1987 Jaguar XJ-6 3.6 Versus the Rover Sterling and Vauxhall Senator 3.0 CDi

How bad were Jaguar’s quality problems in 1987? And what was Car magazine thinking when the XJ6 won a giant-test against the Rover Sterling and Vauxhall Senator? The Jaguar was rusting before their eyes.

1987 Jaguar XJ-6 3.6 automatic, with OEM rust.
Jaguar XJ-6 3.6 automatic, with OEM rust.

On page 129 of the November 1987 edition of Car, there is photo of a door-seal parting company from the door of a Jaguar XJ-6, a new Jaguar XJ-6 provided by Jaguar Ltd for a comparison test. Did they not check before loaning it out? Or was it fine the day it left Brown’s Lane and then rusted in the interim?

In theory, the Jaguar had a lot going for it compared to the Vauxhall and the Rover but Car was testing real vehicles and not Platonic ideals of the car. The actual test Jaguar had shoddy panel gaps a, poorly fitted dashboard, rusting bodywork “here and there” and it

1987 Vauxhall Senator: 18.7 cubic feet of luggage capacity.
1987 Vauxhall Senator: 18.7 cubic feet of luggage capacity.

rattled too. In comparison, the Senator they drove was properly screwed together and had ride quality fit to be compared to the Jaguar. And the Senator’s rear passengers had more room than those in the Coventry car; the boot held more stuff and the engine consumed less petrol and was fast enough. Despite those merits Car saw fit to complain about the vinyl on the Senator’s dashboard (and missed the amateurish arrangement of the Rover’s centre console which doesn’t line up with the vents or IP – see the photos below). One has to wonder about road tests sometimes…

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Car’s argument rested on the idea of comparing the cheapest version of a true luxury, specialist car (the Jaguar) with the very best the mass-producers could offer (the Senator and Sterling). What they really did was to compare the abstract notion of the Jaguar (a fine concept) against a realised vehicle (the Senator) and a car which had no place in the test (the Honda Rover). The Jaguar concept is rather lovely but Jaguar have always had great difficulty executing it. Vauxhall set realistic targets and they attain them. Isn’t it a hint that the UK police loved the Senator?

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

25 thoughts on “1987 Jaguar XJ-6 3.6 Versus the Rover Sterling and Vauxhall Senator 3.0 CDi”

  1. The problem for Car was their ‘Best Car in the World’ coverline in October 1986. At the risk of a serious loss of face, they seem to have soft-pedalled their criticism and given the Jag the win on points. There may have been some sentiment behind it too – Car had really got behind the ’40 and the wish for it to succeed possibly overcame journalistic rigour. On the other hand, the car was a very early pre-production launch car, which may have been somewhat used and abused by the time they tested it. Still, you’d imagine Jaguar’s Press department would have been on top of that…

  2. I think you underestimate the issue of free lunches, hotels and drinks that the auto industry offers to magazine journalists. This was not as obvious in Archie Vicars ramblings. Jaguar had serious political clout behind it as well from approx 1981. Magazines have long been the subliminal advertising tool .. and obviously the direct advertising tool of car manufacturers.
    I liked the Rover 800 by the way .. but I’ve always loved an underdog.

    1. I have a thing about underdogs too. Actually, the Jaguar is a kind of underdog as it has always struggled to compete with its German peers. And at the same time it´s not as it has always been seen as a cut above cars such as the Granada, Senator and Renault 25 V6.
      In this case, there´s something in what you say about the effect of long lunches and fun testing cars in exotic locales to blur the focus of one´s critical spectacles. Imagine being asked to drive a 3.6 litre 6-cylinder car around the south of France for three days. How much could you hate a car after that experience?

  3. Didn’t the police drive (mostly) Omegas rather than Senators?
    And why did the Rover have no place in that test, other than because it came with that hateful dashboard?

