Motoring: The Rover's return

Road Test: The new 75 could finally give Rover access to the premier league.

This is the rebirth of Rover, the beginning of a new era for the company." If I had pounds 10 for every time a Rover executive had uttered those words at a press conference, I'd have enough money to mount a takeover bid for the firm.

"Crucial new model", "developed without compromise", "proof that Britain can build a world beater"... They were all there - the cliches, the rallying cries. Some things never change.

But fortunately for Rover, some things do change, and the quality of the engineering is one of them. The new 75 is an extremely competent car that deserves to sell well. It is classy, mature and genteel, and should appeal to people who want a quality car but not the Flash Harry badge that can go with it. If BMW is Versace and Audi is Hugo Boss, then the Rover 75 is Austin Reed or top-range M&S.

In some ways, it genuinely does represent a new beginning for Rover. It is the first car developed since the BMW takeover of 1994, and is the first Rover for 20 years that is not just a rebodied, re-engineered Honda. It does use some BMW kit, including much of the electronics, the manual gearbox and the turbo-diesel engine. In other ways, it is all new.

The 75 follows the plan of BMW's boss Bernd Pischetsrieder for Rover to "make cheaper Jaguars". On the whole, it feels like a smaller Jag saloon. It is a soothing car, not a sports car; a stately car, not a sensational car; an understated machine, not a head-turner.

It is aimed at the BMW 3-series and the Audi A4 (small, prestige cars, in other words) and the top-end tinselled Mondeos, Passats and Vectras. Mid-size Volvos and Saabs are also a target. It is a touch shorter than the BMW 5-series, and a tad bigger than a Mondeo. The styling has many traditional Rover cues - chrome strip down the side, chrome quarter-bumpers, chrome sills, chrome rear number-plate surround and chrome door-handles.

The nose is a little Euro-generic and dull, yet the rump is more fetching, being rather Bentley Continental R-like. A Rover PR man called it "tight-arsed", before accepting that that wasn't the best description.

Nor are "tight-arsed" people likely to be queuing up to buy it. The 75 is priced above Passats and Mondeos, in keeping with Rover's desire to be seen as a premium brand.

The cabin has a deep plank of curved walnut for a dash, large lounge- chair seats and quality carpet. The cabin is not particularly roomy: rear legroom is tight, and the rear seat has been shaped for two occupants only. The overall effect is very olde-worlde England. I'm not convinced about the oval, white-faced `Art Deco' instruments, which are harder to read than conventional ware. Yet, on the whole, the cabin has an air of civilised gentility.

The ride is soft, and can be a bit floaty over undulating roads. Yet the handling is sharp, and the steering feels good. Four engines are on offer: two V6s (2.0 litre and 2.5), a 1.8-litre four-cylinder model (the cheapest 75), and the BMW-made turbo-diesel, which boasts a "common rail" fuel injection to improve refinement. The best two engines are the diesel and the top-range 2.5. The diesel is quiet and refined on long runs and amazingly frugal - you should be able to average 50mpg. It is probably the best diesel engine in the world.

The 2.5 V6 auto is the choice, though. A luxury car needs automatic transmission, and the Japanese five-speed autobox mates well with the British-built V6. The 75 2.5 litre V6 auto is a car which Jaguar owners, wishing to downsize, could live happily with. It will also represent a strong challenge to Jaguar's new S-type V6, which hits the showroom just before the Rover.

Deliveries of the 75 begin in June - a couple of months later than Rover had hoped. Cars won't leave the factory until BMW standards are achieved, they vow.

I hope they're right, because the quality of the cars at the press launch wasn't good enough. Bits of trim fell off some, and many models had high levels of wind noise.

Quite why sub-standard cars were being evaluated by the world's press is a question which Rover's bosses might like to dwell on. If they blow the launch of the 75 - fundamentally the best Rover in years - then they really do deserve the wrath of the market.

SPECIFICATIONS

Make and model: Rover 75 2.5 V6 Connoisseur pounds 24,025 (cheapest 75 model is the 1.8 Classic, at pounds 18,275).

Engine: 2497cc, V6, 24 valves, 177 bhp at 6500 rpm. Transmission: Five- speed automatic or five-speed manual gearbox.

Performance: (Automatic) maximum speed 134mph, 0-60mph in 8.9 seconds.

rivals

Audi A4 2.4 SE pounds 24,862. Smaller and more cramped than the 75. Modern looks and a bullet-proof build quality.

BMW 323i SE pounds 24,770. Sportier, faster and smaller than the 75.

Ford Mondeo 2.5 V6 Ghia pounds 18,680. Much cheaper than the 75, but performance as good. Feels less luxurious.

Volkswagen Passat 1.8T 20V SE pounds 18,855. Attractive alternative to the Rover. Handsome, roomy and terrific value. Turbo engine very brisk.

Volvo S70 2.5T pounds 23,855. An ageing car soon to be replaced. Yet it's tough and safe, and recent styling upgrades give it a modern feel.

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