20 Years of the Rover 200

Happy 20th anniversary, Rover 200. Or is it 21st anniversary?

1995 or 1996 Rover 200: Autocar
1995 or 1996 Rover 200: Autocar

Around about this time 20 years ago Rover enjoyed the beginnings of renaissance. We all know where that ended. It ended in a story that classic car journalists like because they can rake over and ask “what if” as they swirl madeira in their glasses.

This image is from the front cover of Autocar, January 17, 1996. It’s one of the first reviews, perhaps. Either way. Water. Bridge. Under. A lot of. The article pitted the Rover 214 against the new Fiat Bravo. I’d like to say which one won but in the end neither did. Fiat admit the Bravo was competitive for about the first two years before swiftly being relegated to also-ran status.

Was there anything wrong with the 200? A friend of mine had a Rover 200 and I noticed how cramped it was in the back compared to my recently departed (then) Peugeot 205 which happened to be shorter overall. It also cost a lot compared to similarly sized rivals though less than the bigger-rivals it supposedly competed with.

Elsewhere here I praised Rover for their packaging skills. These must have departed by the time this car was conceived. Like many other Rover products down the years necessity was the mother of invention or the mother of attempting to make something of a tough problem nobody wanted. The Rover ought to have been sold as a supermini in which case the lack of interior room might not have been seen as a problem. Instead it was sold as an Escort and Astra rival.

At the time I didn’t know this. I always thought it was somewhere in between for people who wanted something more luxuriously appointed than a Ford or Vauxhall and a tad bigger (in some ways) than the Fiesta and Corsa. I wonder if people other than car reviewers saw the 200 as a failed supermini?  You can argue they did, eventually, as sales numbers declined markedly after three years. Or maybe they noticed it was really not as good as car as first supposed.

Here´s one with a 1.1 litre engine and 15,000 miles on the odometer for £500.


Author: richard herriott

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

12 thoughts on “20 Years of the Rover 200”

  1. The 200 was initially sold as a rival to the Escort/ Astra after a last minute decision by Rover – early design sketches used at the launch clearly showed “Rover 100” emblazoned on the registration plate, demonstrating that Rover itself had been confused about what to do with it. At a later point – I am not sure whether it was post the first face-lift (at which point it became a 25 to better align to the then-new 75) or after the divestment by BMW to the Phoenix (Icarus would have been more apt) Consortium – Rover tried to make a virtue out of it being a large for its class supermini.

    I was looking at one of these yesterday, parked in Waitrose next to the unlovely 02 reg Xsara courtesy car that the garage fixing the power-steering on the C6 (unfortunately I was right – and the bill is horrific it being an 8 hour job … but I digress), and remembered how much I liked it at the time. I still do – nice big windows, cohesive design, nice dash, nice size – but it has really aged, hasn’t it? Next to the Xsara (a second-facelift version), it looks worthy of a place in the Design Museum, but then so would a Pontiac Aztec (albeit, not necessarily for the same reasons).

    What I would say is that this 200 felt like a step backwards from the previous R8 version, which (as I think Chrisward has previously argued) is arguably the best car Rover made over the last 30 years (and, yes, I know that might be a rather low benchmark). But the 200 was really replaced by the 400, albeit someone decided that could compete (in spite of its smaller size) with the likes of the Mondeo, leaving space for the subject of RIchard’s piece here to take on the class below. All Rover really achieved by this was to miss-align both key products and so effectively hole them both below the water commercially.

    1. I still stand by that assertion. It is easy to forget now what a terrible time the 1990s were for cars. Recession and cost cutting had left the European market in dire straights, with products boasting Fisher Price levels of perceived quality. The R8 upended all that when it appeared. For only a little bit more money, Rover offered a mainstream hatch that was leagues ahead of the opposition in terms of design, finish and richness. The mark 3 Golf and mark 5 Escort were horribly parsimonious in comparison.

  2. … that’s a very youthful looking (and slim) Steve Sutcliffe in that photo, unless my faculties are already failing me …

    1. Was he as overenthusiastic back in the day as during his Autocar video reviews?

  3. The R3 200 and HH-R 400 (later 25 and 45) were both lamentable replacements for the R8 200. The R3 was really a replacement for the Metro and should have been priced to reflect its midi-mini size. Both R3 and HH-R were hobbled by sponge pudding styling. Neither were what the public wanted or expected.

