How does Rover's new mid-size saloon compare with the competition? John Simister reports
Now available as a saloon, Rover's 400-series has gained an individuality the hatchback version has lacked.

The Rover 400 saloon, says its maker, is the definitive 400. So what does that make the hatchback version, launched last year with an Escort- sized body yet aimed at buyers of Mondeo-sized cars? A mistake? It's all very baffling, and there are rumoured to be some marketing folk at Rover with small, round, bloodstained holes in their feet and a smell of gunpowder all around.

The best thing is to abandon attempts to define precisely where the Rover 400 range sits in the market, and simply assess it as a car. What we have with the 400 saloon is a car that no longer looks like the rebadged, titivated and Rover-engined Honda Civic that is the hatchback version's curriculum vitae, but a well-proportioned, good-looking mid-size saloon which, especially with the range-crowning 2.0-litre, 16-valve engine, looks to be an enticing package.

Of course, there's also the slightly larger 600 saloon, a car on whose toes the 400 is bound to tread. But the 600 is more expensive for a given engine size. As we shall see, that's not the only way in which it is upstaged by the newcomer.

The 400 saloon range starts with a 1.6-litre engine and encompasses a turbodiesel, but the most alluring is the 2.0-litre which, in middling- to-high SLI trim, costs pounds 15,895. This engine is Rover's own, the 136bhp, T16 unit first used in the big 800. And why shouldn't it be? Well, the remnants of Rover's former Honda connection persist, and the hatchback version of the 400 is fundamentally a Roverised, overpriced version of the Honda Civic five-door. That's why Rover has had a hard time convincing people it's something grander.

As a booted saloon, however, the 400 has its own identity. The boot part is Rover's design, the whole car has sufficient size and presence to pass muster as a Mondeo-sized machine, and were it not for the shape of the doors you wouldn't think Honda at all. At least, you wouldn't until you open the door and find a facia that is Honda Civic in origin and desperately dull in execution. This is a shame, because the rest of the interior is a homely, upmarket place with paisley-pattern seat trim, high-quality materials and a lot of wood veneer. Except that it isn't wood, but a convincing imitation. Dear me, there goes another chunk of integrity.

Inevitably, given its origins, the 400 isn't as roomy as some of its intended rivals, but it's adequate for four full-size adults. Those in the front have shiny stainless-steel door-sill plates to step over, but those in the back are denied this pleasure. What was that about integrity? Some of this is salvaged with a superb paint finish and some rather smart seven-spoke alloy wheels.

More is salvaged when you set off down the road, for the 420 SLi saloon - that is the simplest way to identify this version, even though it merely says 400 on the tail - is an enjoyable drive. Its engine pulls smoothly and strongly, emitting a sporty bark if you exercise it hard, and long- legged gearing makes it a quiet motorway cruiser. It's unusually economical, too, given its size and pace. That high gearing - the 420 can do 94mph in third gear - means you use the lower gears quite a lot during spirited driving, but the engine's spread of power means it's seldom caught gasping for breath between gear changes. These are executed with a pleasingly precise action, but the downside is some snatch in traffic as you come on and off the accelerator.

Where the 420 outsmarts the 600 is in the way it clings to corners and soaks up bumps. Its ride is extremely supple and quiet, yet it steers precisely, grips strongly and strings a series of bends together with fine composure. Progress is more serene than in the joggling 600. The 420 is well equipped, too, with two airbags, anti-lock brakes and a fiddly- to-tune, bass-heavy stereo.

PEUGEOT 406 SRi 2.0

With less perceived prestige but more space, Peugeot's 406 ia a rational alternative to the Rover. And it has an armoury of hidden talents ...

While the 400 saloon is slightly smaller than the class average, as defined by a Ford Mondeo or a high-status BMW 3-series, the crisply drawn, wedge-shaped Peugeot 406 is slightly larger. It shows straight away in the extra width inside the cabin. And although the Peugeot has no prestige pretensions, unlike the BMW-wannabe Rover, it feels just as solid and is built out of similarly high-quality materials.

This might bring on a wry smile in anyone who has lived with a typically rattly, flimsy Peugeot 405, but the new 406 is a much more substantial car. Its cabin is quieter than that of any rival, Rover included, and its combination of a cosseting ride and inspiring handling is bettered by no one. Very good as the Rover is in these dynamic areas, it can't quite match the sheer fluidity of the Peugeot on a twisty road, the way it ties the terrain together with such economy of effort from, and helpful communication with, the driver.

Eulogy over. The 406's engine is a dull thing after the Rover's, virtually as powerful but giving little sign of that fact.

It does an adequate job and makes commendably little noise in the process, but it's more of a tool than an instrument. Nor is the interior trim as tasteful as the Rover's, this SRi version, which is intended to have a slightly sporty mien, being trimmed in grey velour with diagonal red slashes. It's cheerful, but a bit gauche. We have some imitation wood in here, too, but it's incidental embellishment without the hollow, heritage-heavy earnestness of the Rover's decor.

Neat features include a stalk on the steering column with which to control the stereo, and a rain sensor on the windscreen which, when you set the wipers to intermittent mode, triggers the wipers when they're actually needed, instead of at regular intervals.

You don't get alloy wheels for your pounds 15,355, but you do get the same safety equipment as you'll find in the Rover.

THE VERDICT

There's something rather nouveau riche about the Rover. It has cultured airs and graces, but they're skin-deep only, a veneer to cover an uncertain and cosmopolitan lineage. To lard it with notions of traditional Britishness and Rover heritage is to mislead, for it is simply an expedient agglomeration of available parts.

That said, taken on its merits, it makes an agreeable whole. It is fun to drive, fast and very comfortable. It's well-made, too, and if you cast cynicism aside, it even looks appealing. Size apart, it's a more satisfying car than the bigger Rover 600, though less elegant than that uncommonly handsome car.

But more satisfying than the Peugeot 406? It is not. Nor is anything else of similar capability and cost. The 406 is the complete car, able to do all the important things with complete competence and giving you a great time in the process. It isn't burdened with the Rover's upmarket aspirations, but it's every bit as much of a quality job. You could say that the Peugeot 406 is a car at ease with itself. And it makes its occupants feel that way, too.

THE BEST OF THE REST

Citroen Xantia 2.0 SX pounds 15,285: smooth, handsome, refreshingly different.

Ford Mondeo 2.0 Ghia pounds 15,550: lively, fun to drive, not so refined.

Renault Laguna 2.0 16V RTi pounds 15,665: feels fluid, looks dramatic, sounds too busy.

Volvo S40 2.0 SE pounds 15,550: good-looking with clever details, but too noisy.

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