2.5-liter Legend. (Photo: “1986 Rover 825 Sterling 1990 Rover 827 Vitesse” © 2013 Tim Hunter; used with permission)

Initially, Rover offered two grades: the 825i and the top-of-the-line Sterling, which had leather upholstery, self-leveling rear struts, power seats, sunroof, alloy wheels, and Bosch ABS, most of which were optional on the 825i. Both grades were expensive; although the 800 was assembled in Cowley, its dependence on components imported from Japan undoubtedly did its price no favors. In the U.K., the 825i started at nearly £16,000 (about $23,500) with tax and the Sterling added another £3,000 (about $4,400) on top of that. In the U.K., either was more than a BMW 528i SE and the Sterling was priced very close to the Mercedes 300E.

Perhaps the Rover’s bitterest rival in the British market was the new Jaguar XJ40, a car with which the 800 was not originally supposed to compete. The Rover was better equipped than the Jaguar, but that didn’t really soften the blow of the 800’s list price, which was actually higher than that of the XJ6 3.6, a bigger car with 50 more horsepower (38 kW) than the V-6 Rover. The fact that the government-owned Rover Group had produced a luxury car more expensive than the latest product of the re-privatized Jaguar went over poorly with the British press and didn’t endear Rover to the Tories, who had unhappily inherited the nationalized automaker from the previous Labour government.

1986 Rover 825 Sterling rear 3q and 1991 Rover Vitesse rear 3q © 2013 Tim Hunter (with permission)

At 184.8 inches (4,694 mm) overall, the Rover 800 was only fractionally longer than 5-number JDM Honda Legends, although it was wider (68.1 inches/1,730 mm) and a bit taller (55 inches/1,398 mm) on an identical wheelbase. V-6 Rover 800s had 15-inch wheels rather than the 14-inch wheels on early JDM cars, but air conditioning, standard on Japanese Legends, was an expensive option on the Rover. (Photo: “1986 Rover 825 Sterling 1990 Rover 827 Vitesse” © 2013 Tim Hunter; used with permission)

In general, the V-6 Rover drove much like the Legend did. (The uncatalyzed engine’s extra power appears to have had little effect on performance, presumably because torque output was little changed.) There was cautious praise for the Rover’s handling and smooth-road ride, but even the most generous European critics complained that the Rover’s firmer damping wasn’t enough to keep the car off the bump stops over rough surfaces, particularly at higher speeds. There were persistent complaints about inadequate suspension travel and the numb power steering, which some reviewers thought spoiled the handling. Mostly, though, the 800 was branded with that most damning of road tester epithets: bland.

Considering the 800’s Japanese roots — of which testers were well aware — that was predictable and to some extent a matter of taste. More worrisome was the 800’s haphazard build quality, which suggested that not all of the SD1’s gremlins had yet been banished. (On the other hand, Jaguar had nothing to brag about in that department either, but those shortcomings had failed to noticeably dampen British critics’ initial enthusiasm for the XJ40.)

1987 Rover Sterling dashboard © 2009 M. Mobarak (with permission)

The Rover 800 didn’t share the Legend’s dashboard and, particularly in Sterling trim, offered a richer ambiance that Honda only came close to emulating on later JDM Exclusive models. The Rover instrument panel also featured full instrumentation while the Legend’s ancillary gauges were limited to fuel level and water temperature. (Photo: “Rover 825 Sterling Cabin” © 2009 M. Mobarak; used with permission)

The 800’s bigger problem was that the luster of the Rover brand had been fading for some time and the 800 simply wasn’t exciting enough to restore that shine. In some ways, the new car was superior to the SD1 it replaced, but critics had wanted to like the SD1, whereas many of the plaudits the 800 received were guarded and grudging. Had it enjoyed the sort of price advantage the U.S.-market Legend did, the 800 might have been received more charitably, but against the formidable competition, Rover was asking too much for too little.

Much the same could be said of the European Honda Legend, which arrived in late 1986. The Legend had little price advantage over the Rover (in Germany, the Honda was actually more expensive), offered fewer features, and had even less appeal for status seekers. The Legend’s softer ride won few friends among European testers, and even Germany’s auto, motor und sport preferred the Rover’s wood and leather to the comparatively dour Honda cabin.

