MOTORING / Auto Biography: The Rover 623 GSi in 0-60 seconds

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The Independent Culture
SOMEBODY at Rover Cars must be a student of the works of Pavlov, and not just because the company is named after a dog. Rovers still trigger just about the only reassuring, sentimental reflexes Brit-car buffs can experience these days - certainly in non-Aston Martin Virage territory. They live up to expectations - even though they are as Japanese as raw fish underneath.

Two weeks ago this column concluded that this year's Honda Accord 2.0-litre was competent but bland. Isn't the Rover 600 series - launched to great acclaim this summer, and using the same Honda mechanical parts - simply the same car in a different suit? Well . . . yes . . . But it's a pretty exclusive suit.

The unique virtues of this machine certainly lie in the cosmetics. But if the pattern of contemporary motor manufacture is towards widespread sharing of components, this is nothing to be ashamed of. Indeed, it may be the best you can get at affordable prices.

In the 623 GSi model, the trimmings satisfied whatever nostalgia for traditional British auto- building remains. More substantially, they met the highest standards the industry currently sets. Open the door, and catch that powerful perfume of well-fed leather. Ease in and see your reflection in the mirror-finish burr of the walnut fillets in the door-trims and on the fascia. Unlike BMWs, with their rather severe, businesslike grey leathercloth trim and minimal frills, this Rover flaunts restrained hedonism.

The Rover 600 series has been the most successful creation to have left Coventry since the Honda partnership began, though it is more comprehensively a Honda in construction than its predecessors - a Honda rolling chassis in fact, on to which Rover has built its own body. But the combination makes a special car out of elements unremarkable in themselves. Despite its Japanese roots, it's the closest thing to a British BMW so far conceived; it even shares a good deal of that manufacturer's crouching flair and elegance of detail, gaining the edge in such delicate touches as the slim chrome trim around the rear numberplate.

The Honda engine (in 2.3-litre form here) is quick, quiet and makes a Mondeo, for instance - for all its briskness - sound like a chainsaw. The automatic shift fitted to this car glides through the changes, and the handling is very good - if not in BMW's class for eagerness. Like the Honda Accord, this Rover opts for cosier springing than some of its rivals, which takes the edge off its cornering aplomb. But for sheer refinement and class at prices between pounds 14,000 and pounds 22,000, you have to look hard for rivals.

GOING PLACES: One of the sharpest and smoothest four-cylinder engines in the business, delivering 0-60mph in 9.5 secs and similar 50-70 overtaking speeds with the auto box kickdown - but without harshness, excessive noise or soft spots in the power band. Auto gearbox similarly smooth in operation.

STAYING ALIVE: Very competent handling from the Honda chassis, if not quite responsive enough or flat enough on corners for keen drivers. Speed-sensitive power steering isn't too sloppy at low speeds, but lacks road feel. Safety features include driver's side airbag and anti- lock braking on this model, though not on the cheaper 620s. Ride subtly comfortable on all but boneshaking potholes. Brakes excellent; side-impact bars standard; visibility OK.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Air conditioning; leather seats and steering wheel rim; deep-pile carpets; auto-reverse stereo; electric windows, mirrors and tilt/slide sunroof all standard on this top-range model. Good headroom and rear legroom for the class, comparable to those of the Honda Accord. Driver's seat-height adjustment standard on this model, but not on any 620 other than the GSi.

BANGS PER BUCK: Alloy wheels; remote central locking with alarm; power steering; anti-lock brakes; electric windows; sunroof and mirrors all standard on 623 GSi. Fuel consumption not bad for the performance and the automatic gearbox at 23.6mpg in town, approx 35mpg at legal motorway limits. Price: pounds 21,995.

STAR QUALITY: Superb-looking machine, with flowing body design, subtlety of detail and excellent luxury-class cabin. More inviting than a BMW inside, less conservative than a Mercedes. Even the more basic entry-level models use furnishing materials in much more considered and considerate ways. What you also get is quiet, reliable Honda performance.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Too close to Honda compromises in handling feel, slightly clouding its sports saloon image. But only slightly.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Ford Mondeo 2.0 Ghia (pounds 17,895) - uncivilised engine by comparison, and not so roomy, but now-legendary handling and integrated feel; Honda Accord 2.0 (pounds 15,145) - virtually identical chassis though smaller engine, dull in appearance and interior; BMW 320i (pounds 20,380) - more cramped, not so refined inside, but sharper performance and immaculate steering responses.

(Photograph omitted)

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