The Independent Road Test: A Rover but no dog: Roger Bell admires the fast, well-made Rover 620ti. He thinks the Germans will, too

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Rover's 620ti is the latest and best progeny of its relationship with Honda. It is so good that it threatens the celebrated 325i produced by Rover's new masters, BMW. That may not amuse BMW dealers here, but the bosses in Munich should applaud their British subsidiary's classy hybrid. The 620ti was, of course, a fait accompli when BMW bought Rover from under Honda's nose.

The 620ti, top gun of the mid-range 600-

series, is essentially an anglicised Honda Accord powered by a turbocharged Rover engine. With only four cylinders, it cannot match the creamy smoothness of BMW's six-cylinder 325i, but it can just about outrun it on the unrestricted German autobahns.

Although Rover plays it down, performance is the newcomer's raison d'etre. Imagine a Ford Sierra Cosworth in Sunday-best flannels, and you've got its measure.

Lesser Honda-powered models have already established the 600 range as one of the smartest and best-made in a class of high achievers. Until now it has been unable to attract buyers looking for performance; but the peppy twin- cam, 16-valve, 200bhp engine in the 620ti is the same as that in the 150mph 200 Turbo. And while the latter has more power than it can competently handle, the heavier 620ti, with better suspension, does so with ease.

Hard acceleration causes no tiresome weaving, and only the slightest steering tug. Rover has done well to control the power delivery: it is nicely progressive rather than viciously sudden. Even without balancer shafts (which can make a four-cylinder engine feel, if not sound, as refined as a 'six'), the 620ti is far from raucous. Wheelspin is subdued, if not totally prevented, by a traction-control device.

Underlining its sporting pretensions, the 620ti comes only with a five-speed manual gearbox with close ratios. There is no 'long' gear for motorway driving, but it does not need it: the car is merely ambling at 70mph. At an effortless 100mph on the Millbrook test track, it still had plenty of reserves of overtaking power. Germans will love it.

The tyres and suspension have been uprated to improve handling and grip, though not to the point where the ride is ruined. You notice a jittery firmness on indifferent roads but no undue harshness. Steering is quite responsive but too light and inert for my taste. There is nothing wrong with the car's tenacity or composure when cornered hard, but the handling could be keener still. A tendency for the squat, square- edged tyres to 'tram line' (to follow ridges and cambers rather than smother them) is seldom assertive enough to be worrying. The 620ti's all-disc brakes are up to the job.

Comfort is one of the well-made 620ti's strongest suits. No rival has a smarter cabin, and the bolstered seats are firmly supportive. Equipment includes two airbags, an alarm/ immobiliser, anti-lock brakes, part-leather trim, and power for the locks, windows, mirrors, driver's seat and sunroof. Equipped to the same level, a BMW 325i would cost thousands of pounds more.

SPECIFICATIONS

Rover 620ti, pounds 19,995

Four-cylinder 1,994cc engine, 16 valves, 200bhp at 6,000rpm. Five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive through Torsen differential. Performance: 0-60mph in 7.5 seconds, top speed 145mph. Fuel consumption: 23-28mpg unleaded.

COMPARISONS

BMW 325iSE, pounds 23,750

Benchmark prestige compact with refined six-cylinder engine. Smoother, quieter than Rover, but no faster. Fine driver's car, not as plush as 620ti.

Ford Mondeo 24V Ghia, pounds 19,600

A car to soothe rather than excite. Not as fast as the Rover, but new American V6 engine makes it smoother and quieter. Playthings include electronic traction control. Marred by vulgar mock-wood trim.

Mazda Xedos 2.0 V6SE, pounds 19,240

Sexy and super-smooth rather than blisteringly quick. Engine refined and quiet - and more frugal than Rover's. Lavishly equipped luxury compact.

Saab 900 Turbo, pounds 19,995

Same price and all-out performance as Rover. Balancer shafts make engine smoother, but response to throttle can be tardy. Typically strong on character, deficient in 620ti's opulence and style.

(Photograph omitted)

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