'But we were so successful in achieving our unified brand image that we have had an unprecedented number of calls from fleet managers and drivers who either have the 400 now and want to get hold of the new car, or from those who have Rover on their choice lists and are urging us to make every detail public now. This is too good an opportunity to win sales to hold back.' A crucial factor as well has been fleets' recognition that the 45 is now correctly positioned to compete in the lower medium segment and not facing the uphill struggle of try to compete against the Ford Mondeo and Vauxhall Vectra which dogged its predecessor, the 400. As such, Rover is confident the first deals would be made on the 45 'in the next couple of weeks'. The on-sale date, however, remains January 13.
Prices for the 45 match rivals in the highly-competitive lower medium segment dominated by the likes of the Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra and Volkswagen Golf. The 45 will cost from £11,995 for five-door models to £18,995 for the range-topping V6 saloon. Like the 25 and 75, all 45 models are covered by a three-year/60,000 mile warranty. All petrol-engined models have 15,000-mile service intervals, in order to reduce running costs, while diesels will need servicing after 12,000 miles.
The new 45 line-up spans seven engines, two - the 1.8 and 2.0-litre - with Steptronic transmission and the saloon takes the Classic, Club and Connoisseur derivations first seen in the 75.
The repositioning of the 45 out of the upper-medium and into the lower-medium segment is the Rover trump-card in persuading fleets to accept a car for the next three years until it bids adieu and together with its little brother the 25, is replaced by the R30. Rover insiders have admitted they were in trouble with the 400 the moment they claimed it could compete against the Ford Mondeo and Vauxhall Vectra. Now, Rover has seen the light and is pushing the 45 with a vengeance against the likes of the Vauxhall Astra and Ford Focus, offering its says a 'competitive package with a strong emphasis on refinement and luxury'.
But how does this translate in the 'bum on seat' experience? At the press launch of the 45, Fleet News tested the 2.0-litre diesel saloon and the 2.0-litre V6 five-speed Steptronic. Internally in both there was a mix of the old and the new. While Rover insists materials have been improved, it is not startlingly obvious as you look around. On the plus side the seating materials do feel of greater quality. The seats are supremely comfortable, thanks to the height and lumbar adjustment for driver and passenger, and provide a good driving position.
Build quality throughout is good, although opening the boot revealed metal on the inside of the lid has not been disguised, with holes and rough edges exposed. The 2.0-litre turbodiesel 45, with the uprated L-series engine, was a real surprise to drive. The conservative interior and familiar body shape give the impression that the driving experience will be less than sparkling. But with 177lb-ft of torque at just 2,000rpm acceleration is brisk and handling is precise, with minimum body-roll on bends. The driving experience easily competes with the Astra 2.0-litre Di and Focus 1.8-litre TDi.
The 2.0-litre V6 petrol saloon with the Steptronic gearbox is harder to pigeon-hole, having no contenders in its class. It's as gutsy as you can expect from a V6, with the novelty of the Steptronic system. Rover deserves to succeed in the fleet sector with the 45. Having accepted mistakes were made with its positioning and investing it with some tasteful elements of the 75 and a generous choice of engines, it should prove its worth. And too much emphasis shouldn't be placed on the less-than-inspiring interiors.
Price comparison between the 45 and the Focus and Astra is a mixed bag. The 45 1.4iE 16v five-door costs £12,295, while the Focus 1.4i 16v is £13,000 and the Astra Envoy 1.4i 16v £12,475. The 45 2.0TD iE is £13,295, compared to the Focus CL 1.8TDi at £13,500 and the Astra Envoy 2.0Di 16v £13,525. Higher up the range it is less clear-cut. The 45 1.6iS 16v is £13,795, losing out to the Zetec 1.6i 16v is £13,500 and the Astra LS 1.6i 16v is £13,645. Comparison of the saloon is more complex, since Ford only offers the Focus in Ghia spec. With a 1.6i 16v engine this costs £14,500. The 45 1.6 Classic is £14,695, while the Astra LS 1.6i saloon with air-con is £13,410.