This post marks my 500th published contribution to this hallowed web address, and as a very indulgent celebratory gift to myself I thought I’d run a full review of my own car. If any of you ever harbour unclean thoughts about owning a 1997 Rover 825 as a daily driver, the below will either encourage or discourage you. Read on and find out which applies in your case.
Of course, we all know the 800 is a spent force these days, appealing now to a very select minority and really only for reasons of morbid curiosity. By the end of its production run the 800 was bought new mostly by xenophobic businessmen and pensioners with British Leyland fixations, and the sphere of attraction has not broadened since then. But I still drive one, and I’ve not been sectioned for the good of humanity just yet, so there must be some appeal, surely?
Well I certainly think so. Let’s consider my argument for its defence.
Design and Styling
In 1986 Rover ushered in its new flagship, dethroning the SD1 as the King of Austin Rover after a decade-long reign. It’s probably true to say that it took ten years before they got the SD1 right, at the death the Vitesse model still had a huge amount to recommend itself. But progress is a cruel mistress and Austin-Rover were pinning their hopes for the future on co-operation with Honda. The 800 series was the third fruit of their alliance, and in many ways the most ambitious yet.
Sharp, pointy and wedgy on its introduction, the clean-cut shape had fallen somewhat out of vogue around 1992, when it received a major styling overhaul. The “improvements” visited upon the 800 addressed some of its long-standing criticisms; a slightly twee chrome grille made for greater car-park distinction and the flat bonnet surface was outed for a more restful looking, curved pressing. The motoring press roundly applauded Rover’s efforts, but to my eyes the refreshments sent the car spiralling back in time to an era before Rover tried to become progressive.
The fact that the last 800s weren’t road registered until 1999 is a bit of an historic indictment, as I’ll no doubt mention again and again throughout this piece. Suffice to say, the 800 looked, in 1999, like a car they really should have stopped building several years ago. As a 1997 car, mine is one of those which subjectively speaking looks decidedly dated when parked next to an Audi A6 or BMW 5-Series of the day. But it had a Chrome Grille, which was all important to those people who still had wing-back chairs in their sitting rooms and would still salute the National Anthem at the end of the day’s TV broadcasting.
Drivetrain and Configuration:
As you all know, probably because I’ve mentioned it so many times, flagship, V6 powered 800s have enjoyed several different engines over the years. Initially the 825 featured Honda’s 2.5 litre unit, (Rover brochures never mentioned the Honda name, but the PGM-FI labels clear in all engine photos rather gave the game away), but after a torrent of complaints about the engines rather peaky and restless nature it was replaced by a 2.7 litre version. This did the car quite nicely until somewhere around 1995.
At that point 827 became 825 again, but Honda engines were banished. In their place Rover confidently unveiled their own, quad cam 2.5 litre 24v V6 engine, developing 175 hp. They named it KV6, as it was in essence a V6 version of the legendary K-Series engine. Of course, certain of you may recall an association between K Series engines and head gasket failure. Well, this time it was even better, because there were two of them to worry about.
Mine has the KV6 linked to a manual clutch and five speed gearbox, a pretty rare (and probably ill-advised) combination. The vast majority sold seem to have been automatics. I wonder if there’s a reason for that?
The suspension was one of the areas that Honda had the most influence over when the 800 was developed. Hence the 800 ended up with double wishbones at the front and an “independent” strut system with trailing arms and trailing links out back, a hitherto pretty un-Rover configuration. Vitesse models enjoyed uprated and lowered “sports suspension”.
On other models the spring and damper settings were calibrated using settings based on a recipe for Angel Food Cake that a member of the senior Rover board’s wife came up with, and which was felt to have exactly the right degree of give to it when she used caster sugar instead of regular granulated. Bushings were made from blancmange and all the many ball-joints were formed from dumpling mix with just the right amount of golden syrup. Assembled in its final configuration it offered ride and handling of unparalleled puddingyness.
Accommodation and Travelling
The Rover 800 is a car of slightly odd proportions. It’s a comparatively long car, just about too much for my garage to handle unless I remove the workbench, which isn’t really a satisfactory solution. Yet it’s also quite narrow, which is a hangover from the Honda design tie-in where the Legend had to conform to certain Japanese width restrictions which were totally irrelevant elsewhere. So in the richly velour-lined cabin of the 800 you get an impression of longitudinal spaciousness yet lateral claustrophobia.
You’re thankful for the existence of the armrests on the doors and above the cassette box (Cassette!) as your arms WILL spend a lot of time in contact with them, there’s nowhere else for them to go. The door panels are quite thin, too, which also restricts the amount of breathing space left for door-mounted speakers which doesn’t do the hi-fi acoustics any favours whatsoever.