    1. Laurent, your rational insights do get in the way while I am making my sweeping generalisations and waving my hands about [smiley emoticon with winking eye]. A proper answer is that the Rover was half a class smaller and came with 2.0 litre, four-cylinder engines as well, while the Senator only ever came with sixes. Yes, it borrowed a lot of substructure from the Omega but in contrast the Sterling was just an 800 with a V6 and a lot of wood and leather slapped over Honda metalwork. I think Opel made a better attempt at their big car. The wheelbase was longer than on the Omega. If only they´d engineered a completely different body though as, in many ways, the Senator had a lot of other elements right.

  4. I am afraid I can’t let some of the comments here just pass by. The Sterling was indeed a 800 – the top of the range 800. I think the whole point of the Car test was to highlight and indeed pose the question as to whether a top of the range Rover could rival a bottom of the range Jaguar (the comparison repeated itself in the days of the 75 vs S-Type), so although Richard is right, he’s missed the point a little. The Rover 800’s body was not designed by Honda, nor did it share any panels. The car was a joint-venture development, albeit there was more Honda influence across the component set than Rover. Indeed, many at the time felt that it might have been better as a purley re-badged Honda, although that would ignore the reality that the early 2..5 V6 Honda unit lacked torque and the double-wishbone suspension (a Honda speciality at the time) lacked travel and subtletyof damping.

    The car was designed under the direction of Roy Axe, and most observers felt it was a very deent job – modern, clean, sharp, although a little lacking in the personality and emotion found in the SD1 it replaced (something Car’s Gavin Green felt very strongly about on launch). The interior drew real plaudits for ambiance and, interestingly, dash-board design. I admit at this point (because you would never have guessed) that I was and am a bit of a fan of this car. Having seen and read Richard’s deconstruction of what he sees as a mis-formed dashboard, I can only stress that, at the time, I can’t recall any such comments being made. Indeed, the dash was praised for it’s design and layout. Compared to that in the Senator it still looks a bit special to me – the Senator has one of those cliff-face, slab of dark plastic jobs that’s very Vauxhall/ Opel of the era.

    Of course, the Sterling’s early build quality was awful (Car used to have an annual quality test and I remember it being last by miles and an utter embarrassment), and it was flawed in many ways – but it was a brave attempt in my book, and a nice looking car inside and out. It was underdeveloped in many ways, including producition engineering. As such, it was undoubtedly inferior to the Senator and Jaguar, but had loads more appeal than, say, a Granada, or even the Legend of which it shared so much.

    1. “the early 2..5 V6 Honda unit lacked torque and the double-wishbone suspension (a Honda speciality at the time) lacked travel and subtlety of damping.”

      The suspension was a compromise – Rover wanted struts all around, Honda wanted wishbones. They settled on wishbones at the front and struts at the rear. Well, Rover did. Honda, being Honda, went ahead and developed a neat, Legend-specific, wishbone rear end within two years of launch.

  5. Such a spirited defense deserves respect and you raise some valid points.
    I´ll address the dashboard. Even if people didn´t identify that mismatch of shapes at the time, it doesn´t mean I can´t single it out for criticism. The other interiors have had the same exposure to my critical gaze and don´t seem to have such a glaring design error. It´s not a matter of changes of taste. Some aspects of design are fundamental and if you look at good designs over the decades they share many common traits of harmony, attention to detail, integrity and proper composition.
    I agree the Senator´s IP is a bit cliff-faced but I can see why they arrived at that choice: it gathered all the elements into a unified frame. Beautiful, no, but functional.
    Should the Car writers have not found a less compromised car than the Rover Sterling? Ford had a six-cylinder Granada to offer. Renault had a V6 25 GTX of not inconsiderable luxury. Both of those cars were free of the compromises the Sterling laboured under: the Honda sub-structure, the Honda suspension limitations, the Japanese width, for example.
    On reflection, there was not so much choice at that exact price point and engine size. The Ford or the Renault would have been better alternatives to the Rover. I also realise that the Senator was unique at that time in having its own sheet metal and no 4-cylinder engines. (Audi´s 100 only had five-cylinder units and no unique sheet metal). All the other contenders in the upper-executive/mass-market sector were bodies that had 4-cylinder options as the norm. Only Opel bothered to field a dedicated chassis and sheetmetal combination. Interesting that.
    In my view, the Rover 800/Sterling had too many lines on its bodyside and lacked much character of its own. It was reminiscent of those bland cars GM was serving up in the US through the early 80s. I do grant that the rest of the Sterling´s interior is nice to look at though. Rover had a peculiar talent for seating.