    I cannot describe how disappointed I was by Rover around 1995-6. My father worked for British Aerospace and brought home launch brochures for both the new 200 and 400. Even to my young eyes (I was just escaping school at the time), it seemed obvious that Rover was once again hell bent upon snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Reading between the lines of flag waving reportage, UK journalists clearly thought the same.

    Indulging in my own “what if?” scenario, I sometimes wonder what would have happened if Rover had taken VW’s lead with the Golf and updated the 200 to the template set out by the R8. Many of that car’s styling themes have been reprised by Land Rover for their Sport offerings. A modern R8 hatchback in the same idiom would be an interesting product indeed.

    1. To my eyes, the R3 was nicer than the HHR 400, but would also agree that the R8 was more handsome than both. Rover also, for once, went the whole hog in maximising the commercial potential of that basic platform and design by producing a very nice Estate version, an intriguing 3-door shape, a convertible and then the wickedly code-named Tomcat coupe.

  4. I don’t think any of these were bad cars (Tomcat coupe excepted, perhaps, which had too much power for the chassis). But they were hampered by Rover’s typically inept marketing – either they couldn’t build a car profitably at the right price, or they were greedy and priced these cars too optimistically. A lot of Rovers were privately bought back then, and when your grandad couldn’t afford to replace his car on his typical 3/4 year cycle, then things would turn bleak. Interestingly, I remember that the Italian importer decided to price the 200 competitively and achieved good sales – obviously Rover put a stop to this as soon as they could.

    Poor BMW should have replaced all the senior managers as soon as they bought the company – instead they let them continue to blunder their way on through another few years, and by then it was too late. The Rover 75 was another good car destroyed by small details and an inept marketing strategy.

    1. Markus … I don’t recall that gearknob being a standard item and given the other pictures of the BRM you have found show a number of other non-standard items (e.g. wheels), I suspect that it’s a custom item. TBH, I’ve never thought if the R3 200/ 25 as a woman’s car, albeit some of the colour schemes might have been more appealing to feminine tastes.

  5. In “When Rover met Honda” (Carver / Seale / Youngson 2008) there’s a brief insight into the origins of the R3 which I haven’t found anywhere else.

    At the beginning of the 1990s Rover were trying, and consistently failing to devise a Metro replacement without involving their Japanese partner. Honda suggested reworking the R8 platform, and offered a team of junior engineers to assist with the project. The engineers were duly given space in the concept design area at Canley, where they ‘laid the keel’ of what would become the R3.

    So much for the stories about plucky, below-the-radar experiments with discarded R8 parts and a Montego rear axle. It’s noted in WRMH that “Honda had nothing much to gain by doing this”. Which is true, and rather touching. After the early idealism of the HX / XX Legend / Rover 800, all the BL/ARG/Rover/Honda joint projects were set up to ensure a guaranteed profit for Honda. The upside of this was that it was in Honda’s interest that the Rover side of the deal was a commercial success.

    By the early ’90s Honda’s need for Rover was at an end. Swindon was being readied for car production, and they had stealthily purloined some of Rover’s best customers and dealers, as well as elements of their ‘wood, leather and chrome’ design vocabulary.

    The altruistic gesture remains a puzzle, There wasn’t even a Honda R3 spin-off. The superficially similar Honda City, a sort of Civic-lite for south-east Asian emerging markets, turns out to have nothing in common with R3.

    “When Rover met Honda” doesn’t record where the Honda input ended and Rover’s took over. It’s hard to fault either company’s designers for the end result – good, but not great, hampered in its early years by over ambitious pricing.

    If only they has applied the same approach with the rotten HH-R…

    1. Thanks for these enlightening comments, you’ve added to my knowledge and I’m now wanting to source that book as it’s the kind of thing I find quite fascinating.

  6. This Wikipedia link adds some detail to the Legend/800 joint venture.


    Honda agreed that Rover would build both versions, but were horrified at the low quality standards of the finished car. Few of them even reached customers. Honda committed a lot of resources and engineering talent to the joint venture but Rover simply didn’t make the most of it. This story would be repeated once BMW took charge.

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