MOTORING / Not the wildest of Rovers: It looks good and runs fast, but is the 216 a real coupe? John Fordham finds out

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The Independent Culture
THE ROVER company has been getting itself into the papers a lot lately. Not all the coverage has been what you might call positive, but any publicity is undoubtedly better than none - particularly at a time when it is probably easier to sell Disney World tickets to Saddam Hussein than to sell a car to the world's despairing ex-consumers.

Last month, it was revealed, Rover brought the full weight of the law to bear on a company making pooper-scoopers - also called Rover - forcing it to call its product Fido instead. This was followed by news that Rover had become the market leader in the implausible pre-Christmas 'recovery'.

But this was not quite the breakthrough it seemed. As Autocar & Motor magazine disclosed earlier this month, the company had redrawn the graph by selling 4,000 Rover 200 models to its own employees in December at a hefty discount. But the Rover 800 luxury model has been doing well without assistance, and the Land-Rover even better - showing that quality counts.

Improved figures must have been a boost for a company that has struggled in recent years to get its products right. Structurally troubled since the break-up of Leyland, but increasingly imaginative in building a complete product range - from superminis to limos - Rover is facing a turbulent 1993. This autumn could see a takeover or buyout by any one of several American or European rivals, the last link in a chain of events that goes back to 1988.

It was then that British Aerospace was virtually handed an 80 per cent stake on the cheap. Honda has the other 20 per cent. The only promise BAe had to keep was that, if it sold again within five years, it would pay cash penalties. That is why John Cahill, the BAe chairman, swears blind that he is going to hang on to it. But that could change dramatically once the deadline has passed next autumn. Rover staff hope for a management buyout, perhaps assisted by Honda. The upswing in the company's fortunes makes this outcome more likely than it was before.

It is also fascinating to speculate on why Rover is the vehicle manufacturer anxious punters turn to as they re-emerge blinking into the streets, blowing dust off their chequebooks. Could it be that Rover, still perceived as British despite Honda's 20 per cent stake and a reliance on Honda and Peugeot parts, embodies a tattered kind of consumer nationalism with its famous badge, reputation for quality, and bits of polished woodwork?

Rover has also been festooning the hoardings with pictures of its sportier models in track and rally guise - showing that a a long-time favourite of Rotary Club chairmen can dance a bit, too. Despite all this, Rover's flagship car - the 220i Turbo - has not had a comfortable ride in the press. It has been criticised for its unnerving marriage of a vast engine to unpredictable handling, as if a maker unused to extremes hasn't yet worked out how to build a car that can cope with that much power.

The more modest Rover coupe, the 216, is quite another story. It exudes authentic Rover virtues without suggesting over-ambition. The 216 is attractive to look at and smooth as silk to drive, if a bit of a screamer when pressed. It is well-built, has a sprightlier performance than expected for its engine size and holds the road encouragingly. But it isn't so much a true coupe as a budget-priced sportster whose performance is more cosmetic than real.

And if you are not getting real coupe fun out of it, are the sacrifices in leg-room and headroom worth it? The price is a big compensation. The Rover coupe is not much more than pounds 14,500, which is very competitive with the rest of the market.

The test Rover was the automatic, a version with even less appeal to genuine enthusiasts. But this is not an enthusiast's car with more modest performance and a manageable price tag; it is an everyday car with sporting chic that looks good and runs breezily - and that is how it has to be assessed.

With the Honda engine displacing only 1,590cc, you can expect something of a high, whirring, food-blender noise if you wind it up. (In the automatic version driven here, though, the gearbox obstructs that unless you are really determined to pursue it.) The handling is fine because the car is not overpowered for its chassis; it grips well and hardly rolls, though the suspension lets you know all about the state of city roads. The steering is not especially informative.

The brake design is another indication that Rover does not think of this car as fast. It has a mixture of disc brakes at the front and drums at the back, and there is no standard anti-lock system (ABS). Although the brakes are perfectly secure in heavy applications, the pedal feel softens - which reduces the subjective sensation of confidence.

This coupe is not a hatch, so there is a boot lid - and a letterbox of an aperture it is too. The cabin interior is well-finished, as Rovers generally are, though you might find the single curved strip of walnut veneer on the facia and nowhere else a bit of a token gesture toward Olde Worlde Rover values. Head-room and leg-room are definitely at the lower end of the comfort scale. On balance, though, this is a nicely built, subjectively lively and good-looking car. It is aiming at a lucrative market of affluent younger buyers for whom this kind of style, coming in at pounds 3,000-pounds 5,000 less than coupe averages, will be highly desirable.-

AUTO BIOGRAPHY

Getting to know the Rover 216 coupe in 0-60 seconds

GOING PLACES: Whirry but effective 16-valve four-cylinder engine, producing 111 bhp at 6,300 revs per minute; 0-60 mph in 11.2 seconds (nearly two seconds slower than the manual version); top speed 118 mph.

STAYING ALIVE: Good build quality; good active safety in performance and handling; collapsible steering, but no standard ABS braking; fidgety on bad surfaces and rather inert steering.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Not many, because the dimensions cramp the legs and the head for taller people. Driving position not ideally adjustable, but the T-bar sunroof turns it into a virtual convertible in summer.

BANGS PER BUCK: Power steering, glass sunroof with T-bar, remote central locking, alarm, electric front windows, 50/50 split folding rear set, 4-speaker stereo, alloy wheels. Fuel consumption, around 27mpg in town, 32mpg at constant motorway speeds.

STAR QUALITY: Eye-catching body styling, modest price (pounds 14,500), lively Honda engine.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Poor visibility, especially trying to see out of a small side window around a big headrest; lack of headroom and legroom. Anti-lock (ABS) braking nearly pounds 1,000 extra.

AND ON MY RIGHT . . . Vauxhall Calibra 2.0i (pounds 15,000) - bigger, punchier, noisier, better suspension; Mazda MX3 1.8 (pounds 15,500) - more idiosyncratic styling (though bulbous for some), innovative V6 engine, more luggage room.

(Photograph omitted)

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