    1. Hi, re the dashboard, I was a bit clumsy with my argument, sorry. I wasn’t meaning to suggest that if people didn’t identify/ mention the design flaw at the time then your critique was invalid – that would be absurd. I suppose I was a bit taken aback by your comment as I’d not until that point thought that it could be considered a poor piece of design. I probably should have said that I do not find the flaws you point out to be hard on the eye, and (apparently) nor did commentators at the time. My eye is untrained, but I find the forms and details of the 800/ Sterling dash refreshlingly “light”, rather than “heavy/ blocky” More functionally, thought has been given to placing certain key controls close to the steering wheel. BTW, the dash you show is of the much later/ uglier, heavily facelifted 800 (it obtained a naff, poorly integrated, chrome grille) which was encumbered by a (poorly integrated, again) passenger airbag and uglier 4-spoke, air-bagged stearing wheel.

      I can understand your views more generally on the look of the 800, I think many felt that way. In the context of what came out of BL/ ARG running up to the 800 (Metro, Maestro, Montego, Acclaim), this car was a very pleasant surpise, as I said, modern, neat, clean – almost (!) elegant to my eyes. Those characteristics were similar to a number of Japanese cars of the time (Galant, Camry, Accord) but that did not make them poor designs, indeed I liked their restrained, professional finish.

      One further comment on the Senator: you write that it had its own sheet metal, but my visual memory is that it shared some panels with the less august Carlton, no?

    2. The ambiance of the top end Rovers always appealed to me. I had a Montego VDP that had the thickest pile carpet mats I have ever seen. The Rover 800 in all it’s guises was quite good I thought. At the time I could choose a company car and chose a SAAB 9000 turbo, the Rover not being quite what the thrusting 29 year old would have wanted to be seen in. I admired it nonetheless. As always with Rover products of the 80’s they were tarnished with mass production that previous generations did not have to endure.
      On balance I’d rather have the Rover (in hindsight) than the Jaguar or the Omega. The Omega being a very good car all the same.
      I still like the Rover leather interior, it has the feel of a Range Rover and they used the same colours in that era – P38’s had a lightstone interior with a piping and so did the Rover 800.
      I now tool around in old bangers and a nice Rover 800 would be perfectly acceptable to me, as acceptable as my 9000 griffin that I bought for £500.
      I do see Richards point that the display unit isn’t fully integrated with the upper dashboard but I suspect that is Richards creative flair speaking rather than the mass populace of unwashed (like me)

  6. Correct, there were some shared panels on the Senator and Carlton but the boot and front end were quite different as was the roof. The Sterling could not make the same proud boast.
    I will look at the first Sterling interior: thanks for pointing that out. That said, the lack of allignment on the revised interior still remains a black mark.
    About the 800/Sterling´s exterior, I felt at time that it was a bit thin. I haven´t changed my view. In contrast, I have a lot more time for Japanese cars of the period. I think Rover were really caught between going down a British route or a more generic modern route. Jaguar had “ownership” of traditional British design cues so they were forced to try something modern. Oddly, the SD1 was very modern and very effective too. It´s a fascinating case though. Good discussion!