1990 Acura Legend sedan interior/dashboard © 2007 Hey Paul (CC BY 2.0 Generic)

The first-generation Legend sedan’s cabin was well-assembled and ergonomically sound, but not that fancy. Leather upholstery became available about a year after launch and later in the run, senior grades could be dressed up with wood interior trim, but the four-door Legend’s interior was not as rich as some European rivals or as flashy as many Japanese ones. Acura-badged cars had a minor interior restyling for 1989, including a standard driver’s airbag. (Photo: “car2” © 2007 Hey Paul; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

The Legend’s main advantage was noticeably better assembly quality than the Rover’s. Although European Legends were also built in Cowley, Honda took the sensible precaution of establishing its own U.K. inspection center in Swindon to correct defects before shipping cars to dealers. For many European buyers, that wasn’t worth the sacrifice in brand prestige or the loss of items like ABS, compounded by the unavailability of more economical, affordable engine options.

LEGEND COUPE

Both Honda and Rover were interested in offering coupe versions of the XX and HX, but the two companies decided to go their own ways on the two-door models. Rover showed a flashy, futuristic concept car called CCV at the 1986 Turin show, months before the launch of the 800, but Honda would be the first to put a coupe into production.

The Honda Legend coupe (chassis code E-KA3) arrived at Japanese Clio stores in February 1987. The coupe had all-new exterior panels and was shorter, lower, and more aerodynamic than the sedan, with a claimed drag coefficient of 0.30. Coupes also had a new dashboard and distinct interior trim.

1987 Honda Legend Coupe 2.7i front 3q © 2014 mangopulp2008 (with permission - modified by Aaron Severson)

The KA3 Legend coupe was 0.8 inches (20 mm) lower than the sedan and had a smaller frontal area with a lower drag coefficient. How much lower is debatable. Honda claimed a Cd of 0.32 for the four-door Legend, the same as the Rover 800, but Rover engineers alleged that the Legend sedan’s actual Cd was more like 0.35. The 800 sedan looks sleeker than the Legend, but appearances can be deceiving; the bluff-looking Lexus LS400/Toyota Celsior had a lower Cd than either the Legend or the 800. (Photo: “1989 Honda Legend 2.7i immaculate and rare car in UK” © 2014 mangopulp2008; used with permission)

The coupe had some structural differences as well, in part to accommodate a new double wishbone rear suspension. Predictably, this was similar to the Accord’s: a trailing arm, two unequal-length lower lateral links, a twisted upper arm, and a single upper lateral link; a rear anti-roll bar was retained, but was 18% thicker than the sedan’s. The front suspension was similar to the Legend sedan’s, although the mounting points were altered and a larger front anti-roll bar was now connected with ball joints. Coupes also had firmer damping, bigger disc brakes, and wider tires on 15-inch wheels. Honda’s new three-channel ABS was standard on JDM coupes and optional elsewhere.

The revised chassis was accompanied by a new 2,675 cc (163 cu. in.) C27A engine with a dual-runner intake manifold like the C20A’s. On JDM cars, the C27A1 was rated at 180 PS JIS (132 kW) and 166 lb-ft (226 N-m) of torque; Honda said 85% of maximum torque was available from 1,500 rpm, providing much-improved low-speed muscle. In Japan, the bigger engine was offered only with a new dual-mode, electronically controlled four-speed automatic. Honda claimed the new engine and transmission trimmed 0.8 seconds from the sedan’s 0–62 mph (0–100 km/h) acceleration time. Export cars could also be ordered with the same five-speed manual gearbox offered the 2.5-liter sedans, which made the coupe capable of 0–60 mph (0–97 km/h) in around 8 seconds and a top speed of more than 130 mph (210 km/h).

1989 Honda Legend coupe 2.7i interior © 2014 mangopulp2008 (with permission)

The two-door Honda Legend had a distinct interior with camphor wood trim on the console, which also featured a motorized concealer panel for the manual climate controls. The later JDM Exclusive trim level added additional wood trim on the instrument panel and doors plus various dress-up options seldom seen on export cars. Leather upholstery was an extra-cost option in most markets, although it was relatively common. (Photo: “1989 Honda Legend 2.7i immaculate and rare car in UK” © 2014 mangopulp2008; used with permission)

Unlike the sedan, the JDM Legend coupe was offered only in a single well-equipped 3-number grade with the C27A1 engine and a hefty ¥3,850,000 price tag (around $21,500). Later in the year, Honda added a new Exclusive grade, which cost an additional ¥280,000 (about $1,600). Either grade actually cost more than a Toyota Soarer 3.0GT, which had substantially more power and greater prestige.

