Today, we feature the CityRover, a cynical and poorly executed attempt to plug a perceived gap in MG Rover’s model range.
In 2000, the newly independent MG Rover found itself without a contender in the sub-B city car segment. As the formerly BMW-owned Rover Group, it had continued to field a version of the long-running 1980 Austin Metro, subject of three major facelifts before being renamed Rover 100 in 1994.
Despite its antiquity, it remained popular, at least in the UK, where it was valued for its compact size and nimbleness. A disastrous Euro-NCAP crash test in 1997 however, where the 100 received a uniquely poor one-star rating for adult occupant safety, caused sales to collapse and the model was discontinued the following year.
Rover Group in fact had a putative replacement in the 1995 R3 200 series. This was originally designed to compete in the B-segment, but was instead marketed and priced ambitiously in pursuit of Rover’s stated premium aspirations at the time. Renamed 25 following the launch of the Rover 75 in 1999, prices were reduced in line with rival superminis, but when customers came to trade their Rover 100s, they were mainly switching to other marques instead. The problem was one of size: the 25 was 250 mm (10”) longer in wheelbase and 564 mm (22”) longer overall than the diminutive 100.
This was just one of many pressing problems inherited by the Phoenix Consortium when it purchased Rover from BMW. The only truly modern car in the company’s range was the 75. The Honda-based HH-R 45 was getting long in the tooth and the subject of royalty payments to Honda, which undermined its profitability. A new mid-range model was an absolute priority.
MG Rover did not have the resources to develop both a true 100 replacement and a C-segment model simultaneously, so it instead courted overseas manufacturers with little or no European presence to see if it could buy in a suitable model, to be sold under the Rover name. The company was rebuffed by Chinese automakers, but the Indian Tata Group was more accommodating.
Tata had launched the Indica supermini in December 1998. This was the company’s first home-grown design, although the styling was undertaken by the Italian I.DE.A Institute. Early cars had a number of mechanical issues, but Tata worked conscientiously to correct these and by 2001 the relaunched V2 version was pretty well sorted and had become India’s best selling B-segment hatchback.
The Indica seemed to offer a quick fix for MG Rover’s problem. It was small for a supermini, just 150mm (6”) longer in wheelbase and 284 mm (11”) longer overall than the petite 100, so a much more natural successor than the 25. A deal was agreed whereby the Indica would be Roverised with minor modifications to the front and rear ends (but no metalwork alterations, just different bumper mouldings), altered suspension and steering settings more suited to European roads, and larger 14” wheels to improve its stance. Unfortunately, none of these changes dealt with the remaining two major issues with the Indica, a dreadful gearchange and a cheap, unpleasant interior. This was a major oversight that would rebound badly.
The new model might logically have been called the Rover 15, but MG Rover was aware that it might be seen as undermining Rover’s premium status, given its provenance, rather prosaic underpinnings and, in particular, the low-rent interior. The new car was to be positioned more as a city car than a mainstream supermini, so MG Rover’s marketing team came up with the name CityRover.
The CityRover was launched in the Autumn of 2003. It was not without merit. The interior was remarkably spacious for such a small footprint, a consequence of its tall build. It was smart looking and appeared well built. The suspension and steering changes made for a good compromise between ride and handling. The 1,405cc 85 bhp (63 kW) engine gave the lightweight 1,040 kg (2,290 lbs) car good performance. 0 to 60 mph (97 km/h) took 11.9 seconds, and the top speed was 100 mph (161 km/h). Unfortunately, the poor gearchange made exploiting the performance an unrewarding task. Moreover, the interior was a shock to anyone used to Rover’s usual standards in this area.
Inexplicably, MG Rover made exactly the same error in pricing the CityRover as had been made previously with the 200 and 400 models. The base model, badged Solo, started at £6,495, but to get a passenger airbag and anti-lock brakes would cost £8,895 for the top of the range Style trim. That put the CityRover into direct competition with larger and much more sophisticated superminis.
There were already rumours of financial troubles and mismanagement at MG Rover. Stories began to circulate that the company was paying Tata less than £3,000 for each imported CityRover, and MG Rover was accused of profiteering. First year sales were much lower than expected. Just 6,150 were sold in 2004, less than a third of the 20,000 forecast. A £900 price cut for each model in December 2004 made no difference. By this time, MG Rover’s future was the subject of much rumour and speculation. Total CityRover sales were just 9,218 before the company collapsed into bankruptcy in April 2005.
The CityRover is a tale of greed and stupidity. MG Rover had squandered millions on vanity projects such as the Rover 75 / MG ZT rear-wheel-drive V8 and the MG SV sports car. Had a fraction of that been instead invested in a better gearchange and interior for the CityRover, and had it been priced more realistically, then it might have fared considerably better. Of course, it would never alone have saved MG Rover from its inevitable fate.
The time and effort MG Rover had expended on these vanity projects could have been much more productively employed in working to replace its ageing mainstream car range. This would almost certainly have involved forging an alliance with a partner that had strong financial and technical resources, but lacked and significant presence in the European market.
By the time MG Rover began to seek out such a partner, the company was already in dire straits and potential partners recognised the company’s desperation, so sat back and waited for the inevitable, knowing that they could pick up anything worth buying in the subsequent fire-sale. As we now know, that is exactly what happened.
The reality is, however, that MG Rover’s fate was almost certainly preordained five years before its final demise, when the Phoenix consortium foolishly allowed BMW to walk away with the one model that might have given the company a viable future. I am not referring to the R50 Mini, which was a niche product, albeit one cleverly and profitably marketed by BMW. I doubt that MG Rover would have had the skills to promote it so effectively, and it certainly did not have the resources to expand and develop the Mini range as BMW did (with mixed results, admittedly).
The car MG Rover really needed was the R30, a C-segment model that was virtually production-ready when BMW sold out. This would have provided MG Rover with vital hatchback (Rover 35) and saloon (Rover 55) competitors to complement the 75 and allowed the decrepit and marginally profitable 45 to be pensioned off.
BMW allegedly offered to sell the mothballed R30 design to MG Rover in 2001 for £300m but the company decided instead to start again from scratch. Lacking the in-house expertise for this project, it employed the TWR automotive design consultancy to develop a new C-segment model, codenamed RDX60.
TWR progressed with the design, but funds were running low and MG Rover froze development in 20o3. TWR, facing its own financial difficulties, subsequently went into administration and RDX60 would never make production. That was the fatal blow that led to the inevitable collapse of MG Rover two years later.
The above is, of course, just one observer’s interpretation of the events that surrounded the sad demise of the last indigenous British volume car manufacturer. The key players in this drama, BMW and Phoenix, have for different reasons every incentive to maintain their silence but, should further information emerge, DTW will undoubtedly return to investigate further.