Japanese designed, German owned, but still very British

R O A D T E S T; The Rover 400 is a classy addition to the 'lower medium' section of the market

Ironically, the new Rover 400 makes its dbut when thoughts are focused on commemorating victory at the end of the Second World War. Fifty years ago, no one would have predicted a future in which British cars were based on Japanese designs and built by a German manufacturer's subsidiary. The 400 has a lot in common with the Honda Civic - built in Swindon, incidentally - and Rover, which used to be motoring's answer to John Bull, was virtually given to BMW in 1994.

The newcomer seeks to carve itself a niche in what Rover calls the "premium lower medium" section of the market. One reason for this jargon is that the 400 does not slot neatly into an existing category, for reasons of size and price. Rover mentions it in the same breath as the likes of the Ford Mondeo, Vauxhall Cavalier and Citron Xantia, but the most basic yardstick - length - puts it in the same class as the Escort and Astra.

Initially available only as a five-door hatchback, with other models arriving later in the year, the 400 maintains Rover's reputation for cars that belie the Honda tie-up by offering a dash of distinctly British class and character. Careful detailing gets much of the credit for this. The subtle use of chrome has become a "signature" and the little Rover badges on the rear pillars are a deft touch. Inside, even the basic 414 is a reminder that Rover can make a material as traditional as burr walnut appear appropriate and stylish, rather than contrived and naff.

On the other side of the balance sheet, the "family" look almost certainly accounted for the 416Si attracting minimal attention when it was driven several weeks before the official announcement date. The test included a journey that packed 500 miles into nine hours, embracing motorways, busy city centres and remote Welsh roads which put a premium on everything from grip, steering, brakes and acceleration to comfort, convenience and noise levels.

There is nothing Honda or BMW about the 416Si's power unit. The new, 1.6-litre version of Rover's award-winning K-series engine lives up to expectations for smoothness at high revs, brisk performance and good economy. Like most of today's best engines, it has two inlet and two exhaust valves for each cylinder. Lack of pull at low revs is often the price paid for this layout's overall efficiency, but the 416Si does not suffer from that shortcoming. The power curve is smooth, not "stepped" at the point where the engine suddenly starts flexing its muscles. This reduces the need to change gear for overtaking or when trying to maintain progress on roads that snake and switchback.

The engine's sophistication is one reason for the Rover being a car whose low noise levels and overall refinement create an immediately favourable impression. Others include the basic structure being 20 per cent stiffer than the previous model's. The only snag is that what seems like 70mph is fast enough to exceed the motorway speed limit by a significant margin.

Drivers who give a high priority to sharp steering will give only average marks to the power-assisted system, but the Dunlop SP Sport tyres grip well. There will be few quibbles about the smooth-riding 416Si's poise on challenging roads.

Rover does not claim class-leading passenger space, but there is adequate room for a quartet of adults to be comfortable on a long drive. Their comments on the cloth upholstery, which looks more 1895 than 1995, will depend on taste. Standard equipment includes a sophisticated alarm system and an engine immobiliser.

The boot's 13.2 cubic feet of luggage space is average for an Escort- class car, but small by Mondeo and Cavalier standards. Pricing the 400 to lock horns with bigger and more powerful models is quite a gamble.

SPECIFICATIONS

Rover 4126Si, £13,895

Engine: 1.6-litre, four-cylinder, 109bhp at 6000rpm.

Transmission: Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive.

Performance: 0-60mph in 10.0 seconds.

Average fuel consumption: 29.lmpg.

COMPARISONS

Ford Mondeo 1.8 LX, £12,700 Bigger, cheaper and, as such, typical of the opposition Rover has chosen for its new range. Excellent ride and handling, but the engine lacks Rover's zest and refinement.

Vauxhall Cavalier 2.Oi LS, £13,500 Ford's main rival in this hard-fought section of the market. Assets include a 136bhp engine and a boot 40 per cent bigger than the Rover's. Keen price includes anti-lock braking.

Citron Xantia 2.0i SLX, £13,520 A strong contender for best-in-class honours, most notably in terms of ride and roadholding. Spacious, stylish, good to drive and a touch more exclusive than its main opposition.

Nissan Primera 1.6 SLX, £13,620 Lacks character and is also slightly slower than the 416Si, but it still merits serious consideration. The 2.0-litre version is a good buy as well. The ABS is standard equipment.

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