The two-door Legend was sleeker, faster, and sportier than the sedan, helping to endear the coupe even to British critics who’d been ho-hum about the four-door. Although the coupe was actually more expensive than the sedan — an Acura Legend LS coupe with leather and driver-side airbag listed for about $27,000 in the U.S. and the equivalent Honda-badged car cost £24,000 in the U.K. — the two-door Legend was cheaper than rivals from BMW or Mercedes.

1989 Honda Legend coupe 2.7i rear 3q © 2014 mangopulp2008 (with permission - modified by Aaron Severson)

In Japan, Honda marketed the two-door Legend as a hardtop, and from this view, it’s easy to see why. (Two- and four-door hardtops were very popular in Japan in the late eighties, although only a few were actually pillarless.) All KA3 Legend coupes were 188 inches (4,775 mm) long on a 106.5-inch (2,705mm) wheelbase, 68.7 inches (1,745 mm) wide, and 54 inches (1,370 mm) high — Honda didn’t bother with a smaller 5-number version — and were slightly heavier than the equivalent sedan. (Photo: “1989 Honda Legend 2.7i immaculate and rare car in UK” © 2014 mangopulp2008; used with permission)

Legend sedans initially retained the smaller engine, but the C27A replaced the C25A on export Legends and the JDM V6Xi (chassis code E-KA4) in September 1987 and on V-6 Rovers in early 1988. The bigger engine was accompanied by the new automatic, although most non-JDM cars could still be ordered with manual transmission. Legend sedans also gained three-channel ABS, optional leather upholstery, and, in some markets, the airbag.

ROVER FASTBACK AND VITESSE

Four-cylinder Rover 800s were previewed at the 800’s press introduction in 1986 and began arriving at dealers later in the year. First up was the 820i, which had the M16i engine with 140 PS DIN (103 kW) and 131 lb-ft (178 N-m) of torque. A five-speed 820i gave away little to the automatic 825i in straight-line performance, was more economical, had slightly better steering feel (thanks to a different TRW Cam Gears power steering system), and was significantly cheaper, albeit still on the pricey side for this class.

In early 1987, the 820i was joined by the 820E, which had less equipment and a simpler single-point injection system that reduced output to 120 PS (88 kW) and 119 lb-ft (161 N-m) of torque. Surprisingly, the 820E’s real-world performance wasn’t far behind that of the 820i, whose advantage was mostly at higher engine speeds. By mid-1988, there would also be an even cheaper 820 price-leader powered by the carbureted O-Series engine, here making only 100 PS (74 kW). The 820 was noisier and slower than the injected cars and wasn’t substantially less expensive.

1989 Sterling 827SLi five-door - Honda C27A engine © 2014 Aaron Severson

The Honda C27A V-6 engine, seen here in a U.S.-spec 1989 Sterling 827SLi. Honda (and later Rover) quoted the same output figures for the JDM C27A1 and the uncatalyzed European C27A2 — odd considering that uncatalyzed export cars were almost certainly more powerful — and 169 PS DIN (124 kW) and 167 lb-ft (226 N-m) of torque for catalyzed European engines. The U.S. version was rated at 161 hp SAE (120 kW) and 162 lb-ft (220 N-m) of torque. The variation had little impact on performance, the similarity in torque proving more significant than the difference in horsepower. (author photo)

The 800 coupe was still years away, but in 1988, Rover introduced a new five-door body, which the company called a fastback. Although the SD1 had been offered only as a five-door, Rover approached the 800 fastback with trepidation because the British executive car market of the mid-eighties was still ambivalent about hatchbacks. Those fears proved unfounded; the fastback 800 sold well in the U.K. and Europe.

Although the five-door was offered with the same engine options as the sedan (and eventually the same trim choices as well), there was also a new performance-oriented Vitesse model, reviving a badge previously used on the SD1. The Vitesse had equipment comparable to the Sterling’s, but added 205/60VR15 tires, a stiffer suspension, and bigger disc brakes, plus the obligatory spoilers and ground effects. Power came from the same 2.7-liter (163 cu. in.) V-6 as the latest 827i and Sterling.

The Vitesse drew mixed reactions from automotive critics. British testers appreciated the firmer damping (which some American reviewers found unduly harsh), but the overall handling balance was little changed and the steering was as lifeless as ever. Reviewers still mourning the old V-8 Vitesse also bemoaned the new car’s comparatively lackluster torque.

