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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: UX Consultant

    £35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be working with a 8 st...

    Recruitment Genius: Part-time Editor

    £8000 - £12000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A unique opportunity has arisen ...

    Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Executive

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An exceptional opportunity has arisen for a pa...

    Recruitment Genius: Kitchen and Bathroom Installers

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This provider of designer kitch...

    Day In a Page

    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border