Fleet News

Rover 75

Review

##rover75.jpg --Right##ROVER'S new luxury saloon range will go into battle against the Audi A4, Alfa Romeo 156 and Mercedes-Benz C-class in mid-June, three months later than originally planned. Fleets will be offered the choice of two trim levels, Club and Connoisseur with special equipment pack options and four engines. On-the-road prices will be from £19,525 to £25,625. Order books are to be opened in March, and fleet demonstration models may arrive in May.

And in a welcome move announced at the 75's international press launch this week, a cut-price model, Classic, will be launched by the end of the year to bridge the gap between the new medium/upper medium Rover 400. The 'budget' 75 is likely to be pitched about £18,275.

The 75 comes with 15,000-mile service intervals and a promise to slash by up to half the forecast service, maintenance and repair costs of the 600. Rover is, for the time being, sticking with its standard 12-month, unlimited mileage warranty, although it has left the door open to a three-year warranty 'should there be sufficient customer demand'. Tom Purves, Rover Group sales and marketing director, said: 'I have never seen any research which shows warranty as being high on the list of buyers' priorities.'

Fleet operating costs will also be boosted by improved residual values over the 600 and 800 models with Rover claiming three-year/60,000 values of at least 40% of list price. However, CAP Monitor Research chief economist Mark Cowling said: 'Such a figure will depend on whether Rover can create a used car demand for the 75 and this will depend on the marketing plan which we haven't seen yet. If Rover can create a used demand there is the potential to achieve these residual figures. But some models in the range may struggle to reach them.'

Bill Carter, editor of Automobile Provision at Glass's Information Services, said: 'My gut reaction is that as long as Rover provides the right spec across the range and the build quality is good it should perform well in terms of residual values because of its high profile and its image as a make or break vehicle for the company.'

The launch of the 75 follows investment of about £700 million and new manufacturing facilities for the 75 at Cowley, Oxford accounted for some £400 million of BMW's £1.72 billion spend to put Rover on the right track for the millennium since the 1994 takeover.

Company executives may not admit it publicly, but the Rover 75 has just got to succeed. And key to its success is quality. Rover pledged at the 1998 British International Motor Show: 'Not a single car will leave our factory until we are sure the quality is right.' That pledge led BMW to send a team of 70 engineering specialists from Germany to help improve quality standards and speed up the 75's launch. The underlying message is that while the new Rover is intended to cash in on 'Britishness', at its heart are exacting German standards of engineering and build.

Those standards were evident on the cars rolled out for the press in Seville: the 75 has the dynamics to compete with the 3-series, C-class and A4, but it is in a 'softer', more gentle league in respect of driving characteristics. Key fleet customers will drive the 75 for the first time at the end of this month when 400 are taken to Spain. In addition other customers will have the opportunity to appraise the car in May.

Body stiffness matches the BMW 5-series - and that's two and a half times greater than that of a Rover 600. This rigidity gives the 75 greater stability on the road and higher crash protection. Crucially, it also contributes to consistency of panel fit and reduction of panel flexing to free it from squeaks and rattles. More than 90% of its steel body panels are zinc coated on both sides for optimum resistance to corrosion. Sound-deadening, chip-resistant coating is applied to the underside of the car along the sills, and the paintwork has a final clearcoat layer to help resist the effects of sunlight, acid rain, industrial fallout, bird droppings and insect residues.

Expanding foam acoustic seals have been used to insulate the cabin against road noise and vibrations. The same polyethylene copolymer also seals body cavities against the infiltration of water and dust. Component strength was also key to chassis engineering - along with the brief to produce a unique Rover chassis character with the ability to 'involve' the driver.

A Macpherson strut-type suspension is used at the front. Six rubber subframe mountings efficiently isolate suspension and powertrain vibrations from the bodyshell, and their positioning in front of as well as behind the front wheels means subframe movement under cornering is lateral, ruling out the rotational 'squirm' which can produce unwanted steer effects. Driven hard, though, there is mild understeer and a hint of body roll.

At the rear Rover has borrowed the Z-axle evolved for the BMW 3-series from the Z1 sports car, and engineered it to suit the 75's front-wheel-drive configuration. Each side of the Z-axle has an integrated trailing arm to provide toe-in control and counter brake-lift. Camber control is through upper and lower transverse arms. The engineers have come up trumps with the steering, too. A common complaint with hydraulically-assisted steering systems is lack of precision at high speeds, sacrificed for the sake of low-speed manoeuvrability. The 75 manages to contain its composure, precision and feedback at all speeds.