Headroom is ample (If I fit in, you shouldn’t have a problem) and legroom is pretty generous. I have to have my seat right back on the runners, but somebody can still fit behind me without legs akimbo. Those in the back benefit from their own ashtray (but no lighter) and a lack of reading lights, though blanking panels are supplied so they can imagine what the higher-trim models might have been like.
The seats are actually very comfy, being surprisingly firmly sprung. They’re not as big as you might imagine them to be, though, another issue bought on by narrowness.
The ride quality is likely to feel alien to anybody who’s never travelled 800 before. At motorway speed (77mph) the car floats above the deck with nothing to acknowledge ground contact whatsoever, until you hit an expansion joint or some other imperfection, at which point an exaggerated thump will pass through the whole body of the car. It’s a feeling of underspringing and overdamping; a kind of violent wooziness.
My car holds the record for the shortest time ever taken for my wife to feel car-sick. Less than a mile. Remarkable.
Cockpit and Driver Appeal
The instrument pack is less comprehensive on later 800s than on earlier ones, following the mysterious deletion of the volt-meter and oil temperature gauges. The trip meter and odometer are still of archaic rotating-drum style, like the tape meter on your 1982 Sansui deck.
It’s all clear and legible, though. In fact, ergonomically the cockpit is far from disastrous. All the controls are grouped around the instrument cluster; the contrastingly advanced HVAC controls are an extension of the binnacle itself and there is a remote for the stereo as a column stalk. Everything you need to routinely fiddle with is within a hands span of the wheel.
The dashboard itself has evolved uneasily from its original 1986 design. The hardpoints are as they ever were, but things have gotten messier as years passed. There are no fewer than four typeface fonts on display before you get to the stereo which introduces another three. The amount of chunky GENUINE wood panelling has increased and imposition of a passenger airbag on the dashboard has done away with the previously fitted (and also very useful and rather attractive) shelf. However, it’s fun to consider how many of the components would later find homes in the P38A Range Rover and the first Freelander.
Also, and fairly bizarrely, the clock in late models was downgraded from earlier machines. In the ’80s you could have an actual fuel computer with instant / overall economy, then that was replaced by a basic electroluminescent digital clock and then, ultimately, to a rather severe looking analogue affair way down on the centre console in the middle of a slab of walnut veneer. Progress, eh?
The Rover 800 is a barge. Long, fairly low and quite floppily set up, it does everything in its own, unique way. And I mean everything.
The KV6 engine is one of the the most refined, muted, smooth V6s ever to hit the market. Unfortunately, you wonder if all this silence is achieved through the total elimination of torque. Drive the car in a non-extreme manner and watching the speedometer needle arc gradually around the dial feels like a long, drawn out affair. So you change tack and give it full beans, but then you have the gearbox to worry about.
You see, the gearing is somewhat novel. There are five gears to choose from and the box seems to be as far from close-ratio as is possible. Rather than the usual pattern of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 the gears on offer here run thus: Half, third, three and a half, sixth, eighth. This makes high-speed cruising an absolute doddle but hoofing down country lanes where frequent gearchanges are prudent for rapid ground-coverage becomes a bit of an intellectual challenge; you find yourself hypothesising as to which is the best ratio before you commit and bring the revs down too far.
You’re potentially out of luck if you choose the wrong cog, as gearshifts can be a pretty laborious affair. The synchromesh on this box, at age 18, is among the slowest and most dull-witted I’ve ever experienced. Gearchanges often baulk, forcing me to double-clutch and then try again. The clutch is far more speedy in operation, but the pedal movement between engaged and disengaged is very brief, so beginners will kangaroo alarmingly on first acquaintance.
Actually, even experts will suffer a similarly marsupial experience when in traffic; a strangeness in the fuel injection system means that the rev sector just above tickover seems prone to surging, meaning you can’t really trickle along in heavy traffic by letting the car idle in first gear. You’ll instead hop down the road in a series of embarrassing bounds.
If you leapt into one of these after driving, say, another car, you’ll probably go straight out and fall off the road. Steering response and turn-in is rather less forthcoming than you’re probably used to. The answer is simply to always dial in an extra eighth of a turn of lock than you expect to. The steering itself is actually pretty direct, well assisted and accurate, but a large amount of steering moment is absorbed by tyre sidewall flex. Get the hang of this and threading the 800 quickly along your favourite country route is a strangely rewarding experience.
