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.)
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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 on 2.5-liter sedans, which made the coupe capable of 0–60 mph (0–97 km/h) in around 8 seconds with a top speed of more than 130 mph (210 km/h).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.