Rover's new 200 models look cute and handle crisply. They out- perform most rivals for pep and economy. That they're youthful in spirit, nicely made and as British as Yorkshire pud is all to their credit.

Yet there's a problem: Rover has pitched the 200 into the compact end of the huge lower-medium sector - and priced it according - where the opposition, led by the best-selling Ford Escort, is discernibly bigger and roomier. One glance at the 200, three-door or five, and you'd swear it was a generous supermini. Clamber into the back, and you'd be convinced of it. There's more legroom in a Fiat Punto.

Size aside, Rover has created a winner that can only enhance the reputation of BMW's British wing. Not that BMW had anything to do with it; the 200 was designed before the German takeover. Former Japanese collaborators Honda had no input, either. Unlike the Honda-based 400 (which also competes uneasily above its weight), the 200 is pure in-house Rover, petrol and diesel engines included. It's the company's first mainstream solo since the Metro/Montego, and according to chief executive John Towers, marks a momentous stage in it's development. Were there any lingering doubts after the MGF that Rover lacked creative skills, the 200 dispels them.

All the 200s have power-assisted steering so they're easy to park and manoevre. All come with suspension that rides the bumps smoothly without blunting agility: keen drivers will like the car's nippy cornering, responsive steering and sharp brakes. Driven with spirit, the 216i feels almost as lively as the 127mph 200vi, powered by the MGF's classy 1.8-litre high- tech engine.

There are, though, some design flaws. Up front, tall drivers (even some medium ones) could do with a lower seating position: I felt awkwardly perched on the seat. More rearward adjustment would not go amiss, either. And rear legroom is very cramped.

Welcome novelties include the provision of three rear seats - technically tricky with 60/40 split rear seats - and grope-free radio controls on the steering wheel. There's a nice, crisp feel to the switches, and the smart leather-look facia instils an air of quality. The word "youthful" pops up frequently in Rover's blurb, as if to distance the 200 from its more mature siblings. So why the traditional burr walnut embellishment, which creates nasty reflections in the windscreen?

Of the six engines on offer in the 200 series - a super-frugal 1.4, two 1.6s, the 1.8 humdinger and a couple of oil burners - the one that will raise eyebrows most is a new turbo-diesel which is impressively quick (thrusting acceleration to 115mph) and amazingly economical (72.6mph at 56mph and a realistic 55mph overall).

The mid-range 216Si I tested is as lively as it is frugal: Ford's similarly priced Escort 1.6 is well beaten on performance and economy. But then the lightweight Rover cannot match the bigger Escort's accommodation. Take your pick: space or pace.

Roger Bell


Rover 216Si five-door, pounds 12,695. Engine: 1589cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 111bhp at 6000rpm. Transmission: five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive. Top speed 118mph, 0-60mph in 9.3 seconds, average consumption 42.2mpg.


Ford Escort 1.6iSi five door, pounds 12,475 Britain's best-selling car is bigger and roomier than the new Rover - but not so lively or economical. Latest facelifted car much better than its predecessor in looks, ride and handling.

Peugeot 306 1.8XT, pounds 13,230 Overall size and wheelbase similar to Rover 200's, but cabin much roomier. Terrific ride and handling. Goes well, sounds and feels refined. The benchmark on all-round ability at this level.

VW Polo 1.6GL, pounds 11,344 Able, well packaged supermini. Although a class down from the 216, longer in wheelbase and roomier in the back. Fine ride and handling, indifferent performance. Lacks Rover's spirit.

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