Shudder and vibration are noticeably absent through the steering column, a one-piece, energy-absorbing aluminium casting. In all variants tested, the impression is of quietness and comfort.

Hurl it into a series of sharp bends or stamp on the brakes at 70mph, drop the clutch at maximum revs, and the Rover 75 won't step out of line easily. It is designed to cope with occasional idiocies. But it is in normal every day driving that its handling will win most friends - and it retains it composure with all engine options. There is a hint of softness to the ride, but slushy - happily - it is not.

Petrol engines are Rover developed 1.8 four-cylinder, and 2.0 and 2.5-litre V6 units. The diesel is a derivative of BMW's 2.0-litre common rail. It is outstanding - quiet, thanks to a double bulkhead, torquey and refined. Surprisingly Rover says the 1.8-litre-engined 75 will be the best-seller - indicating perhaps that it expects the model to be more attractive at below boardroom and senior management level.

Most fleets will opt for the 1.8 engine because of price. Their drivers should not be disappointed. The four-cylinder engine delivers a good turn of speed, but does sound thrashy at high revs. As a cruiser, though, no complaints.

Both V6 engines take the Rover 75 into another league. They are smooth, refined, and sporty, although of the two we'd pick the 2.0-litre, as it doesn't fall far behind in performance and won't flex the fuel card quite so badly. As a grand tourer the 2.5 is best served by the five-speed automatic transmission than the manual. BMW's manual transmission supplier Getrag does the honours for the 75 (short throw, precision), and the Japanese Automatic Transmission Company (JATCO), in which Nissan has an interest is responsible for the three-mode five-speed auto.

But out of the four engines on offer, the diesel has most going for it: power, flexibility and economy. Whether this is available in June remains to be seen as there are suggestions higher specification petrol models will be first off the line. The 75 is good, but it isn't perfect. Reversing view is restricted because of the high tail and three rear head restraints. On two test cars (all the Seville 75s were pre-production) manual air conditioning was noisy and there was excessive wind rush from the A-pillar area at speeds above 60mph. My co-driver moaned about the shortness of the seat squabs. I complained every time our elbows clashed as he changed gear.

All 75s have four-channel ABS anti-lock brakes (discs all round) with electronic brake force distribution. Electrical traction control is an optional extra on the V6 and diesel engines. Side, driver and passenger airbags are standard. The steel wheels on the entry level Classic will be 15in fitted with 195/65 R15 tyres. Club and Connoisseur get 15in and 16in alloys respectively and there are 15in, 16in and 17in accessory alloy wheels for all models. The standard spare is a 4x16 steel space-saver. A full-size spare to match the main four can be specified.

The interior is a prime example of what is considered Britishness: a tasteful mix of fabrics, chrome, mouldings and veneers - acres of wood trim is standard alongside soft-touch slush-moulded plastics. Its piece de resistance is the instrument panel, in which the dials are classic off-white colour and oval. Even the clock is analogue rather than digital, integrated with LED displays, the arrangement may not be to everyone's taste. Conventional, modern dials would fit in just as well.

Across the range, the driver's seat reclines fully and can be adjusted for height, fore and aft movement and has two-way lumbar support. The range-topping Connoisseur has the same features but with electric operation. Seat trim on the Classic is Oxford velour, Club has speckled velour and the Connoisseur leather facings.

Information and comfort-enhancing equipment depends on model choice. Automatic air-conditioning is not standard on the Classic - that comes in with Club - and there is a lengthy accessories list allowing 'bespoke tailoring' with high (full colour mapping) and low line navigation systems, integrated telephone, cruise control, chrome kits, leather and so on.

This year about 50,000 75s will be built at Cowley, rising to 80,000 units in the first 12 months of which 80% will be sold in Europe. In so many areas Rover has got it right with the 75. Exterior styling is in the traditional mould (perhaps a mite bland to excite an Alfa Romeo fan), there's a sensible spread of power units, the interior makes best use of heritage, the driving experience is a pleasant one, and based on the press launch vehicles, quality seems up to the mark.

But at a price - £19,525 is a high starting point, although the Classic will go some way to take up where the 600 left off. As a further stop-gap a 2.0-litre V6 will be introduced in the 400 early next year. And there's another hurdle to jump: residuals. Immediate bullish predictions are unlikely given Rover's recent record.

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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