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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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
Our sources for the development and history of the Legend, the Rover 800, and their antecedents and rivals included “A Brief History of the F31 Leopard/Infiniti M30,” F31Club, n.d., www.f31club. com, accessed 21 May 2014; “A Legend in the Making? 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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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