Can Rover's master plan beat a classic Merc?

Road rivals: Rover's ageing 800 has been given a new, British engine. John Simister road tests it against an E-class Benz
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ROVER 800 V6 SLi

A new, British built V6 engine, more equipment and a lower price have revitalised Rover's opulent 800 in the twilight of its days ....

Specification: Price: pounds 21,995. Engine: 2497cc, 24-valve V6, 175bhp at 6,500rpm. Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearbox, front wheel drive. Top speed 135mph, 0-60 in 8.2 seconds (manual). Fuel consumption 27-33mpg.

Rover has given its grandest car, the ageing 800, a heart transplant. The poshest versions have lost their outdated Honda V6 engines, and instead have gained a neat new Rover-designed motor - the KV6. It's smaller (2.5 litres instead of 2.7), lighter, more powerful, less thirsty and greener than the engine it replaces. It's properly British, too.

That's great news if a Rover 800 is your heart's desire, but it seems, on the face of it, to be a puzzling thing for Rover to do. After all, the 800 is a decade old, its last major makeover took place four years ago, and the end of its life draws near. So why invest a stack of money in a brand-new motor, even if that stack of money is brokered by BMW, Rover's new owner?

Well, it's all part of a master plan that will see Rover self-sufficient in engines for its next batch of new models, instead of relying on its former partner Honda. One of these new models will be a replacement for the 800 (and probably for the smaller 600, too); another will be a new, compact Land-Rover which we'll see later this year. And both of these model ranges could use a 2.5-litre V6. This new engine's appearance in the 800 is just the beginning.

So, is it any good? The KV6, latest member of the K-series engine family (four-cylinder versions power Rovers from the little 100 to the MGF sports car, in one form or another), is claimed to be the most efficient of current V6 engines, producing more power and using less fuel for its size than any rival. And, because it's made by Rover, it makes the latest top-range 800 a whopping pounds 4,000 cheaper than it used to be when powered by an expensive bought-in Honda engine.

To go with the new heart, the Rover also gets a new automatic transmission (now a pounds 1,050 option, previously a no-cost alternative), some improvements to the suspension and steering, and cosmetic changes intended to add a veneer of homely Britishness to distract the mind from the age of the surroundings. For example, the seats have piping which contrasts with the main trim but matches the carpets, walnut door cappings have a "Rover" inlay, and outside we find a return to that status symbol of the early Sixties, two-tone paintwork (should you so desire). As before, trim levels are Si, SLi and sybaritic Sterling; the SLi at a highly competitive pounds 21,995 is likely to prove the most popular.

Two things sully the pleasure potential as you begin your first journey. First, the key has a rough, sharp-edged action and its finger-grip can't even run to a Rover badge. Second, the pudgy steering wheel obscures the bottom of the instrument panel, and is unusually awkward to hold. Otherwise the cabin is a pleasant place, light and airy with a good view all round.

The new engine lives up to expectations, too; it proves smooth and quiet when cruising, but emits a pleasing snarl when you accelerate hard. Rover's research showed that people don't like engines to be quiet all the time, they want to hear some encouraging noises when action is required. The engineers modelled the KV6's sound on that of an Alfa Romeo V6, the sweetest- sounding V6 made today. The result is hardly homophonous, but it's not a bad effort.

Automatic transmission blunts the pace, but gearshifts are smooth and progress can be swift. More's the pity, then, that the revised suspension's comfier ride comes at the expense of agility and steering sharpness, two things the 800 was rather good at. That's the trouble with an old design - you have to make the best use of what's already there.

MERCEDES-BENZ E230 CLASSIC

For not much more money than you'd spend on the Rover, you could find yourself in the best car in the class...

Specification: Price: pounds 26,000. Engine: 2295cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 150bhp at 5,400rpm. Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearbox, rear-wheel drive. Top speed 132mph, 0-60 in 8.6 seconds (manual. Fuel consumption 28-33mpg.

Obvious opposition comes from similarly well-equipped, big-engined versions of popular executive cars, but there's a better way. It will cost you pounds 5 more than the Honda-powered Rover used to cost, and you'll need another pounds 1,402 for an automatic transmission, but a Mercedes-Benz E230 Classic is a much more satisfying proposition.

Goodies such as a sunroof, alloy wheels, air conditioning and a good stereo with CD player, standard in the Rover 800 SLi V6, are optional in the Mercedes-Benz. Nor do you get an expensive-sounding V6, merely a 2.3-litre, four cylinder engine with 150bhp against the Rover's 175. So, why is the Benz a better bet?

Because you're exchanging glitz and glitter for engineering integrity, modernity and an altogether more pleasant drive. Today's Mercedes E-class, of which the E230 Classic is the cheapest, has lost some of the previous E-class's feeling of indestructibility, mainly because it has been engineered to save weight, but that, combined with slippery aerodynamics, gives it a lively performance and excellent fuel economy.

Unlike the Rover, the Mercedes has rear-wheel drive, which brings a different set of advantages and disadvantages. But its modern suspension design makes for a smooth ride and agile, enjoyable handling, helped by steering more precise than that of any Mercedes before it. The manual transmission is a lot less jerky to use than previous Mercedes manuals, but most buyers still opt for the auto.

As for equipment, you still get twin airbags, anti-lock brakes and electric windows, so the bits that matter most are all there. And you get a car with an aura of breeding, thoroughness and rationality no Rover 800 can emulate. That's why, when you come to sell, a Mercedes will amply repay the extra outlay at the start.

THE VERDICT

Rover's re-engined 800 offers a lot of features at a bargain price. In terms of what you can see for your money, no rival is better value. But there are hidden dissuaders; the new engine can't disguise the fact that the car looks old and feels it, and it's unlikely that this latest big-engined 800 will keep its second-hand value much better than its disastrously depreciating Honda-powered predecessor did.

Nor has the 800's reliability reputation been one to envy in the past, although this should no longer be a problem. One of the earlier results of the now-defunct Rover-Honda partnership, the 800 is nearing the end of the road. You'd be better off buying a more modern rival. Of these, the Mercedes-Benz E230 is currently the best bet.

THE BEST OF THE REST

Alfa 164 3.0 V6 Super pounds 23,522: Sounds great, looks great, feels old.

Audi A6 2.6 V6 pounds 22,420: Rock-solid quality, surprising ability.

Ford Scorpio Executive 24V pounds 25,675: Fleet-footed rough diamond.

Vauxhall Omega 2.5 V6 CD pounds 22,500: Roomy, well-equipped, steers stodgily.

Volvo 850 2.5 GLT pounds 22,800: Five-cylinder fun car with Volvo virtues.

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