  7. To answer Stephen L: I agree that Rover had the knack of lending their interiors some considerable warmth. I imagine quite a lot of 620s were sold on the back of thr charms of deep blue leather or parchment hide, complete with the subtle walnut veneers. The Mondeo and Vectra were nowhere near as nice to look at.
    You might be right that most people might not notice the misalligned shapes – I have been trained to notice this.
    I re-examined the Rover dashboard and yes, the one I’ve shown is the facelift. However, common to both versions is the same problem that the lower fascia, centre vents and IP don’t blend. Rover had a chance to rectify this but chose not to.
    For me the Senator has a charming mid-Atlantic interior. Or more accurately, it’s Americo-German. I like the huge seats and faint sense of excess. It’s not austere and seems like it was done without being self-conscious. Modern cars have their character diluted because design is a committee activity. In contrast the Senator is resolutely the work of a few key people using their judgement. Actually, that’s true of all the cars we’re discussing here.
    We can discuss the Rover 75 next.

  8. Regarding the Rover 800 / Sterling dash, your photograph shows a view that only somebody sat in the middle of the back seat would see! Your comments just dont apply to most people sat in the car. As a driver you get the clear instrument panel and that lovely chunky steering wheel in front of you. Look down and you get the stereo and clock (or the computer gizmo in the earlier cars). See your point though but honestly most cars of the era had similar dash styling.

    1. I take the view that the design should look good from every view. You’ve raised a good question about other interiors of the period and our definitions of “similar”.

    2. Looking at the main competitors for the Rover in 1987 I see none with such misalligned shapes. Many feature an L-layout bounding the IP and centre console features.

  9. The Vauxhall Senator was by far the best out of those cars, especially the 3.0i 24v variant which went like hell!!! I’d never driven a car as fast as a Senator…! It had rapid acceleration, was insanely fast and stuck to the road like glue. Mine was white, a K reg and had the digi dashboard, though it didn’t work as well as I would have liked! I owned it for 12yrs before it got lamped by a lorry, thankfully my kids and I weren’t in it at the time, it was parked and the lorry overshot the corner!
    But yes the Vauxhall Senator was a brilliant car, the fastest Vauxhall made and definitely the last good and nice looking Vauxhall. The Omega was pants compared to the Senator.

    So out of those three cars trust me the Senator was the best, but unless you drive one you won’t believe me. Sadly they are so rare today. Mine was written off in 2013, just 122 thousand miles on the clock and now today less than 12 on the road 😦

    1. Hi: thanks for stopping by. I am convinced the Senator was the best car here as well. The question is why so few remain. 12 is close to extinction.

  10. Hi, thanks :D!

    Well Senators were very bad for rust, mine had an endless battle with rear wheel arch rust…So I imagine many just rusted away in the end. But it’s possible that some were taken out of action during collisions or crashes as mine was 😦
    Shame as they were lovely old cars. I loved mine and if I could, I would eagerly buy another one. But it’s finding them now…

  11. You’re not alone in singing the Senator’s praises. Russell Bulgin, writing for Car in October 1989 said the following. “Let us be perfectly clear about this: the Senator is the best kept secret in British motoring.”

    Speaking of which, here’s a fun coincidence. Before Uncle Henry swooped in and bought the whole kitty and caboodle, Jaguar were well advanced on a joint-venture car with General Motors which was to use a variant of the Senator platform and powerplant, but with a Jaguar bodyshell…

    1. Georg Kacher didn´t like it much though. In some ways the taste of a nation of motoring enthusiasts has been shaped by whatever it is Georg Kacher thinks. He´s the Parker of the car world, doling out 91s and 92s to the car equivalent of big, flashy red wines. My reading of the Senator was that the car had a lot of strong points and some minor demerits of little substance.
      Regarding rust, the Jaguar and the Honda I mean Rover also liked to oxidise too. The main reason that Senators have not endured is anti-Vauxhall prejudice. How many of the Honda Legend-based Rover 800s are left?

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