Motoring: The Independent Road Test: As quick as a Porsche at half the price: Roger Bell takes a spin in the 220 Turbo, Rover's class-beating performance coupe

THE PRICE of high performance is tumbling. A year ago a four-seater coupe capable of more than 150mph would have cost pounds 30,000. Now supercar performance is on offer for the cost of a Vauxhall: the company's impudent Calibra Turbo does 2 1/2 miles a minute for about pounds 20,000.

But now Rover's new 220 Turbo, the fastest model in a new range of coupes based on the 200 hatchback, undercuts even the Calibra. Faster than any other car that Rover has made, it costs pounds 18,315. The Porsche 968, priced at pounds 35,000, is barely quicker.

Nobody pretends that 150mph is, in itself, relevant on British roads; but it so happens that high speed is a by-product of other disciplines, such as efficient aerodynamics (good for economy, also for speed), quiet motorway cruising (surplus power means the engine does not have to work too hard) and, above all, blistering acceleration for safe overtaking.

To put it another way, cars that over-perform are like powerful computers: they make light of ordinary tasks that stretch lesser machines. Besides that, they are a lot more fun.

While stamina may not be the top priority for thrill-seekers, the 220 Turbo has this, too. In a bid to emphasise this, Rover ran a standard 220 Turbo all-out for 24 hours at the Millbrook test track in Bedfordshire, averaging 138mph and reaching 156mph.

Although the 200 series is based on the Honda Concerto, Rover's Japanese affiliate had nothing to do with the new coupes, which were designed, developed and built by Rover. The 1.6-litre Honda-engined models, available from pounds 14,495 with either manual or automatic transmission, are adequately nifty for most people's needs. The manual-only 136bhp 2.0-litre, and the 200bhp 2.0-litre Turbo tested here, have 16-valve Rover T16 engines, first used last year in the larger, heavier 800-series models.

Designed to challenge Vauxhall's Calibras, the best-selling coupes in Britain, the new Rovers are stylish, clean-cut cars that just pass muster as four-seaters, even though the roof is low at the back, and leg-room tight. Children are easily accommodated, beanpoles are not. Above your head are two glass panels, titanium-coated to deflect the sun's heat. Either or both can be removed and stowed in the boot, providing more fresh air than a sliding roof but less than a soft-top. Spring-loaded deflectors cut down wind buffeting.

The attractive, low-line dashboard and smart decor - timber embellishment included - reflect Rover's hallmark flair for opulence. Nor is the flagship Turbo short on equipment: included are anti-lock brakes, power-assisted steering, plus electric windows, mirrors and locks, and a security alarm to deter thieves and joy-riders. Nevertheless, you can expect high insurance premiums.

The Turbo comes with an ingenious Torsen limited-slip differential which delivers power to the wheel with the most grip, thereby curbing unruly wheelspin and steering weave, unnerving traits suffered by some powerful front- wheel-drive cars (Rover's previous Maestro/Montego turbos included). Assisted by an engine that delivers its power in a clean surge, not a sudden kick, the Torsen works well. However, it does not completely eliminate wheelspin on wet roads or steering tug when aggressive, first-gear starts are attempted.

If it is not pushed to boy-racer limits, the 220 Turbo is a pleasant, easy car to drive. The chassis and hard-riding suspension handle 200 horsepower with impunity; so do the strong brakes. You never feel less than secure in this powerful car. But it takes more than the promise of 150mph to make an uplifting motoring experience. That magic fluency - the ability to flow through bends rather than steer round them - is not quite there. On price, performance and panache, however, the Rover 220 Turbo now sets the pace.

SPECIFICATIONS

Rover 220 Turbo, pounds 18,315. Engine: four cylinders, 2.0 litres, 16v, 200bhp. Transmission: front-drive, with traction control, five-speed manual gearbox. Top speed: 150mph; 0-60mph in 6.2 seconds. Fuel consumption, unleaded: 26-36mpg.

COMPARISONS

Ford Escort RS Cosworth, pounds 21,380 Over-the-top looks, but terrific four-wheel-drive traction, acceleration, handling and brakes. Sudden turbo action mars surprisingly refined engine. More room than Rover but less plush and lower top speed. Great to drive, hard to insure.

Honda Prelude 2.3i, pounds 18,255 Eye-catching coupe, cramped in the back and boot. Fine front-drive handling sharpened by rear-wheel steering. Lively but all-out performance no match for the Rover.

Toyota MR2 T-bar, pounds 18,395 Sporting two-seater, with baby-Ferrari looks and noisy mid-mounted engine. Car's balance and handling, recently improved, are terrific. Performance nifty but well down on the roomier Rover's.

Vauxhall Calibra Turbo, pounds 20,950 Fastest of Vauxhall's best-selling glamour cars, based on the Cavalier. Roomier than rival coupes, faster than most. Four-wheel drive gives terrific traction and safety; but it is rather uninspiring to drive.

VW Corrado VR6, pounds 19,895 Sheer magic. Chunky styling has its critics but V6 engine is sweet and potent, benchmark handling is fluent. Great driver's car with more space than looks suggest.

(Photograph omitted)

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