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.
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.
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 there 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.
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.
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.
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.
The Rover 800’s modest sales (and the fact that it was a direct competitor, albeit not a very threatening one, for the BMW 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 an 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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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 Rover 800’s successor finally debuted at the 1998 London Motor Show 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.
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.