Motoring: The Independent Road Test: Just mad about the grille: Roger Bell sees Rover strengthen its bid to be the BMW of Britain

CHROMIUM plating is back. It has been cleverly used by Rover to highlight the styling differences between its new Cowley-built 600 series, which was launched this week, and the Swindon-made Honda Accords that spawned them. Under the skin these two formidable newcomers are identical Japanese twins. Cosmetic surgery, however, has made the British sibling the more distinctive - and distinguished.

Visually, the Rover is the classier car, the one that gives the stronger sense of luxury and wellbeing. Just as well, because the Honda is much cheaper. Rover's contribution to the 600, assembled to a high standard alongside the 800 in one of Europe's most modern plants, does not warrant patriotic fervour but do not underestimate its marketing significance.

In size and price, the 600 - a new line of Rovers, not replacing an existing model - comes midway between the 400 (based on the Honda Concerto) and the 800 (now quite remote from the Honda Legend that sired it) at the top end of the upper-medium sector which last year accounted for 400,000 registrations in Britain. Sales start on 20 April with a four-model range of 2.0-litre four-door saloons, all flashing Rover's classy grille.

Even the base 115-horsepower, manual-only 620i ( pounds 13,995) gets stainless-steel sills, walnut cappings and powered front windows. The Si, SLi and GSi, in ascending order of plush and equipment, have 131bhp engines and the option of four-speed automatic transmission. Later on come faster 158bhp 2.3-litre twin-cams wearing S and flagship GSi badges. The only disappointment is that there is no imminent six-cylinder variant.

The test 620SLi, costing pounds 17,200, is slightly bigger than most rivals, if not the roomiest car in a class of big achievers that includes uprange versions of Ford's excellent new Mondeo and Citroen's BX-replacing Xantia, on sale next month. While the new Honda Accord remains anonymous in a smooth, wind-cheating skin bereft of distinguishing features, the elegant 620 stands out.

The chrome embellishment that frames all the glass (and the rear numberplate) gives it a classy mien that is echoed inside by luxurious decor. You do not have to look very closely to find cheap, ill-fitting plastic, but the first - and lasting - impression of the 620's interior is one of class-leading opulence. There is space enough in the back to accommodate lanky teenagers comfortably, and the big boot, opened up by a cockpit catch, can be extended, hatchback-style, by folding the rear backrests.

The front seats (leather-trimmed in the GSi) feel too firm at first, but keep backache at bay on long journeys. The absence in the SLi of seat-height adjustment is partially offset by a steering wheel that can be moved up and down. Very short people may find the low-line dash rather awkward. My only problem was forward visibility, which in the test car was marred by awful screen reflections from the light beige trim.

Performance is adequately brisk, the willing engine - not a fashionable twin-cam, though it does have 16 valves - revving with typical Honda-esque energy. It gives its best when stretched, but performs perfectly adequately when cruising. Better still, it is much smoother than some four-cylinder rivals - and reasonably quiet, even at the top end. As wind whoosh and tyre roar have been muted, the background hubbub of motorway driving does not spoil the sound of the decent stereo.

The 620 corners securely, too, but without the style that the press-on enthusiast seeks for fulfilment. The sophisticated suspension (again, pure Honda) is biased more towards ride comfort than sharp handling. It is a pleasant and easy car rather than a challenging one. The gearchange is crisp, the soft and lifeless speed-sensitive steering (power-assisted, of course) light and accurate, the brakes reassuring. They are backed on the SLi by an electronic anti-lock system that prevents skids.

Side-impact bars in the doors are also standard. However, airbags are fitted only to the 2.3s (they will become an option on the 2.0s), and there are no crash-triggered seat-belt tensioners as in the Mondeo, leaving Rover open to criticism of skimping on safety. Security looks good, with an alarm, engine immobiliser, radio coding and etched windows. Other standard equipment includes remote point-and-blip locking, powered/heated mirrors and a tilt-and-slide sunroof.

The 620 is not the most expensive car in Rover's range but it shapes up as the best, most refined four-cylinder model. Rover's aspirations to become Britain's answer to BMW are certainly strengthened by this accomplished high-image middleweight.

SPECIFICATIONS

Rover 620SLi, pounds 17,200. Engine: 1,997cc, 16 valves, four cylinders, 131bhp at 5,400rpm. Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive. Top speed 125mph, 0-60mph in 9.5 seconds. Fuel: 25-30mpg unleaded.

COMPARISONS

BMW 318i, pounds 16,100. Benchmark middleweight, likely to exceed pounds 17,000 with basic extras. Slightly smaller and less accommodating than most class rivals. A rear-drive connoisseur's car with fluent handling and nice controls. Plain but smart interior, very well made and finished.

Ford Mondeo 2.0GLX, pounds 14,000. Ford's best in ages. Goes well, rides smoothly, handles crisply. Comfort, safety (an airbag is standard) and build quality are strong suits. Few faults besides coarse engine and tacky gearchange. Add pounds 675 for anti-lock brakes.

Mazda Xedos, pounds 17,509. One for the individualist; six-cylinder refinement and striking good looks from an original mould. Super-smooth V6 engine outperforms most rival 2.0s. Lifeless steering mars handling.

Mitsubishi Galant 2.0 V6, pounds 17,399. Another new super-smooth Japanese with six appeal. Lovely engine, eager performance. Handling sharpened by suspension that automatically steers the rear wheels. Roomy, big-booted car; unimposing interior decor.

Volvo 850 2.0SE, pounds 16,995. A roomy Volvo that pretends it's a BMW. A lively front-drive car that handles well and is entertaining to drive. Interesting five-cylinder engine smooth and refined. Volvo's best all-rounder is also available with a more powerful 2.5 engine.

(Photograph omitted)

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