Motor Show `98: Rover gears up its stylish 75 to take on prowling Jaguar S-type

AMID THE myriad new models to be seen at the NEC, two will draw the biggest crowds because they are British, and they strike right at the heart of what our motor industry means. They are the Rover 75 (which replaces the 600 and 800) and the Jaguar S-type.

These names might make you think you have suddenly stepped back 35 years or so, to a time when British roads were dominated by properly-British cars. But these resurrected badges now apply to a pair of cars which signal "retro-Brit" as a commercially potent art form.

It is significant that both cars are made by companies which are now in foreign hands - those companies' ultimate power centres being located in countries whose view of Britain as a giant heritage theme-park is not one which we ourselves would necessarily welcome. But, as a car-design language, retro-Brit's success seems guaranteed.

Rover is owned by BMW, and it's perhaps natural that BMW seeks to distance Rovers from BMWs by emphasising each brand's "national" characteristics. Rover turned from trad to avant-garde back in 1963 with the advanced 2000, and caused a real design-world stir with its daring 1976 SD1 (the big, usually V8, hatchback), but it subsequently toyed with radiator grilles and retro-tradition in order to make something identifiably old-Rover out of its later Honda-based cars. The ploy seemed to work, at least to the extent of creating a brand identity in Europe, so this approach, amplified and Honda-free, is to be Rover's future.

The 75, then, does not ooze futurism. But it has a big Rover front grille, four round headlamps under a slightly peaked bonnet (the one visual reference to the 2000), and a sloping, droopy tail with shades of both 1950s 75 and the Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph. And there's much chrome edging and accenting.

It's a smart, important-looking car, but staid. Has the staidness been applied late in the design stage? It's tempting to think so, because spy- shots of early styling proposals for project R40 (Rover's internal codename) showed a radical, almost stark car with bold sculptings and a chromeless facsimile of a Rover-like front grille shape. This would have been daring indeed, but what sort of image would it have portrayed?

Rover needs a strong image, otherwise there is no reason to buy a Rover instead of a BMW, an Audi, an Alfa Romeo, a Saab, or a Volvo. But that image cannot rest on wood, leather and chrome alone: the DNA has to be deeper than that. So the 75 has quite an adventurous interior, with oval dials and electronic gadgetry, and a suspension said by some insiders to place the 75 among the best front-wheel drive cars in the world for ride comfort and handling ability.

There is a choice of two Rover-designed V6 engines (2.0 and 2.5 litres) as well as a 1.8-litre four-cylinder (as used in the MGF) and the impressive BMW four-cylinder turbo-diesel already seen in the new-shape 3-series.

Shorn of Honda-derivative connotations, and imbued with a strong if contrived identity, the Rover should find a ready market - except for one rather large problem: if it is to make money, it's going to be expensive, especially abroad. BMW blames the strong pound, and although the 75 probably will not cause Rover to lose money, it might not generate the planned investment income Rover needs to fund its next new cars, beginning with the revised Mini and continuing with the 55 and the 35, which replace the 200 and the 400.

Already Rover has cut back on production and jobs at its Longbridge plant, which makes the current Mini, the Rover 200 and 400, and the MGF, and has turned to cheaper overseas suppliers for some components.

In short, Rover's finances are once again in a mess despite hopes that BMW's ownership would stop this happening. If the 75 ends up making no profit, it could be the last car (as opposed to off-roader) that Rover builds. It has to sell strongly to make money, but if it's priced too high, it won't sell. This is not a new conundrum, but seldom has its solution been more crucial.

Moreover, never have Rover's marketing gurus and advertising agencies had a trickier job on their hands: the re-invention of Rover as a convincingly desirable and prestigious marque. At least the raw material is promising, for the 75 looks to be the right car for the job, even if it is an odd size.

One of the Rover's strongest styling features is the drooping accent along the side. The Jaguar has one of these, too; it's the retro-Brit motif of the moment. The S-type is a little bigger than the Rover, however, and a head-on rival for BMW's 5-series. The styling posed a problem because it needed to look Jaguar-ish, youthful and sporty all at the same time. The naming was similarly fraught, because there was no logic within existing Jaguar nomenclature that could have suited Project X200.

Then history came up with the "S-type", which works well because the original S-type was a refined, re-engineered derivative of the Jaguar Mark 2 (made famous once again by TV's Inspector Morse) that made the company's reputation in the 1960s.

The new car shares with its predecessors an ovoid front grille, round headlamps, a curvy rear edge to the side windows and - like Rover - a sloping tail. Opinions will vary over the styling's success - personally, I think the attempt to finish the rounded lines with an XJ8-style rear end is an uncomfortable clash of influences - but the S-type should be delightful to drive.

Its underpinnings are shared with another forthcoming Ford-brokered product, the Lincoln LS, but everything is said to be set up and developed to make the S feel as a Jaguar should. Engines are the existing 4.0-litre V8 and a potent new 3.0-litre V6, based on a Ford cylinder block and crankshaft, but otherwise all Jaguar even though the engine is made in Cleveland, Ohio.

The car itself, whose trad-modern interior features the first production application of voice-activated controls for stereo, telephone and air- conditioning, is to be made at Jaguar's newly-expanded Castle Bromwich plant. In two years, it will be joined by a smaller, BMW 3-series-sized Jaguar (codenamed X400), which will be built at what is currently Ford's Escort factory at Halewood, near Liverpool.

The X400 will be a direct rival to the Rover 75, and with the S-type it will take Jaguar to sales volumes four times those of today. Will Rover survive this onslaught? Let's hope so.

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