In fact; if you happen to be in the right gear at the right time, in the right rev range, take off is quite unnaturally brisk. Just ask the guy in the A4 S-Line Tdi who tried to pass me on the inside this morning.
In 1986 the 800 was marketed as a British alternative to certain BMWs and Mercedes; a luxury saloon car that was a cut above the rest of the volume offerings from Ford, Vauxhall et al. It hit the target pretty well; offering an enjoyable alternative which managed to feel high-tech yet still hold true to the core Rover values of bits of polished wood and nice deep carpets.
After the initial teething troubles were worked out of the system, the motoring press began to hold the 800 in pretty high regard, and they often scored well in group tests. That was the late ’80s.
Of course, my car was built in the late 90’s, when the same meat ‘n veg recipe didn’t look half as appetizing at a time when the executive car market was becoming flooded with nouvelle cuisine. By then the market had moved on somewhat.
There is no way I can say, heart on heart, that the 825 is genuinely a good car and still hold onto any credibility I might have somehow gathered as a motoring writer and car enthusiast.
The Rover 825 is a wonderful car.
In objective terms, in statistical testing, in comparison with any one of its major rivals of the time the rover 800 would be absolutely annihilated. The Rover was so entirely out of tune with its time as to be almost laughable. In 1997 people wanted clean-cut interiors with open-plan loft living style appointments, not deep tufted velour with blue piping and an overall Victorian parlour theme. People wanted sophisticated integrated electronics, not a 1980’s core with endless additions daisy-chained clunkily on. People wanted “Sports” handling, whatever that was. Really, people wanted German cars. Good German cars.
The only way to find the appeal of the 800 is if you look at it as a single entity, completely divorced from all its rivals at the time. If you think of it, in essence that was the actual situation back in ’97 anyway. It’s simply nothing like any of the competition, for better or for worse. No, for worse.
This one used to be my Grandfather’s car, but I’m way past keeping it on the road for sentimental reasons. I keep it on the road because I simply love driving it.
I love the way the bow stands up and the stern hunkers down like some grossly overpowered speedboat when you throw the throttle open. I love, love, love the noise it makes, the most unexpectedly invigorating howl you ever heard from a V6 in an executive car. It makes me want to take every tunnel twice with the windows open.
I love the fact that my Audi, which is only a year or so newer, feels like it comes from some point in the distant future by comparison with the Rover. In fact, the Audi, a ’98 B5, feels like it’s on the same page as its rivals. You can weigh it up against the E36 and the W202 and measure its strengths and weaknesses, because it was just another car of that era.
The Rover 800 was emphatically NOT just another car of the era. It was, in hindsight, far more specialist than that. Yes, it was much worse, but somehow much more memorable. It exudes character, personality, texture. It has huge limitations in terms of what it can actually do, but every hobbling, limping manoeuvre it makes is so rich in feel and sensation that it somehow feels like an event.
I love the way that it can still be wound up to substantially illegal speeds, while I’m luxuriating in my air-conditioned sanctuary. I love that, miraculously, it can still return 34mpg on a motorway run. Moreover, there are personal things about this particular example. I love the way that I know exactly which notes from a CD played faithfully by the Phillips changer in the boot will cause breakup in the rather tired rear speakers. I love that the immobilizer is a bit flaky and every now and again rejects the remote control key fob. I then have to turn the key in the drivers door lock four to the right, three to the left, two to the right and then seven to the left to get the engine started. Like safebreaking. Great fun on a rainy day.
I love that I know my way around the engine bay and have had the inlet manifold and huge piles of other debris off and then back on again without losing a single bolt.
When I had a Nissan GT-R for a weekend, I found myself experiencing no less pleasure on the Monday when I reverted to the Rover than I had enjoyed in the Japanese projectile. My dirty weekend with the Nissan had been like trying a different kind of sex to normal, but I kind of like the way my wife and I usually do it, anyway. Likewise when I joined a bunch of actual journalists on the Civic Type-R launch this year. I had a lot of fun. A LOT of fun. But I felt strangely smug about what was waiting for me after the chartered jet ride home.
When I’m old and wealthy (on my to-do list) I pledge to still have the Rover alongside the Quattroporte and inevitable Jensen; not because it’s good but because I like it. At some time I will no doubt have my Dad’s 540i off him. That’s a fantastic car, all E39s are. But they’re ONLY brilliant. That’s not enough to warrant a place in my heart. Same with the GT-R which impressed me to the core and gave me impure thoughts, but of lust, not love.
The 825 and I. We’re both as bad as each other.
(All images copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2015. See you in another 500 posts)