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

Although it wears a Rover tail badge, this car is actually a LHD Sterling 827SLi, with longer bumpers that bring its overall length to 188.8 inches (4,796 mm), 4 inches (102 mm) longer than the European car. (author photo)

The specter of the old Vitesse was probably the new car’s greatest enemy. The SD1 Vitesse was flawed, but critics had always been fond of its booming V-8 and well-tuned live-axle chassis, which represented a novel alternative to the high-end Germans. The new Vitesse remained a middle-of-the-road car that desperately needed some defining virtue to stand out in a crowded pack.

To some extent, the rest of the line still suffered the same problem, although by the time the fastback was introduced, the 800’s fortunes were steadily improving. Rover’s early export efforts had been hampered by the senior models’ high running costs — the V-6 was an expensive proposition in many European markets — while the early cars’ poor repair record had scared British fleet buyers. The addition of the cheaper four-cylinder models helped and by 1988, reliability had improved enough for Rover to make inroads in the important British company car market. In 1989, the 800 briefly displaced the Ford Granada Scorpio as Great Britain’s bestselling executive car, due mainly to sales to business users. The Rover still wasn’t a compelling choice for private buyers, but for fleet customers concerned about benefit-in-kind tax, four-cylinder 800s were a decent value.

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

The five-door Rover 800 was versatile as well as sporty-looking, although its utility was compromised by the narrow load opening, bulky rear strut towers, and one-piece folding rear seat. A split-folding rear seat was added with the 1992 facelift. (author photo)

By this time, Rover was no longer a ward of the state. The company had finally returned to profitability in 1987, but by March 1988, the government had arranged to sell Rover Group to the aviation firm British Aerospace.

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)

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)

The irony of the Legend story is that in some ways, the one to benefit most from the early American success of the Acura Legend was Toyota. The first Lexus LS400 was an exceptional car, but Toyota would have had a much harder time establishing the credibility of Lexus in the U.S. market if Acura hadn’t been there first. That isn’t to say Honda got nothing out of the experiment: Acura sales crossed the 100,000-unit mark in the brand’s second year and remained above that line into the 21st century. True, many of those sales were of the cheaper Integra, but the original Legend sold more than half a million copies in five years.

As for the Rover 800, it sold more than 317,000 units over its protracted life — fewer than Rover had hoped, but certainly not a complete rout. The old Rover P6 had done only slightly better in a similar span of time even though the P6 had spent the first half of its life with only one serious competitor. We also think the 800 was probably a better car than anything Rover could realistically have afforded to develop without Honda’s involvement. Even so, the 800 isn’t remembered as fondly as its predecessors and will probably be forever haunted by its Japanese origins: in the U.K. for being too Japanese and in the U.S. for not being Japanese enough.

The unfortunate thing is that both the Legend and the Rover 800 could have been considerably more successful had Honda and Rover been able to better integrate their respective strengths. The idea of a luxury sedan combining British character and road manners with Japanese reliability, assembly quality, and technology is still an appealing one. Had the two companies been able to build on that formula, they could have given the Germans and Lexus a real run for their money.

For that matter, Honda would have stood a good chance of challenging Toyota and Nissan (if not necessarily BMW and Mercedes-Benz) in the luxury car league had the second-generation Legend been less plain-vanilla. The conservative route was probably the right choice for the Accord, at least for North America, but in the luxury arena, Honda chose to coast when they needed to climb.

# # #

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS AND AUTHOR’S NOTE

The author would like to thank Dan Sherman (owner of the white Sterling), Alan Chang, Tim Hunter, Erik Langerak, ‘mangopulp2008,’ and Karl Schultz for their assistance with this article.

In the interests of full disclosure, your author has never owned a Legend, but has owned both a Honda Accord and Honda Prelude of similar vintage.


NOTES ON SOURCES

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The online dictionary Jisho (jisho.org) was also a big help in deciphering Japanese-language information.

Some historical exchange rate data came from Lawrence H. Officer, “Exchange Rates Between the United States Dollar and Forty-one Currencies” (2011, MeasuringWorth, http://www.measuringworth.org/exchangeglobal/, used with permission). Exchange rate values cited in the text represent the approximate dollar equivalency of prices in non-U.S. currencies, not contemporary U.S. suggested retail prices, which are cited separately. Please note that all equivalencies cited herein are approximate and are provided solely for the reader’s general reference — this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!


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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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